“We want to play basketball,” Commissioner David Stern said.
Come Christmas Day, they should be.
The sides reached a tentative agreement early Saturday to end the 149-day lockout and hope to begin the delayed season with a marquee tripleheader Dec. 25. Most of a season that seemed in jeopardy of being lost entirely will be salvaged if both sides approve the handshake deal.
Barring a change in scheduling, the 2011-12 season will open with the Boston Celtics at New York Knicks, followed by Miami at Dallas in an NBA finals rematch before MVP Derrick Rose and Chicago visiting Kobe Bryant and the Lakers.
Neither side provided many specifics about the deal, and there are still legal hurdles that must be cleared before gymnasiums are open again.
“We thought it was in both of our interest to try to reach a resolution and save the game,” union executive director Billy Hunter said.
After a secret meeting earlier this week that got the broken process back on track, the sides met for more than 15 hours Friday, working to save the season. Stern said the agreement was “subject to a variety of approvals and very complex machinations, but we’re optimistic that will all come to pass and that the NBA season will begin Dec. 25.”
The league plans a 66-game season and aims to open training camps Dec. 9, with free agency opening at the same time. Stern has said it would take about 30 days from an agreement to playing the first game.
“All I feel right now is `finally,’” Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade told The Associated Press.
Just 12 days after talks broke down and Stern declared the NBA could be headed to a “nuclear winter,” he sat next to Hunter to announce the 10-year deal, with either side able to opt out after the sixth year.
“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,” said Derek Fisher, the president of the players’ association.
A majority on each side is needed to approve the agreement, first reported by CBSSports.com. The NBA needs votes from 15 of 29 owners. (The league owns the New Orleans Hornets.) Stern said the labor committee plans to discuss the agreement later Saturday and expects them to endorse it and recommend to the full board.
The union needs a simple majority of its 430-plus members. That process is a bit more complicated after the players dissolved the union Nov. 14. Now, they must drop their antitrust lawsuit in Minnesota and reform the union before voting on the deal.
Because the union disbanded, a new collective bargaining agreement can only be completed once the union has reformed. Drug testing and other issues still must be negotiated between the players and the league, which also must dismiss its lawsuit filed in New York.
“We’re very pleased we’ve come this far,” Stern said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”
The sides will quickly return to work later Saturday, speaking with attorneys and their own committees to keep the process moving.
When the NBA returns, owners hope to find the type of parity that exists in the NFL, where the small-market Green Bay Packers are the current champions. The NBA has been dominated in recent years by the biggest spenders, with Boston, Los Angeles and Dallas winning the last four titles.
“I think it will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agent market the way they’ve been able to in the past. It’s not the system we sought out to get in terms of a harder cap, but the luxury tax is harsher than it was. We hope it’s effective,” deputy commissioner Adam Silver said.
“We feel ultimately it will give fans in every community hope that their team can compete for championships.”
The league hopes fans come right back, despite their anger over a work stoppage that followed such a successful season. But owners wanted more of the league’s $4 billion in annual revenues after players were guaranteed 57 percent of basketball-related income in the old deal.
Participating in the talks for the league were Stern, Silver, Spurs owner Peter Holt, the chairman of the labor relations committee, and attorneys Rick Buchanan and Dan Rube. The players were represented by executive director Billy Hunter, president Derek Fisher, vice president Maurice Evans, attorney Ron Klempner and economist Kevin Murphy.
Owners locked out the players July 1, and the sides spent most of the summer and fall battling over the division of revenues and other changes owners wanted in a new collective bargaining agreement. They said they lost hundreds of millions of dollars in each year of the former deal, ratified in 2005, and they wanted a system where the big-market teams wouldn’t have the ability to outspend their smaller counterparts.
Players fought against those changes, not wanting to see any teams taken out of the market when they became free agents.
“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.”
Even the final day had turbulent patches. It required multiple calls with the owners’ labor relations committee, all the while knowing another breakdown in talks would mean not only the loss of the Christmas schedule but possibly even the entire season.
“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.
He denied the litigation was a factor in accelerating a deal, but things happened relatively quickly after the players filed a suit that could have won them some $6 billion in damages.
“For us the litigation is something that just has to be dealt with,” Stern said. “It was not the reason for the settlement. 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. 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.”
It finally yielded the second shortened season in NBA history, joining the 1998-99 lockout that reduced the schedule to 50 games. This time the league will miss 16 games off the normal schedule.
Though the deal’s expected to be approved, it may not be unanimous as there are factions of hard-liners in both camps who will be unhappy with substantive portions of the deal.
“Let’s all pray this turns out well,” Pacers forward Danny Granger wrote on Twitter.
But getting what the owners wanted took a toll. Stern, after more than 27 years as the league’s commissioner, hoped to close a deal much sooner but was committed for fighting for the owners’ wishes even at the risk of damaging his legacy. Hunter dealt with anger from agents and even questions from his own players about his strategy, wondering why it could so long for the players to use the threat of litigation to give them leverage that had otherwise eluded them.
The sides met just twice in the first two months of the lockout before stepping up the pace in September, when it was already too late to open camps on time. The sides tried meeting in small groups, large groups and even mediation, but nothing sparked compromise.
Things changed this week with the entrance of Jim Quinn, a former NBPA counsel who had good relationships on both sides. The meeting Friday was held at the office of his law firm, though he did not take part.
Hunter said the terms of the deal would come out shortly, preferring to keep them private until they could be shared with the players. They might not like the deal, but it will be better than what many of them feared. Resigned to possibly missing the season, some had signed deals overseas so they would have some paycheck.
Instead, they’re a step closer to returning home.