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NBA, Union Going to Greater Lengths

Stern, Hunter agree to extend first-round series to best of seven, perhaps signaling era of cooperation.

February 09, 2003|Mark Heisler | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Sounding a surprising new note -- harmony -- NBA Commissioner David Stern and NBA Players Assn. Director Billy Hunter jointly announced resolution of several outstanding issues Saturday and said they will now try to extend their bargaining agreement.

After a concession by the union, which had blocked it, the league extended the first round of the playoffs from five games to seven.

After a concession by the league, which had blocked it, a 17-year-old Yugoslav 7-footer, Darko Milicic, will be allowed to enter the draft.

"We're going to take a bunch of owners and players away at the end of the season, someplace away from the glare of the media, and try to extend our collective bargaining agreement," Stern said, "with a commitment by both sides that this is something that's important for us to try very hard to do in our league, in our country, in our economy."

The owners can extend the current agreement through the 2004-05 season, so the fact that the two sides will begin negotiating so early, with neither having aired any discontent as the league did the last time when it demanded give-backs, suggests they're in tacit agreement on using the present deal as a framework for a new one.

At the very least, the tone has turned 180 degrees from the run-up to the previous negotiations.

"Fortunately, time heals," said Phoenix Sun owner Jerry Colangelo, chairman on the board of governors, who attended meetings with the union's reps here.

"And in this particular case, we took care of our business with a lot of bloodshed a few years ago, but I think there's been a tempering, a realization that we truly are in partnership together.

"The whole concept of sharing revenues on the basis that we do means that as the pie gets larger, the players are truly sharing in that growth. And I sense that there's a real feeling that's coming from both sides, that it's important to keep this relationship going.

"We also live in a different time and place; 9/11 changed a lot of things in our lives. Someone said, and, boy, was this accurate, 'Things will never be the same again,' and I think that's true. And I think there's a realization we need to hang in there together."

The social climate was also cited as a factor in the recent baseball negotiations, settled without losing any games for the first time, as both sides worried the public simply wouldn't stand for the sight of millionaires squabbling with one another.

Having announced they'll talk, Stern and Hunter withdrew to defensive positions, each insisting they had a long list of problems with the current deal.

However, asked if they had a current outstanding disagreement, they were unable to come up with one.

Moreover, Stern has recently signaled he's willing to make other concessions.

With many teams saying they won't spend their $4.5-million veteran exceptions if it means triggering the luxury tax -- which, of course, distresses the union -- Stern recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Jeff Denberg:

"We've always been sensitive to the veterans, so maybe in three years [when the contract runs out] a veteran's additional salary shouldn't count against the tax."

This, suggested a union official, would be a major concession.

However, Stern, asked about it after his joint appearance with Hunter, said he didn't want to negotiate through the media and just wanted a fair deal.

The new playoff format will take effect immediately, which is no favor to the Lakers, now No. 9 in the West and looking at being on the road throughout the playoffs, in the event they make the playoffs.

A seven-game first-round match with, say, Dallas, now No. 1 in the West, would not only be difficult but would take more out of the eventual winner than a five-gamer.

Milicic, described as a major talent, is expected to go as high as No. 2 in the draft, after LeBron James. The NBA had barred him because he hadn't turned 18 before its deadline.

However, Milicic will turn 18 before the draft, making him older than some American draftees, including Kobe Bryant, who was 17.

Milicic's agent, Marc Cornstein, protested the inconsistency in the rules for Americans and international players. The league was adamant until softening suddenly this weekend, when a lot of the old walls seemed to shake, if not crumble.

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