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After almost failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, the owners and players struck a last-minute deal that will yield a 66-game schedule starting on Christmas Day, at least six years of labor peace—and maybe a more wide-open race for the championship

After more than 50 negotiating sessions lasting more than 300 hours and spanning more than two years, the leaders of the NBA and the players association sat in their respective conference rooms at a midtown Manhattan law firm at 2:30 a.m. last Saturday with nothing left to talk about. "That was the darkest moment," says commissioner David Stern. "We were almost at the conclusion that this wasn't going to work. We weren't going to be able to make a deal." Deputy commissioner Adam Silver likes to compare collective bargaining to mutually assured destruction: Two sides point nuclear missiles at each other; if one fires, the other fires back immediately and both are destroyed. The owners and players were ready to detonate the 2011--12 season.

"We'd reached our limit," Silver says. "Everyone knew that if we broke off, it was very unlikely we'd have a season. There was one last chance for each side to make a move." On the 149th day of the NBA lockout, in the 15th hour of the climactic meeting, Stern walked out of the owners' room and into the players'. Longtime union director Billy Hunter walked out of the players' room and into the owners'. Small groups gathered in a hallway. The sides eventually met at one table, and instead of prattling on about the luxury tax and the midlevel exception, they discussed the good of the game.

The tone of the conversation was amicable yet somber. They discussed the ramifications of a wasted season in a period of economic turmoil, how it would affect not only the players and the franchises but also the fans and the arena workers. "It was going to be a farewell session if we couldn't do better, if each of us couldn't do better," Stern says. "We had to keep at it. We couldn't leave." Then they returned to the matter of dividing the $4 billion pie that is the NBA. Quickly they hopscotched through the few remaining obstacles, speaking in a kind of shorthand honed over the past two-plus years, churning as if the Bulls' defense were in pursuit. Less than 30 minutes later they had a tentative collective bargaining agreement.

Stern went home to sleep. Silver walked his Labrador retriever, Eydie, in the dark on the Upper West Side. And a few hours later, in Midwest City, Okla., Clippers power forward Blake Griffin woke up early, drove to a high school gym and started hoisting jumpers. Griffin and his peers have been as accessible as street performers with all their pickup games, charity showcases and international adventures, but it is about time to return to the cushy training facilities. On Sunday, Griffin flew to Los Angeles, and as he walked to his car after a photo shoot in Manhattan Beach, he looked as if he might jump over the hood again, as he did to win the Slam Dunk Contest. "I saw Space Jam recently, and that's exactly how I feel," Griffin says, referring to an animated movie released 15 years ago in which NBA stars have their talents captured by aliens and then returned to them by a benevolent Michael Jordan (before he became owner of the Bobcats, obviously).

Last season was one of the most captivating since the Jordan era, with Griffin hurdling sedans, Derrick Rose rupturing ankles, Kevin Durant beaming en route to a second straight scoring title and Dirk Nowitzki splashing one-legged fadeaways—not to mention the villains in Miami, the redeemers in Oklahoma City and the castoffs in Memphis. The NBA and its players recaptured a legion of alienated fans, as evidenced by spiked TV ratings, only to offend them all over again with a work stoppage during a recession, a lockout that featured 24 fruitless bargaining sessions and a pair of antitrust lawsuits. Thanks to 30 minutes of good sense early Saturday morning, and an agreement that should be ratified by players and owners this week, training camps will open on Dec. 9, a 66-game season will tip off on Christmas Day, and the term basketball-related income will be retired for at least six years, when either side can opt out of the new 10-year CBA.

Debates about the Carmelo Anthony rule will turn into debates about Carmelo Anthony and whether he can turn the Knicks into a contender; how the aging Celtics will survive back-to-back-to-back games as part of the compressed schedule; who will lead the Lakers' group meditations with Phil Jackson retired in Montana; and where Dwight Howard and Chris Paul are going to play next year. Since casual fans generally don't follow the NBA before Christmas, USC sports business professor David Carter does not expect any great revolt over a season briefer than the usual 82 games. Some observers may actually prefer an abridged schedule. But before we get to the matter of LeBron James in the fourth quarter, one final lockout question persists: The NBA and its players spent five months flirting with a basketball apocalypse. Was it worth it?

Beyond handshakes and a few hugs, neither side celebrated the agreement. Spurs owner Peter Holt, chairman of the labor relations committee, smiled at the press conference. Lakers point guard and union president Derek Fisher, meanwhile, looked as if Jason Terry had just buried a three-pointer in his face. The players are giving nearly $300 million per year of salary back to the owners, who claimed they were annually hemorrhaging that much. If there were a scoreboard at the office of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, where the decisive meeting took place, it would have shown the league comfortably ahead, though not by as large a margin as some owners wanted.

Of course, the financial welfare of owners is germane only as it relates to the health of the league. Stern has long been an advocate for small markets, proud that the NBA took up residence in outposts other major sports did not: Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Memphis. He wants the NBA Finals to be like the Super Bowl, where a team from New Orleans can play a team from Indianapolis, and no one bemoans the lack of interest. In recent years small-market owners have been complaining more and more that they were marginalized, and Stern listened—as he watched five straight Finals in which the champion exceeded the salary cap, happy to pay the dollar-for-dollar luxury tax in exchange for a Larry O'Brien Trophy. "That's why this was an important time to set a couple of things straight," Stern says. As the lockout wore on, he could gauge fan discontent by the number of horns honking at him on the streets of Manhattan.

NBA executives, who are not authorized to comment publicly about the new CBA because it hasn't been ratified yet, disagree on just how much it will boost small-market franchises. But all those who spoke to SI acknowledge it will help to some degree. Small-market owners will have more money to spend because of not only the CBA but also a new revenue-sharing plan near completion that will create three to four times more cash flow than the old arrangement. The owners won't be allowed to hoard their new bounty, either, because they will be mandated to use at least 85% of the salary cap. At the opposite end of the economic spectrum, the luxury tax will be raised in the third year by 50%, with escalators kicking in for teams more than $5 million over the cap and further penalties for repeat offenders. (Teams can create wiggle room by taking advantage of an amnesty clause that allows each club to release one player, whose salary will no longer count against the cap.) Executives project that some clubs will still absorb the tax, but not as many. The disparity in payroll—$90.4 million for the Lakers last season, $44.9 million for the Kings—should shrink.

Marquee players could still band together, as three did last season in Miami, but they will have more incentive to stay where they are, as teams can offer their own players a 7.5% raise over five years as opposed to the 4.5% raise over four years they can give an opposing team's player. Stars remain the most valuable commodity in this most stratified sport, though they are now followed by enterprising general managers who can unearth successful second-round picks or bargain free agents, either to contribute immediately or marinate in a Development League affiliate. The age of the $7 million reserve is over. Clubs will scour for reinforcements like undrafted guard Gary Neal, who averaged 9.8 points for the Spurs last season on a $565,000 contract, in order to stay under the cap. Some front offices spent the lockout incorporating more analytics into their evaluation process to brace for the future. "It's nothing anybody can see when they get back on the court, but we will be a better league over time," Stern says. "The league will be stronger and our fans will like us better if they feel the competition is better."

In 10 years perhaps the Cavaliers and the Timberwolves will meet in the Finals, on the strength of their scouting and development departments. But the Lakers and the Heat are still a much safer bet, for their allure to free agents. "We've had good parity for a long time," says former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik, now an ESPN labor analyst. "This will give everybody a pretty fair chance. But I don't think anything will change that dramatically." Games featured this Christmas include the blockbuster regulars: Celtics-Knicks, Bulls-Lakers and Heat-Mavericks, where James will have to watch Mark Cuban accept his championship ring.

What follows the opening extravaganza may not be as viewer friendly. After the 1998--99 lockout, which cut the season to 50 games in 89 days, players reported out of shape, coaches rushed through training camp, and Charles Barkley proclaimed, "I don't even want to have sex three days in a row," much less play that many games. Teams averaged the fewest points since the inclusion of the shot clock. "It wasn't high-quality basketball," says ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who coached the Knicks to the '99 Finals, despite finishing the regular season four games over .500. "Let's hope it's a lot better than it was then."

Players who fled overseas will exercise opt-out clauses—or, in the case of guard J.R. Smith, power forward Kenyon Martin and five other players who decided to play in China, kick themselves for failing to procure one, which will keep them overseas until at least February. Those who have grown accustomed to the pick-up circuit will have to get reacquainted with defense. Training camp will last only two weeks, coinciding with the free agency period, so rosters will be changing and coalescing at the same time. "It's going to be a huge rush," says agent Tony Dutt. "You could have a guy sign with a new team, and the next day is opening night." Voting for the Feb. 26 All-Star Game in Orlando will have to begin soon thereafter. The whole season will feel like a Russell Westbrook breakaway, exciting and a little out of control.

But when you consider the outlook in the conference rooms at 2:30 a.m. last Saturday, there was no brighter alternative. Details remain to be worked out—including drug testing and an age limit—but the lawyers and economists are headed back to their offices. The ushers and concessionaires are headed back to their arenas. Blake Griffin is headed back to space.




Photograph by GREG NELSON

UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN The opening-day slate on Dec. 25 will include a rematch of the 2011 Finals, in which Dirk Nowitzki lifted the Mavs to a six-game victory over the Heat.



A DEAL BEFORE DAWN Stern (right) got the players to give up $300 million per season—or what the owners claimed they were losing—while Hunter kept his troops from missing another paycheck.



FAMILIAR STUFF Once the agreement is finalized, Durant (35) can report to work and pick up where he left off: trying to lead the Thunder to a title and to win a third straight scoring crown.



BACK TO THEIR DAY JOBS The new deal meant the end of LeBron's barnstorming games (above) and Williams's career in Turkey (center), though Smith (23) will likely have to stay in China.



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