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Outlook for NBA Season Worsens

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is your commissioner talking: You can kiss this season goodbye.

Opening a final round of posturing or signaling an actual hardening of positions, NBA Commissioner David Stern said he has been told by his nine-owner labor committee not to offer further concessions and doesn’t intend to negotiate further.

This, in effect, demands that players take or leave his “last” proposal, 10 days before his drop-dead date--on which, Stern predicted Monday, his league will die, to be replaced next fall with some kind of scarred, stripped-down entity.

“I think the likelihood is that we will cancel the season on Jan. 7,” he said on a telephone news conference. ". . . I believe our owners will vote overwhelmingly to reject the players’ last proposal and allow the season to expire. . . .

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“The NBA would start play next season. It may not have the same players it has today. It may not charge the same prices for tickets. It may not even have the same television revenues that it has now but it will be a league that will grow and survive to entertain another day . . . The tragedy would be the players, who are at the end of their careers, who won’t have the same opportunity.”

Angry, even by the standards of these increasingly emotional negotiations, Stern charged the National Basketball Players Assn. has been kidnapped by a “runaway negotiating committee,” guided not by union director Billy Hunter, but by unnamed agents--whom everyone understood to mean Arn Tellem and especially David Falk, who represents union President Patrick Ewing as well as committee members Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning, Juwan Howard and Dan Schayes.

Deputy commissioner Russ Granik called the union’s claim to be pursuing the restoration of its middle class “one of the great lies the other side has made.”

Hunter, at a disadvantage in this exchange since he held his conference call first, indulged himself in no name-calling, insisting optimistically the two sides are “close,” asking to negotiate on, pooh-poohing the stormy scenario Stern is painting for his membership.

“Out of power or arrogance, the owners could cut off their nose to spite their face,” said Hunter, “but the damage would be so great, I don’t know if the NBA would ever recover. I haven’t heard of any sport ever missing a full season.

“What’s to stop some other groups from stepping up [and starting a new league]? I know the owners are aware there are other people willing to replace them. They don’t have a monopoly on money.”

Hunter rejected suggestions he bypass the negotiating committee and let the entire membership vote on the NBA proposal, made recently by Kevin Willis and agent Norman Blass. Once, Hunter, bristling, even refused to disclose how committee members were chosen (some were appointed but most, including three of the four Falk players, were voted on).

To another question about polling the membership, Hunter said:

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“That’s not addressable. When we were in Las Vegas, the general body empowered the negotiating committee to act on their behalf. The negotiating committee has taken the position that the only thing to be put to a vote is a deal they sign off on. . . .

“The negotiating committee is not inclined to relinquish authority. That authority was vested in them and their position is, they’re empowered to make the call.”

Posturing aside, the new, repeated references to committees on both sides suggests that things are, ominously, getting beyond the control of Hunter and Stern.

Stern and Hunter met twice recently--face-to-face in Century City, with a handful of aides in Denver--but got nowhere. Whether they meet again, this winter or ever, remains to be seen.

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Stern dominates his labor relations committee. However, sources say that although Hunter wants to make a deal, he finds his hands increasingly tied by his committee, which is dominated by Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo--or, in effect, Falk.

Even more ominously, sources say Falk has been acting as if he doesn’t care if they get a deal, or, at the least, will push this game of “chicken” to the end.

Even management sources raise their eyebrows at the bleak economic vision Stern presents, so a lot more people than Hunter are skeptical of the commissioner’s promise to plow his league under so readily.

“He didn’t believe the NLRB would dismiss their unfair labor practices charge,” said Stern, bitterly.

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“He didn’t believe that Dean Feerick would reject their arbitration claim. He didn’t believe the owners would lock out. He didn’t believe they would miss games. He didn’t believe they would miss the NBC game on Christmas Day. . . .

“So his analysis of things is right on.”


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