Basketball: Players vote `yes' to save NBA season

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THE NBA players' union overwhelmingly ratified a deal for a new labour contract last night, one day ahead of a league deadline to cancel the remainder of the locked-out season.

Union officials varied on the vote count - 179-5, 175-4 and 181-5 were all given - but the players resoundingly approved the deal and sent it to the owners for final approval at a meeting of the league's Board of Governors today.

Players were to report to training camp on 10 January with the season to begin the first week of February, said players emerging from their meeting.

They have lost around half a billion dollars (pounds 820m) in salaries, and owners have had no income. But the fans are likely to feel even worse about a dispute that essentially revolved around how to split $2bn between some very rich individuals.

On Monday, it looked as if the game was up, in every sense. The NBA and the players' union had failed to break the deadlock, and it seemed only a procedural vote by the Board of Governors was needed to deliver the coup de grace. However, NBA commissioner David Stern and union head Billy Hunter continued talking, with the impending deadline helping to focus minds, and at 6am yesterday the deal was there.

A truncated season, starting early next month, should allow time for between 45 to 50 games. The process of selling the deal is under way. Then deals need to be done with the free agents for the season.

The NBA has $2bn to share out because of increased revenues from television, and the dispute was over how to divide it.

Players had wanted a larger slice for salaries, saying some players were underpaid; owners said some teams were going under, and they could not afford it. The reality is that both are partly right. The owners wanted to tighten salary caps, removing the exemptions that allow players to earn such vast sums, while the union was resisting. The players also wanted higher rates for players in the middle and at the bottom end of the salary scale.

The fight was egged on by the super-agents, and made even more bitter by the fact that 80 per cent of players are black, and all the owners are white. The average salary is about $2.5m though fewer than half make more than that, reflecting the fact that there are some very big pay packets out there which help to distort the figures.

The lockout, in effect since 1 July, has caused the NBA to miss games because of a labour dispute for the first time in its history. Under American labour law, without a contract - or in this case a collective bargaining agreement - owners can lock out players until a deal is reached.

"I wouldn't blame the fans if they didn't come back," said Jeff Hornacek of the Utah Jazz. "Neither side is coming out of this thing looking good."