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Ball now in their court

The National Hockey League's mind-numbing reality has become the National Basketball Association's new nightmare.

It seems unfathomable in light of the NHL's near-suicidal labor impasse that another professional sports league would even contemplate wandering down that path, but here we are. Talks broke off between NBA owners and the Players' Association yesterday, and that means a lockout looms.

In fact, people I talked with yesterday are quite certain that on midnight, June 30, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires, owners will barricade their doors and instruct their players to enjoy their summer.

"I'd be stunned if anything different from that occurs," offered one general manager before it was announced that talks had broken down.

"We're already thinking up contingency plans for when they cancel the summer leagues," added another GM. "We've got to tell our players now how to prepare for summer before we're not allowed to talk to them anymore."

Obviously a lockout is not the same as canceling the season, as the NHL did in an unprecedented act of idiocy. The NBA's issues are not nearly as pressing or as dire, and if the hoop bosses have learned anything from the puckheads, it's that if you shut down for too long, people forget to miss you.

Professional hockey is on life support; conversely, the NBA continues to market itself in so many ways, it makes you dizzy. Say this for commissioner David Stern: He has vision. He pounced on the power of the Internet years ahead of the pack. He looked to Europe, Asia, and Africa, and saw opportunities for his sport that have come to fruition. He has negotiated lucrative television deals with four networks during his tenure. You don't hear anyone from ESPN threatening to replace NBA telecasts with celebrity poker, which has proven to be a better ratings-grabber than those NHL games ESPN used to feature.

Stern does not have to guard against multiple franchises in danger of going under if the economic structure doesn't change, as his former deputy commissioner, Gary Bettman, does in the NHL. Stern hardly has to fret over his sport becoming too regional; in fact, he keeps pushing the envelope on going global.

I will be stunned if the NBA reaches the depths of its winter counterparts. Stern won't let that happen.

Of course, neither Stern nor union head Billy Hunter should allow this lockout to occur. It's bad business at a time when sports fans' patience is wearing thin when it comes to labor strife.

Deputy commissioner Russ Granik said no further talks are planned before the contract expires. Why not? Hey fellas, you have between now and June 30 to avoid a huge public relations nightmare. Put that time to good use. You both have offices in New York. Find a park bench at lunchtime and hammer out a deal.

The issue that has generated the most publicity is Stern's insistence that the minimum age of NBA players be raised from 18 to 20 years old. (Did I mention that although he's a visionary, he is a particularly stubborn one at times?) This is hardly the stumbling block in negotiations. Team and league sources tell me both sides will, when it's all said and done, settle on pushing the age limit up to 19, which won't change how kids do business all that much. Many of the high school kids who jump to the pros are already almost 19 anyway. Those who aren't will either hide out at a major college or a prep school for a year, then jump aboard the NBA gravy train.

Among the more difficult sticking points is a push from owners for a five-year maximum contract, as opposed to the seven-year maximum that exists now. Owners also want to modify the language of the midlevel exception. Currently, teams using the midlevel exception can bump the contract up 10 percent each season if they sign a new free agent, or 12.5 percent if they re-sign one of their own players. Wyc Grousbeck and the gang want to greatly reduce those increases. Some small-market owners were proposing increases as low as 3 to 5 percent.

Naturally, the union doesn't want to do anything that will limit the players' earning potential. They're singing the same old melody that accompanies every labor dispute: Why can't the owners police themselves and demonstrate fiscal responsibility? Why should we be forced to protect them from themselves?

They have a point. It's not Mark Blount's fault the Celtics vastly overpaid him to be a passive spectator in the final games of their first-round playoff exit. That decision lies at the feet of Danny Ainge and the Celtics' owners. Nobody told them to pay Blount $60 million; they came to that conclusion on their own. (By the way, count me among those who believe Blount is not a completely lost cause, but that's another column for another day.)

In announcing the talks had broken off last night, Granik accused Hunter of backing off from concessions he had made in earlier meetings. You can be sure Hunter will answer with guns blazing in the days ahead.

For those scoring at home, the major players in this labor dispute are nearly the same as in 1998-99, when the NBA locked out its players, missed its traditional November starting date, then played a shortened season when play resumed in January.

The climate, however, is vastly different. The last time the NBA locked out its players, owners faced a formidable opponent in the form of agents David Falk and Arn Tellem, who represented some of the most influential players in the game, including Michael Jordan, Alonzo Mourning, and Players' Association president Patrick Ewing.

Falk and Tellem have since been bought out by SFX Sports and no longer play a prominent role in the NBA. Jordan and Ewing have retired, and while Mourning has made a dramatic return from a kidney disease, he no longer makes the big money he once did. In fact, he looks like a midlevel exception guy.

The NBA owners simply don't feel quite as threatened as they did in 1998-99. They're betting they can wait this one out, and they're willing to risk some nasty public fallout in the form of a lockout while they do. Does that spell doom for the NBA? The guess here is no. There's a long time between now and October, when training camp is set to start. None of the issues on the table are significant enough to blow up a whole year of action, or even part of it.

The NBA will open its 2005-06 season on time. Count on it. Although Stern recently declared, "We don't need to look at hockey as an example" of the pitfalls of labor wars, we know better.

Nobody else could possibly want to look that dumb.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is

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