Basketball: Talks fail to break NBA deadlock

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SIXTEEN HOURS of talks, ending in the early hours of yesterday morning, failed to bring the National Basketball Association lock-out to an end.

It was one of the most eventful, if not productive, days of the American National Basketball Association. But when it was over, 16 hours of talking had not moved NBA owners and players much closer to a deal.

"There's still a pretty wide gap that separates the sides, despite the statements of good faith intentions," said David Stern, the NBA commissioner. "But at least we identified the sizes of the gaps between us."

Some 12 hours earlier, Stern announced the cancellation of two more weeks of the season, although he did admit there was a possibility of "recapturing" games that will be missed.

In all, 194 games have been lost, with the latest cancellation of 95 games. Each team's 82-game schedule has now been whittled to around 68 games, and the players have lost about $200m (pounds 125m) in salaries.

"In terms of how close and how far away we are, that's hard to determine right now," said Michael Jordan, who sat in on the talks for the first time. "At least we've got some great dialogue happening and in some ways we're starting to understand each other's position. Is that improvement? Yes, I would say so."

Still, the sides made little or no movement on the monetary specifics of their offers.

The lock-out is essentially a strike by the owners. Under American employment law, without a contract or, in this case, a collective bargaining agreement, owners can prohibit - or lock out - players from working until a deal is reached.

The collective bargaining agreement (CBA) provides the ground rules that set things like minimum salaries, pension and health insurance benefits, roster limits and a salary cap.

The biggest issue in this work stoppage is the owners insistence on maximum salary costs and the union's refusal to accept a "hard" salary cap.

The league has a limit that each team can spend on salaries, but the so-called "Larry Bird" exemption allows clubs to disregard the cap to re-sign their own free agents. It virtually makes the salary cap an invisible ceiling.

So far in negotiations the club owners are still asking for a scale-back of the percentage of revenues devoted to salaries from 57 to 48 per cent, while the players remain stuck on holding off on their concessions until the number reaches 63 per cent.

"Both sides are still locked in," the union director, Billy Hunter, said. "We spent a lot of time talking, but no progress. I don't think their people are willing to move."

Hunter, looking haggard and weary when he left the talks, expected to receive a phone call yesterday from Stern or the deputy commissioner, Russ Granik, to discuss what each side thinks the next step should be.

No further talks have been scheduled, but the sides said they could be back at the bargaining table today.

"I think we just have different ideas as to what's a workable economic system," said Jeffrey Mishkin, the league's chief attorney. "This will take more time. We're just still not able to find common ground on how the thing's going to work."