League says players' union backtracked during talks

NEW YORK -- Labor talks between the NBA and the players'
union broke off Wednesday, increasing the chance of a lockout
starting in the offseason.
In a statement, the NBA accused the union of backtracking on
several items that the sides had agreed upon. The collective
bargaining agreement expires June 30.
"Since we are at a loss as to how we can possibly reach a new
deal that is in any way consistent with the principal terms that we
have been discussing for many months, there are no further meetings
scheduled at this time," deputy commissioner Russ Granik said.
The union did not immediately respond.
If no new agreement is reached, a lockout could begin as early
as July 1 -- three days after the draft.
The sides had been publicly optimistic over the prospects for
reaching a new deal until last Friday, when commissioner David
Stern downgraded his outlook to "hopeful." That came just hours
after two union attorneys gave a verbal outline of the union's new
offer and, according to the league, changed its position on several
key issues.
"They've taken major steps backward on all the key elements,"
Granik said in a telephone interview. "We still have more than six
weeks until July 1, so I don't want to predict what will or won't
happen, but based on way things have gone here it's hard to see
where an agreement will be reached any time soon."
A lockout beginning July 1 would force the cancelation of summer
leagues and offseason conditioning programs at team facilities.
Training camps are scheduled to open in early October.
The league and union went through an acrimonious seven-month
lockout in 1998 and 1999 before agreeing to the current seven-year
With very few exceptions, the same attorneys that negotiated the
old agreement are working on the new one.
In its statement, the league indicated a belief that player
agents had pressured union director Billy Hunter to back off some
of the concessions he had agreed to in previous negotiating
sessions since mid-February.
"At the conclusion of a bargaining session on Sunday, April 17,
we thought we were very close to a deal, with only a few items
remaining to be compromised," Granik said. "On April 19, a day
after the players association met with a group of player agents, we
were informed that the players association could no longer agree to
a previously committed five-year rule on length of contracts.
"Then, last week, after promising a written proposal to form
the basis of a new agreement, the union instead advised us orally
that it needed to backtrack on several other essential terms that
had already been resolved."
The league claims the union changed its position on the length
of long-term contracts (current rules allow a maximum length of
seven years), the size of annual raises in long-term contracts
(current rules limit those increases to 12.5 percent annually for
players who re-sign with their teams; 10 percent for players
changing teams as free agents), and changes to the escrow and
luxury tax systems designed to limit salary growth and penalize the
highest-spending teams.
Granik also told the AP that the union had changed its stance on
a proposed change to the age limit. He did not give specifics.
Stern is seeking to have the minimum age for playing in the NBA
raised to 20 (current rules mandate a U.S. player's high school
class must have graduated before he can become draft eligible,
while foreign-born players must turn 18 before the draft). Hunter
has said he is philosophically opposed to raising the minimum age,
though he said he'd agree to a change if the league offered
something substantial in return.
The league said it had offered to increase each team's salary
cap by raising the percentage upon which that calculation is based.
Currently, the cap is computed by taking 48 percent of leaguewide
revenues and dividing that figure by the number of teams, 30.
Granik said the league had offered to raise that percentage to
Hunter, in Washington to testify before a congressional
committee investigating steroid use in professional sports, could
not immediately be reached.
The first sign that talks might be breaking down came when the
league canceled plans for a bargaining session between a large
group of owners and players that was to have taken place Tuesday.
Granik said Thursday's statement was issued to help explain the
cancelation of that session.
"We felt we had to tell people what was really happening. It's
not like it serves a beneficial purpose," Granik said. "I would
prefer we not have to air this, but people were asking reasonable
questions and we owed them a responsible answer."