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Tentative deal saves NBA season after 149 days of negotiations

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The NBA and its players hold a press conference after 3:30 a.m. to announce the tentative deal. (Getty Images)  
The NBA and its players hold a press conference after 3:30 a.m. to announce the tentative deal. (Getty Images)  

NEW YORK -- The excruciating NBA lockout finally ended early Saturday with a tentative agreement that followed another marathon negotiating session, saving a 66-game season that can start on Christmas.

The 25th negotiating session lasted 15 hours and spanned the 148th and 149th days of the lockout, which officially will be lifted once the fine points of the deal are agreed to, the players' union reforms and is recognized by the owners and both sides ratify the new labor agreement.

It was a raucous, frustrating ride that led negotiators to luxury hotels all over Manhattan and finally ended at the Fifth Avenue law offices of Weil, Gotshal & Manges -- site of key negotiations that ended the 1998-99 lockout.

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The deal finally came together after a series of ultimatums, collapses in the talks, the dissolution of the players' association, and a flurry of antitrust lawsuits that could've ensnared the NBA in a lengthy and potentially season-killing legal fight. Never before had the league been in such grave danger of losing an entire season to a labor dispute.

The shenanigans and cultural phenomena that turned this lockout into one of the most scrutinized, rambunctious, exhausting and bitter legal disputes in pro sports history had been promptly put aside on Nov. 14 -- 4½ months into the fiasco marked by nearly 200 hours of negotiating.

The absurdity and bargaining both came to a screeching halt that day when the National Basketball Players Association dissolved in the face of a labor impasse for the first time in its more than half-century history. The characters -- union president Derek Fisher with his earnest attempts at diplomacy; Roger Mason with his infamous "how u" tweet; commissioner David Stern with his ultimatums; and union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler with his fiery rhetoric and conspiracy theories -- also changed.

Into the vacuum created by the NBPA's disclaimer of interest stepped superstar trial lawyer David Boies and partner Jonathan Schiller, with longtime NBA outside counsel Jeffrey Mishkin, general counsel Rick Buchanan and former government official Paul Clement on the league side. Jim Quinn, the former NBPA outside counsel who was a key figure in ending the 1998-99 lockout, also assumed a leading role for the players -- bringing his reasoned, deal-making abilities and long-standing relationships with all parties involved to the table in place of Kessler's tempestuous rancor.

It was the lawyers' show now, a disconcerting fact with a highly uncertain outcome that may have done more to shake both parties back to reality than any ultimatums, threats or grandstanding news conferences had done. This being the lockout of the macabre, not even the fairly mundane task of filing a lawsuit would go off without a hitch.

The players initially filed two antitrust actions -- one in California and another in Minnesota -- only to later pull the California case and combine it with a refiled action in Minnesota.

Chaos -- the very outcome that federal mediator George Cohen had tried to avoid during cameo appearances overseeing the talks in October -- now reigned supreme. How the two sides got to this point was the stuff of cruel parody, an excruciatingly slow dance of fruitless, 15-hour bargaining sessions, hotel celebrity sightings, media pizza boxes strewn in lobbies all over Manhattan and other vicissitudes that needed to be experienced to be believed.

After another of these torturous bargaining sessions deep into the night of Nov. 6, Stern delivered an ultimatum to the players: Accept a 50-50 BRI split with a soft cap, guaranteed contracts, a compromised mid-level exception and other restrictions on tax-paying teams -- or receive a far worse deal at 5 p.m. ET on Nov. 9. That deal would include a 47 percent share for the players, a hard cap and a rollback of existing contracts among a litany of poison pills the players previously had successfully avoided in negotiations. On Nov. 8, the players held a news conference announcing that the league's latest offer was unacceptable and that they were requesting an additional bargaining session before the league's deadline.

But the union changed the dynamics of the talks by indicating that they were amenable to a 50-50 split of revenues -- the target the league had been seeking for at least a month, and one that would shift approximately $3 billion from players to owners over 10 years compared to the previous 57 percent share the players previously received.

The players' meeting was marked by the latest, and by far most impressive, celebrity sighting of a lockout filled with them. After reporters loitering in and around various hotel lobbies had stumbled upon the likes of Bill Murray, Larry King, Mario Cuomo, Troy Aikman, Tiki Barber, Gregg Popovich, John McEnroe, Ron Perelman, Carmelo Anthony in a Halloween costume, and Boies -- who eventually would end up representing the players in their antitrust action -- they were treated on Nov. 8 to former President Bill Clinton. In town to plug his new book, Clinton (followed closely by daughter Chelsea) sauntered through the lobby of the Sheraton on Seventh Avenue as reporters milled in the lobby. Later, Clinton appeared outside a downstairs conference room, hugged fellow Arkansan Fisher and handed out copies of his book -- coincidentally titled, "Back to Work."

"I hope it gets worked out soon, because we all want to see basketball," Clinton said.

So when the two sides reconvened the next day with hope a deal could be reached on a handful of unresolved system issues, optimism permeated the discussions. It wasn't the first, or the last time that the owners and players had seemed so close to a deal, only to have the talks implode. Similarly, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on Oct. 28, shortly after a dinner break that formed a buffer between discussions about system issues and BRI, union head Billy Hunter walked out of the talks when it became apparent the owners were unwilling to move from their standing offer of 50 percent.

In fact, Hunter said, the owners moved all right -- back to their previous offer to the players of 47 percent. Reporters who'd been told by Stern hours before the meeting -- in a 4 a.m. ET news conference after another all-night bargaining session -- that he was prepared to make an economic move, had been "snookered," Hunter said.

What ensued was a predictable shattering of what little civility remained between the two sides. Heat owner Micky Arison was fined a reported $500,000 by the league for tweeting about the lockout, including a response to an angry fan that he was "barking at the wrong owner." The exchanged revealed what union officials had long suspected: a divide among big-market owners of high-revenue teams -- such as Arison, James Dolan and Jerry Buss -- and their far more numerous small- and mid-market partners.

The players, too, began to unravel. Players began to tweet that the union should just make a deal so they could go back to work, and behind the scenes, Boston's Paul Pierce helped organize two conference calls involving a total of about 50 players to discuss the option of decertifying the union with an antitrust attorney. Pierce is represented by agent Jeff Schwartz, who had been among the most vocal in a group of seven agents displeased with union leadership and clamoring to decertify. The players later reportedly had as many as 200 players prepared to sign decertification petitions -- a move that was rendered moot by the union's disclaimer, which came on Nov. 14 after the players rejected the owners' latest ultimatum and decided to take their fight to the courts.

The issues alternated between the split of revenues and so-called "system issues," the rules governing team payrolls, player contracts and trades -- particularly for the handful of big-spending teams that were above the luxury tax level.

The level of discontent over such seemingly routine issues as mid-level contracts, the rookie scale and the tax system itself was surprising, considering that for nearly two months the sides were basically on the same page in terms of the BRI split -- the most important aspect of a new agreement. Even as their lawyers convened Friday, the two sides still essentially were where they were during a key moment in the negotiations more than seven weeks earlier.

On Oct. 4 at the Westin Times Square, high-rankings officials from both sides convened for a private hallway conversation in an effort to bridge the economic gap. At the time, the owners were offering the players 47 percent, while the players were digging in for 53. In the conversation involving superstars Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Pierce, the two sides exchanged concepts for a band the players would receive based on overall revenues. They gave conflicting accounts later of what concepts were exchanged, but sources have said the owners were offering the players a band of 49-51 percent, while the players countered with 51-53.

The talks blew up with each side blaming the other, and yielded one of the many whimsical, entertaining moments of the lockout in the league's news conference afterward. Stern and Adam Silver had characterized the league's offer as a 50-50 split -- a portrayal union sources rejected as inaccurate. Afterward, when asked if the league was formally offering 50 percent or was back at its previous formal position of a 47 percent share for the players, Stern said, "Back, schmack. ... We're ready to meet and discuss any subject anyone wants to talk about."

The "back, schmack" comment -- though it came at a demoralizing moment of the talks -- became one of the catch phrases of a lockout that received far more thorough, detailed and determined media coverage than in 1998-99. The negotiations, covered minute-by-minute on Twitter by reporters staking out the various Manhattan hotels where the talks took place, took on a life of their own -- creating their own pop-culture niche that ranged from soap opera to sitcom to reality TV, depending on the mood and the hour of the day or night.

After the negotiations broke down again Oct. 10 and Stern announced the canceling of the first two weeks of the regular season, a chaotic scene ensued outside the Lowell Hotel on 63rd Street shortly after 11 p.m. ET. After reporters and cameramen jostled for position in various interview scrums on the sidewalk, two cameramen/sound technicians infamously squared off in the street -- a pathetic pose-fest in which barely a punch was thrown. That didn't stop the cell-phone video from making the rounds on YouTube and gaining nearly 100,000 views.

A month earlier, an accidental tweet from Mason, a member of the players' executive committee, once again proved that this labor dispute was like none other in NBA history. Mason mistakenly published a public tweet during a bargaining session he wasn't even attending at the Palace Hotel near St. Patrick's Cathedral: "Lookin like a season. how u." The evidently optimistic words from a person involved at the highest levels of bargaining immediately spawned speculation that the lockout was coming to an end. Mason quickly tweeted that his phone had been hacked, a story he subsequently admitted was not true. (Evidently, he'd been trying to direct-message or text a friend, and the message was published to all his followers.)

And it wasn't the last time an NBA player tweeted a false alarm about the lockout ending. Not surprisingly, the next episode came courtesy of one of basketball's most peculiar and controversial figures, the artist formerly known as Ron Artest. Artest, infamous for his 73-game suspension related to the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004, had recently legally changed his name to Metta World Peace. Under that Twitter name, Artest tweeted, "Yay no lock out" during the aforementioned notable bargaining session on Oct. 4 at the Westin. Artest, of course, was not in the bargaining session and had no idea what was going on. Artest followed up with, "Go to ronartest.com for breaking lock out news!!!! I love basketball I can't wait to play!!!" Before that half-hour news cycle was over, Artest tweeted his mea culpa: psych, he was just kidding.

Players weren't the only ones venturing into the tangled social media web of this lockout. After media reports indicated Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert was one of the hard-line owners standing in the way of a deal, Gilbert ridiculed the reports as being made up by what he called "bloggissists." Within hours, someone created a Twitter account by that name and proceeded to unleash intermittent tirades against owners in general and Gilbert in particular.

Fun times -- and we haven't even gotten to events at the Waldorf in late October. That's when reporters on another marathon bargaining stakeout witnessed prostitutes clicking their heels through the lobby with guests in the middle of the night, tweeted about each others' daring forays into 14-hour-old mutant pizza and incongruously saw Betty White scurrying out of the hotel at 5 a.m. -- starting her day before the writers' day had even ended, and before the pizza boxes had been swept off Waldorf's iconic marble floor.

Indeed, the copious lockout hijinks weren't limited to social media. On Sept. 27 during a seemingly important bargaining session at the Lowell on 63rd, I concluded that the talks needed a dose of humor -- not to mention chocolate icing. On my way to Manhattan, I stopped at Stork's bakery in Whitestone, Queens, and procured a round chocolate cake. After instructing a perplexed woman behind the counter to write on it, "Please Split 50-50," I delivered my gift to the lead negotiators for both sides -- via the hotel doorman, who cheerfully accepted my $5 tip. Little did I know that the subliminal BRI split written on that cake would become the eventual landing spot of the negotiations -- or that once the batter and filling of the deal were decided, it would take nearly another two months to apply the icing. I never found out what happened to that cake after it got to the room.

And it wasn't until Black Friday in the heart of Manhattan's shopping district, on the ultimate day to find a deal, that I learned the ultimate outcome of my sugary suggestion. In any event, now we can finally say -- without pretense or excuse about being hacked, just plain crazy or delirious from nearly 200 hours of hotel stakeouts -- the words you've been waiting to hear for real.

"Lookin like a season. how u."


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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