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Steve Aschburner

Little wiggle room as sides meet again on Thursday

Posted Sep 22 2011 7:03AM

NEW YORK -- By this point in 1998, the last time the NBA lost a summer to a lockout, the first game of the preseason (Miami Heat vs. Maccabi Elite of Israel) had been toast for nearly two weeks.

Twelve days before training camps were due to open that autumn and 19 days before other teams made their preseason debuts, the league whacked 24 more games and postponed indefinitely the start of camps.

That year, camps were supposed to open on Oct. 6. This year, the date is Oct. 4 (media days are set for Oct. 3). So back up 12 days from there and you're at ... Sept. 22.

As in: Now.

Little wiggle room remains for the NBA owners and players to reach a collective bargaining agreement and end the lockout before it officially does damage -- financial and otherwise -- to the schedule, the preparation of teams, the preseason revenues in NBA and non-NBA cities alike and whatever momentum and good will remains from the juggernaut 2010-11 season.

Wiggle room? Fact is, there's so little now that people are starting to squirm.

After the Board of Governors meeting last week in Dallas, NBA commissioner David Stern was asked about the deadline faced by owners and players alike in resolving this labor dispute. "The clock is ticking, but it hasn't struck midnight yet," Stern said. "We have time to do what has to be done, and we'd like to do it, actually."

Six midnights have come and gone since then. Nearly a week passed before staff representatives of both sides met Wednesday in New York, with a gathering of heavier hitters set for Thursday at a different Manhattan location.

This one is a return to the small-group sessions that sparked a glimmer of optimism earlier this month: Stern, deputy commissioner Adam Silver and San Antonio's Peter Holt, head of the labor-relations committee, attending for the owners. Union executive director Billy Hunter, president Derek Fisher, attorneys Jeffrey Kessler and Ron Klempner and economist Kevin Murphy will also be in the room, with perhaps a few others.

But time is getting impractically tight. Factor in the dotting of i's and crossing of t's that would be necessary even after the guts of an agreement is in place -- and some reasonable period for free agency -- and it seems inevitable that chunks of October already are lost. Media days, initial practices and early preseason games in NBA cities can be scrunched, maybe, with refunds credited and postponements finessed. But the Los Angeles Lakers are scheduled to face Golden State at Save Mart Center at Fresno (Calif.) State on Oct. 9. The next day, Philadelphia and Boston are booked into the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, R.I.

Seventeen or 18 days away? It's inconceivable that those events will come off as planned.

Other non-NBA cities due to lose visits in the first week -- with teams due to lose marketing opportunities to extend their brands to neutral sites -- include Grand Rapids, Mich.; Ontario, Calif.; Trenton, Albany and Kansas City.

If the second week of preseason games gets altered, Wichita, Vancouver, Amherst, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Sioux Falls, Anaheim, Tulsa, Las Vegas, Canton, Green Bay, Fargo and Hartford all could suffer, disappointing and perhaps alienating even more fans in cities where NBA support doesn't come naturally.

Only October? Meaningless practice games? That's mostly true. The NBA did fine with a truncated preseason in January 1999, when it squeezed everything into a couple of weeks -- and a pair of tuneup games per franchise -- in advance of a post-lockout 50-game regular season.

But think of baseball shutting down spring training in Florida and Arizona. Those games do have some value, both to prepare teams and coaches and to whet fans' appetites.

Canceling preseason games also is just another step toward zapping real games. The 2011-12 season is set to open on Nov. 1, two days earlier than in 1998. The NBA got within 20 days of that date -- Nov. 3, 1998 -- before wiping out the first two weeks of the regular season.

The corresponding date this year would be Oct. 11.

That presumably is real midnight for the NBA this offseason, one more off than most.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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