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Stern: Agreement Was Close

The NBA lockout might have ended 2½ weeks ago, the night David Stern and Michael Jordan sat across from each other at the bargaining table with a chance to save an 82-game season.

"I've been doing this for 30 years, and I'm used to negotiating through the night. At 1 a.m. I was just getting started," Stern said Thursday.

But instead of working through the night while Jordan's stretch limousine idled outside in the rain, the sides broke off talks to get a good night's sleep.

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Since then, they've only moved further apart.

"I wouldn't say we were close to a deal, but we were on track. We were trying," Stern said, referring to the 8½-hour bargaining session Oct. 28 that followed a joint meeting of owners and players.

"I thought since I had the owners in and the players in, it seemed to be a good time," Stern said. "I thought we were making progress, but it was clear that they were going to reject whatever number we were going to come up with."

And so ended what Stern considered to be the one chance both sides had to bring a somewhat dignified end to their stalemate.

The lockout reached its 133rd day Thursday. The entire November schedule has been lost, half of the December schedule is gone and it appears the sides won't make a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement until the last possible moment.

When that moment will occur -- Dec. 10? Dec. 25? Jan. 4? -- is anyone's guess.

David Stern
NBA commissioner David Stern feels a deal could have been done 2&frac12weeks ago. (AP)

In an hour-long interview with The Associated Press in his Fifth Avenue office, Stern refused to set a drop-dead date for saving the regular season, but said some owners already were gung-ho to scrap it.

Stern also expressed dismay at the rhetoric coming from the players' union and said the All-Star game won't be canceled simply to squeeze in extra games.

"The question is not whether we'll cancel the season but whether we'll make a deal," Stern said, "because if we don't make a deal the season will not be played."

"They have told us that unless we are prepared to continue paying the same percentage that we're currently paying, then they are prepared to have the season canceled. So they haven't given the owners much of an option. They have thrown down a gauntlet."

"As far as I'm concerned, the enormity of the losses that we're suffering should require us to be negotiating now, but we just can't seem to get it done. We can't get to first base."

Stern and union director Billy Hunter were supposed to speak by telephone Wednesday night or Thursday morning to discuss whether to return to the bargaining table, but the call had not arrived as of mid-afternoon.

No formal talks have been held since last Friday, and the full bargaining teams including owners and players haven't been in the same room since the night Jordan showed up.

"They said `Don't even try if you're not going to come up way higher' (on the percentage)," Stern said. "That was the dilemma."

So everybody walked away.

The players have since said they won't return to the table until the owners are ready to give ground. And Hunter says many players and agents believe he has already put too many concessions on the table -- a luxury tax, escrow tax, reduction in annual salary cap increases and a lengthier rookie salary scale.

"Those are all nice things," Stern said, "but they don't address the fundamental issue of what a fair split is."

"In fairness to them, those are different things that will try to achieve that result. But we did that under the old deal and the percentage (of revenues devoted to salaries) went from 52 to 57. We were hoping that it wouldn't, but it did. So now we need something that tells us where we'll be. Period."

Stern said the owners would stand to lose more than $400 million if the season was canceled, while the players would lose $1 billion in salaries.

Now that an 82-game season is an impossibility, the impetus to get a deal done before the cutoff date -- whenever it is -- seems to lie with players wanting to stem further salary losses. But the players don't expect the owners to move off their current proposal until the 11th hour.

"The sad part about that is the enormous losses that will have been suffered by both sides at that point," Stern said. "At the beginning of the negotiatons, I said I could see the course we were going on. I wish there was some way ... not to suffer the infliction of losses on both sides and to our fan base. But the rhetoric that I was hearing indicated to me that we would have to suffer. And that's where we are."

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