Commentary: The Nba's Boss Wins It At The Buzzer

With the end of the six-month player lockout on Jan. 6, everybody connected with the National Basketball Assn. won a victory--by salvaging a season at the last possible moment. But Commissioner David J. Stern won the most. Sure, he failed to panic players with a clumsy last-minute effort to force a vote on the league's so-called final offer. But owners walked away happy after a secret all-night bargaining session that clinched a deal just hours before the league's 400 players were due to vote in New York. After all, Stern had already prodded players to concede far more than they had planned even before the 11th-hour maneuvering began.

LITTLE LOST. The new deal, which still must be ratified by all 29 owners, allows the league to salvage its season, now scheduled to begin the first week of February, allowing a 50-game schedule. As a result, both sides will be able to save much of the $2 billion in revenue that a full 82-game season would have brought in. "We both compromised," says Jeffrey L. Kessler, an outside lawyer for the union. On Jan. 6, some 200 players--all but a handful of those who showed up--voted for the agreement.

Stern emerged the victor because players caved in on key issues. The owners had demanded that the NBA Players Assn. limit the explosive growth of salaries, which have jumped at a double-digit rate for years. While Stern gave ground from what he swore was his last offer, players still agreed to cap their share of league revenues at levels lower than the 57.5% they raked in last season. Under the new contract, players get up to 55% in most years. If their share goes higher, they must put 10% of their salaries into an escrow account for owners. And there's a tax on high-spending teams.

Also, for the first time, players agreed to set maximum salary levels, although not as low as Stern wanted. Players with up to five years' experience will be capped at $9 million, those with six to nine at $11 million, and the 10-plus guys at $14 million. Players also agreed that teams can require rookies to stay with a club for five years, vs. four now.

The union did win some flexibility. In some cases, players can bargain for juicier contracts even if their team is already spending over the new salary caps. Plus, minimum salaries will rise.

In the end, owners got their top goal: more control over soaring salaries. Pay will still rise, but more in line with revenue. That could give owners a fatter cut of the NBA's new $2.65 billion in TV contracts.

But no one is really a loser, either. With so much more money coming in each year, the lockout that began last July was never about one side suffering a real setback. Instead, the central issue has been who gets the biggest share of the growth. With the new contract, that's likely to be the owners.

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