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NBA Labor Talks Break Off

NBA labor talks broke off Wednesday after the sides met for less than two hours, the shortest session since the lockout began July 1.

"We were just sitting around the table, and both of us are somewhat stymied not knowing which way to move next," union director Billy Hunter said. "We just thought it might be better to go back to our respective offices and look at where we were."

"If we think it's appropriate, we will talk about getting together on Friday."

Commissioner David Stern and league representatives did not immediately comment.

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The sides were bickering even before they began bargaining. One day after what was to have been the start of the season, Stern said agents for the highest-paid players had disrupted and slowed the process.

"There's something going on that doesn't involve us, something internally in the union," Stern said. "As I stand here today, I don't know exactly what it was, but it's clear to me what's coming. Watch the process. You'll see."

Hunter arrived about 10 minutes after Stern and said: "He should blame it on Russ," a reference to deputy commissioner Russ Granik.

The sour moods were a new twist on the work stoppage that forced the league to cancel games for the first time in its history. At all previous bargaining sessions, the principals were more amicable during their pre-meeting comments.

"I don't have a prediction," Stern said. "We'd like to negotiate a deal. There's $1 billion to $1.1 billion in salaries on the table that we'd like to pay the players, but it's not happening."

"The agents are saying, `If you're not going to pay the players the way we want them, then we'd rather not have them paid.' Ultimately, this is something the union membership is going to have to decide for themselves."

There wre to have been 10 games Tuesday night and 11 tonight.

"If I had to guess, the first game will be Dec. 25, because that's when NBC's money and the big chips are on the table," Utah's Karl Malone said on ESPN. "Stern wants players to miss two or three paychecks to start feeling the message."

On Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, boxes were piled high in front of the locker where Ewing usually suits up. Exercise cycles and empty ball racks were strewn about, mops were standing in the corner and three garbage buckets were stuffed into Terry Cummings' locker. The Knicks were supposed to have opened their 1998-99 season against the Boston Celtics.

"Unfortunately, the Knicks' locker room has been turned into a storage room," a tour guide explained. "My best guess is it will stay this way until January."

"They have a pie, and they are fighting over how much of the pie each side gets to eat," the Madison Square Garden guide explained to a group of 16 tourists from the United States, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and Ireland.

"The owners and players are each getting this much," he said, holding his hands a few inches apart, "and the owners are trying to force the players to take this much," he said, moving his hands within an inch of each other.

"They should all be disgusted with themselves," said Sophia Bogdasarian, a tourist from outside of Boston.

If her words reflected the feelings of basketball fans worldwide, the lockout moved into a new phase Tuesday as the reality of canceled games hit home.

The league may be banking on the belief that basketball fans are different from baseball fans and will be more likely to forgive and forget when this dispute is finally resolved.

But an ESPN poll conducted Oct. 31-Nov. 1 found that almost 63 percent of sports fans over age 18 did not care if the entire season was canceled, and more than 37 percent of people who consider themselves NBA fans don't care if the season is canceled.

"It will be an extraordinary amount of work," Stern said of regaining fan interest. "We will have to almost beg their indulgence."

"If we do lose this season, we're nevertheless going to come back and play eventually, and we hope that our basketball fans will bear with us," he said.

Stern said progress at the bargaining table may be hard to come by.

"It doesn't look so good," Stern said on MSNBC. "I heard that the head of the union, Billy Hunter, announced he didn't think games would be played until January, and I gather that somebody is worrying him, whether it's the agents for the big players or whatever may have caused him to change his tune."

"Obviously once we get into December without a deal, if that occurs, then I'd say the season is in jeopardy," Stern said.

In Oakland, workers at the Oakland Coliseum Arena were getting ready to deal with the loss of income that mised games represents.

"A lot of us do have other jobs. But we have a lot of retired people," said ushers captain Kathy Blandford, who has worked at the arena and the neighboring Oakland Coliseum for the past two decades. "For some, it's their lone source of income. We have women who have Social Security, and that's it. Without this, they can't make it."

In Salt Lake City, where the Jazz were supposed to have played the Vancouver Grizzlies, the Delta Center was dark and the team's two Western Conference championship banners were almost covered by shadows in the rafters. The actual court on which Michael Jordan won his sixth championship less than five months ago was packed away in storage.

At the Georgia Dome, the sound of the empty, creaking outdoor escalator was the only break in the silence surrounding the locked stadium.

A few people showed up at the box office to buy Atlanta Falcons tickets, but otherwise the dome was missing the normal hoopla that takes place in preparation for a Hawks game.

"Not much is happening here," ticket manager Keith Ayers said.

© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved

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