With the NBA headed for what one official called "a nuclear winter" — the cancellation of an entire season — last-gasp negotiations produced a tentative deal to end the sport's nearly five-month-long labor dispute.
Representatives for team owners and players met for more than 15 hours until the early morning Saturday, emerging to announce they had paved the way for a hurried start to training camp and a compacted 66-game schedule that would begin Dec. 25.
That means fans could awake Christmas morning to a tripleheader of nationally televised games that includes the Dallas Mavericks against the Miami Heat — a rematch of last season's NBA Finals — the Boston Celtics versus the New York Knicks, and the Lakers playing the Chicago Bulls at Staples Center.
"This was not an easy agreement for anyone," NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver said. "I think we saw a willingness on both sides to compromise yet a little more."
The lockout began in July and stretched across 149 days of unsuccessful talks. In a time of widespread economic hardship, many fans grew weary of what they viewed as two groups of millionaires arguing over how to divide their riches.
The principals declined to discuss specifics Saturday, cautioning that their accord has yet to be ratified by a majority of the NBA's 30 team owners and 450 players. But it appears that owners stand to benefit the most.
They sought to cut expenses, claiming the previous deal — dating to 2005 — had cost them hundreds of millions in losses each year and with more than two-thirds of their teams unprofitable. They also wanted to stop wealthy, large-market franchises from grossly outspending their small-market competitors.
The proposed settlement calls for a sliding scale that would give players 49% to 51% of the league's annual revenue — down from 57% in the last deal. The NBA would also impose a harsher luxury tax on teams that dole out huge player salaries.
The Lakers ranked among the biggest spenders last season with a $91-million payroll that triggered $21 million in luxury penalties.
The new deal, Silver said, "will largely prevent the high-spending teams from competing in the free-agency market in a way that they have been able to do in the past."
That means less money for players, but they appeared to score a minor victory with provisions that would allow free agents to move easily around the league. This could become a crucial development with superstars such as Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic and Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets poised to test the market.
At a 12:30 a.m. PST news conference Saturday, Commissioner David Stern suggested that labor peace will have ramifications beyond the NBA. The lockout, he said, affected people nationwide who earn their paychecks at the fringes of professional basketball.
"We talked about not just our teams and our players, but literally thousands of people who are dependent upon the playing of our games at arenas, at parking lots, at restaurants around the stadium," he said.
Restaurants and cafes near Staples Center were looking forward to the return of Lakers and Clippers fans who make a habit of stopping by on their way to games.
"There are a lot of businesses around the area that are really excited," said Eddie Ojeda, manager of Fernando's Taco Inn on Olympic Boulevard. "They pretty much rely on that business."
In Washington, President Obama spent Saturday morning playing basketball at a gym. Emerging in sweat pants and a dark windbreaker, carrying sneakers under his arm, he responded to a question about the NBA settlement by giving a thumbs-up and saying, "Good deal."
It was less than two weeks ago, with talks breaking down yet again, that Stern made his "nuclear winter" comment and saw waning hope for a 2011-12 season.
Players subsequently disbanded their union and filed antitrust lawsuits, claiming the league was unfairly hindering their earning potential. They are now expected to retract that litigation and reassemble the union for a ratifying vote.
"There is a lot of work left to do," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher, the NBA Players Assn. president.
However, Stern and Billy Hunter, executive director of the disbanded union, both said they expect the deal to be approved.
Sports business experts said any further delay in reaching an agreement might have severely damaged the NBA's marketability with fans and corporate sponsors.
"Had the lockout slipped past Christmas, it would have been a real issue for the league," said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. "The season would have been difficult to pull off."
Players and owners were reluctant to speak publicly about the deal, wanting to see details of the accord, but could not help expressing their relief over the Internet.
"I must be dreaming … " tweeted Micky Arison, owner of the Heat.
Times staff writers Lance Pugmire and Peter Nicholas contributed to this report.