Basketball: NBA on brink of losing season

THE LAST chances of an end to America's basketball standoff were ticking away last night, and it seemed increasingly likely that the NBA season would be cancelled in its entirety.

An unseemly spat between players and managers - millionaires against billionaires, as the wags have it - has prevented any court action so far. The NBA commissioner, David Stern, and the Deputy Commissioner, Russ Granik, met with the Players Association chief, Billy Hunter, and the president, Patrick Ewing, at a Manhatten hotel yesterday, the last chance to salvage something from the fiasco. The owners met to assess the latest offer from the players, and gave it the thumbs down. They voted to cancel all games this year. In three days' time, that decision is expected to be confirmed, a sad day for a sport that has made too much money for its own good.

Cash is at the heart of the battle over the NBA. The managers claim they are being strangled by the high salaries paid to top players, and in particular to free agents under the so-called "Larry Bird" exception to salary caps. But this is a game that is earning billions more, and essentially the issue that owners and players cannot agree on how to split the bonanza.

Several free agents, including Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis and Michael Olowokandi, have signed to go to Europe if the season collapses.

Olowokandi, who was born in Nigeria but moved to England at a young age, has signed for Kinder Bologna. He was the No 1 pick in last summer's NBA draft and was set to sign a multi-million pound contract with the Los Angeles Clippers before the NBA owners shut down the league.

Olowokandi will reportedly earn pounds 650,000 up to 15 February and if he finishes the season with the Italians he will receive another pounds 1.3m. "If the NBA season is resumed, he'll be able to return and play. If the season is cancelled, he'll stay in Italy," said Billy Duffy, Olowokandi's agent.

When baseball was shut down by a dispute between players and managers in 1994, it took years before fans regained any warmth for the game. Only last year - when Mark McGwire hit a new home run record - was the public finally at ease with baseball again. The basketball lockout has only underlined the cynicism many feel about athletes who seem more concerned with their own pockets than their fans.

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