Under immense pressure to quickly settle their differences or risk losing the entire season, NBA owners and players reached a handshake deal on the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement in the wee hours on Saturday morning that will allow teams to start playing games on Christmas day.
Representatives for the league and players met for an exhausting, 15-hour negotiation session and held a joint news conference around 3:30 a.m. to announce that the lockout is almost over after 149 days.
“The reason for the settlement was we’ve got fans, we’ve got players who would like to play and we’ve got others who are dependent on us,” NBA commissioner David Stern said. “And it’s always been our goal to reach a deal that was fair to both sides and get us playing as soon as possible, but that took a little time.”
Neither side provided details of the deal, but the players agreed to a compromise that would include a 49-51 percent “band” of basketball-related income. The league plans to open training camps on Dec. 9 and have a 66-game season beginning on Dec. 25 with three games: Boston at New York, an NBA Finals rematch of Miami at Dallas, and Chicago at the Los Angeles Lakers.
Several smaller details within the agreement still need to be hashed out over the next few days. The deal would then need to be approved by 15 of the 29 owners (the NBA owns the New Orleans Hornets). The players would also have to dismiss their antitrust lawsuit in Minnesota, reconstruct the union and pass the deal by a majority vote of its 430-plus members. Stern said he expects both sides to endorse the deal.
“We thought it was in both of our interest to try to reach a resolution and save the game,” said Billy Hunter, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association.
The players’ union disbanded on Nov. 14 and filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA, prompting Stern declare that the league could be headed for a “nuclear winter.” The legal maneuver would either create leverage in an out-of-court settlement or place the league in danger of paying out triple damages for a lost season – almost $6 billion, based on $2 billion in salaries.
“For us the litigation is something that just has to be dealt with,” Stern said. “It was not the reason for the settlement.”
Aside from litigation, the calendar was arguably a greater motivator to get the sides together, with Stern unwilling to have a repeat of the 1998-99 season, when a 50-game season began in February.
Settlement talks had begun earlier this week and intensified to the point that union president Derek Fisher and vice president Maurice Evans of the Wizards both flew to the New York to sit across from Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, San Antonio Spurs owner and labor relations committee chairman Peter Holt, and attorneys Rick Buchanan and Dan Rube. The players were also represented by Hunter, attorney Ron Klempner and economist Kevin Murphy.
“For myself, it’s great to be a part of this particular moment in terms of giving our fans what they wanted and wanted to see,” Fisher said.
Owners have locked out the players since July 1, claiming that they that lost hundreds of millions since the collective bargaining agreement was ratified in 2005 and needed a system that allowed all 30 teams to be competitive and profitable. Players agreed to reduce their share of the revenues, coming down from 57 percent of revenues in the previous deal. They rejected the owners latest offer, believing that rules for player movement were too restrictive and that high-spending teams were being punished too heavily.
Silver mentioned that all of the owners goals were not met but enough was has been put in place – such as a stricter luxury tax – to satisfy them. “This was not an easy agreement for anyone. The owners came in having suffered substantial losses and feeling the system wasn’t working fairly across all teams,” Silver said. “I certainly know the players had strong views about expectations in terms of what they should be getting from the system. It required a lot of compromise from both parties’ part, and I think that’s what we saw today.”
Both sides have the right to opt out of the 10-year agreement in six years, but Stern was just relieved to reach this point. “We resolved, despite some even bumps this evening, that the greater good required us to knock ourselves out and come to this tentative understanding,” Stern said.