Promise of new league as NBA eyes return

`Went from lose-lose to win-win,' Stern says

January 08, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Exhibition games with free admission. Open scrimmages. Five hundred seats set aside per game at the bargain price of $10 each. Curtailing the movement of players.

In a week when the NBA was nearly ruined, those were some of the promises offered for a new, fan-friendly league after the NBA's board of governor's yesterday ratified a six-year collective bargaining agreement with the players association.

NBA commissioner David Stern and players union director Billy Hunter -- adversaries during the lockout that lasted more than six months -- sat side-by-side in peace on a day that earlier this week looked as if it would mark the cancellation of the season. Stern and Hunter reached an agreement on the new deal early Wednesday, with the players ratifying the agreement later that day.

"From my point of view, we went from a lose-lose situation to a win-win situation," said Stern, speaking at a news conference after the board's meeting. "Ultimately, we both recognized the season was at risk and, in terms of our fans, that would not have been a smart thing to lose. So a deal was made."

The deal puts a cap on individual salaries of NBA players, an issue that was fought by the union all along. That players lost close to a half-billion dollars before finally agreeing to the owners' stand on this issue had Hunter on the defensive yesterday.

"I don't think I have to defend my actions," said Hunter, whose phone call to Stern on Tuesday initiated the talks that led to the agreement. "We had a negotiating committee comprised of 20 players, and I'm sure if those 20 players thought the deal we did was bad, they would have bound me up and taken me away kicking and screaming."

The deal wasn't official until yesterday's unanimous approval by the board of governors, setting the stage for a 50-game season to begin Feb. 5. With the playoffs expected to conclude on June 29 or 30 -- about a week later than last year's NBA Finals -- teams will be forced to play as many as four games a week, on occasion playing three consecutive nights.

"We have to do a lot of cramming, but limit to what the fans will like to see and what the players are capable of performing," said NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik. "[The schedule] will require a few times -- from a few teams -- that they will play three games in a row. But it won't happen that often."

The real cram session for NBA teams will occur on Jan. 18, when training camps open at the same time as the free-agent signing period begins. The signing of free agents normally occurs over the course of a summer. With more than 200 players eligible for free agency and teams having such little time to prepare for the season, the week of Jan. 18 will be busy.

"It's going to be pretty crazy," said agent Tony Dutt. "There's been so much free time, and now everybody has to go back to work.

"There was a lot of research done prior to this time, and I think most teams have an idea who their top priorities are in the free-agent market. Most will get to work right away."

Phoenix and Houston probably will work right away on signing Scottie Pippen, expected to be the league's most coveted free agent. At the end of last season, Pippen was projected to sign for nearly $20 million per season. Under the new deal, the most Pippen will be able to make in a season is $14 million.

Whatever happens to Pippen will have a direct effect on whether the dynasty of the Chicago Bulls continues. If Pippen leaves, it's unlikely Michael Jordan will return.

Closer to home, the key to the success of the Washington Wizards will be their ability to sign point guard Rod Strickland, the league leader in assists last season. Re-signing the point guard would pair Strickland with postseason pickup Mitch Richmond, giving Washington one of the top backcourts in the NBA.

While the league spends the next few days piecing together a regular season, players will be allowed to use team training facilities starting Monday. Players will be able to work out under the guidance of NBA trainers. When training camp starts, Wizards coach Bernie Bickerstaff said, he plans to put his players through three-a-day practice sessions.

Stern said that when camps begin, teams will hold at least one free open scrimmage for the fans. And each team will play two exhibition games -- one home and one away -- with no charge to fans.

Next season, 500 seats will be set aside at a cost of $10 for each NBA game. That won't take place until 1999-2000 because tickets have already been sold for this season.

Wizards owner Abe Pollin said he has ordered his staff to come up with additional fan-friendly promotions, which will be announced in the next few days.

Players seemed to realize they had to work to win back support.

"We're going to have to have autograph sessions, to reach back out to our fans and apologize," said Indiana Pacers forward Antonio Davis.

Washington Wizards guard Calbert Cheaney said: "It's such a great game. Hopefully, the fans will come back out and support it."

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