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Distance remains in goal toward labor agreement

TROY, Mich. -- There won't be a lockout in the NBA this
summer if there are only three issues left for owners and players
to resolve, union director Billy Hunter said.
The problem, however, is that the opposing sides do not even
agree on how many items are still in dispute.
Hunter traveled to the media headquarters hotel Wednesday on an
off day in the NBA Finals to state the players' position regarding
the stalled collective bargaining talks, saying he surmised from
commissioner David Stern's public comments last Sunday that only
three issues remain -- an age limit for rookies, a tougher
drug-testing program and the maximum length of long-term contracts.
"I'm going to hold him to his word, and I'm going to assume
that all those other concessions they've talked about are no longer
on the table," Hunter said.
But NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said Hunter's assumption
was incorrect.
"That's almost a silly suggestion that anything's been taken
off the table. Those were merely three critical non-economic issues
that we said we needed to have. That was the point there," Granik
told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
So, with only 15 days left until the current seven-year labor
agreement expires, the sides cannot even agree on where they stand
in regards to what's left to be negotiated.
Not only that, but there are no new talks scheduled.
"At the last bargaining session, they walked out on us,"
Hunter said. "Their comment was we'll get back to you, and I
haven't heard from anyone."
The union will hold its annual meeting in Las Vegas on June 27,
and it seems unlikely that the sides will hold any substantive
discussions before then. The current agreement expires June 30, and
both sides have predicted that if there is a lockout, it'll be a
long one.
"It would be a death knell for the NBA," Hunter said.
Owners are known to be seeking several changes to current rules,
including a new luxury tax (dubbed a "supertax") for the highest
spending teams, reductions in the size of annual salary increases
in long-term contracts, a shortened rookie wage scale and
adjustments to the so-called trigger percentages that activate the
escrow and luxury taxes designed to curtail spending on player
salaries.
Stern did not reference those items when he addressed the media
prior to Game 2 of the finals, though he did go into detail about
where the owners stand on the other items. He said the league wants
the minimum age raised to 19, the maximum contract length reduced
from seven years to six, and an anti-drug agreement that would call
for veterans to be tested year-round. Currently, veterans are
tested only once per year, during training camp.
"We weren't attempting to negotiate every point through the
media," Granik said. "We were trying to explain why it wouldn't
be suitable to keep the same deal. That was the point we were
making, not that those were the only issues."
Hunter said he will not engage in unilateral concessions, but
his answer when asked what he would want in return -- an extension
of the old deal -- only seemed to confuse the matter more. The
owners have already rejected Hunter's offer to extend the current
deal.
Unless Stern can figure out what would make for an acceptable
trade-off, the likelihood of another work stoppage would seem to be
high. The owners locked out the players in July, 1998, after the
last agreement expired, and it took 7½ months for the sides to
reach an agreement.
"I'm going to call David one more time between now and June
30," Hunter said.