NBA guarded about future

BILL HARRIS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

The protracted NHL labour mess has emerged as a scary story that NBA players and owners tell each other late at night. Gary Bettman is Dracula. Bob Goodenow is Frankenstein.

And no matter who evokes this cautionary tale in darkened NBA bedrooms, the moral always is the same:

"Beware, lest we suffer the same fate!"

When NBA commissioner David Stern yesterday held his annual state-of-the-league media conference during all-star weekend, he was joined at the podium in Denver by National Basketball Players' Association executive-director Billy Hunter.

No, they did not announce that a new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players has been reached. But Stern and Hunter expressed genuine horror at the goings-on in hockey, and both vowed to do their best to avoid any such shenanigans.

"It's the opening prayer at each of our meetings," Stern said. "We are pretty well revealed to each other, even if we are not that revealed to the public, and I think that's really what, in a way, didn't happen in hockey."

Added Hunter: "We're trying to eliminate the posturing and get to the nitty-gritty."

The NBA's current CBA runs out at the end of June. While Stern acknowledged he may be combining reality with hope, yesterday he went so far as to say he thinks there will be a new deal by the end of the season.

The NBA went through a seven-month lockout in late 1998 and early 1999 before an agreement was reached. A 50-game regular season followed.

"It has taken us a few years to recover from the last lockout, and I would hate to think how people would react this time around on the heels of what's happening in ice hockey," Hunter said. "I'm also always mindful of the fact the NBA is perceived as a black product, so I have to be sensitive of that. All that goes into the equation when I'm trying to negotiate a deal."

A group of about 15 players and owners -- including Raptors part-owner Larry Tanenbaum -- held a low-key meeting in Denver earlier in the day.

Yesterday morning, also in Denver, the players' association held its own meeting. Raptors rookie Matt Bonner, who is the team's union representative, was among those in attendance.

"We're fairly optimistic about things," Bonner said. "That was the general tone."

NBA owners are looking for a reduction in the maximum length of player contracts and an age minimum of 20 years for entry in the league (Stern remains convinced an age limit could be upheld legally). The union wants to see reductions in the escrow and luxury taxes that are designed to slow down salary increases for players.

"Everything is an economic issue, and I mean that sincerely," said Stern, stating a great truth.

Among the other items addressed yesterday:

- Stern said that while NBA revenues are up overall, operationally the league loses money and half the teams are in the red. However, in terms of those individual teams, Stern said he understands the difference between voluntary expenses and involuntary expenses.

- While Stern is not overly concerned that steroids -- the plague of baseball -- are a major problem in basketball, it would be "prudent" for the NBA to "eliminate that even as a question." How to achieve that will be up for discussion in collective bargaining.

- No major rule changes, or possibly no changes at all, are expected for next season.

All things considered, Stern described the state of the NBA as "pretty good." Not great, not horrible, but "pretty good."

Both Stern and Hunter realize, however, that the slope from pretty good to pretty bad is as slippery as a hockey rink.


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