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Steve Aschbruner

Opening day on Christmas would be great gift for fans

Posted Nov 23 2011 8:32PM - Updated Nov 24 2011 8:07AM's Labor Central

There's nothing magical about Dec. 26 -- might as well be Jan. 11 or Feb. 5. As the song says, you get 12 drummers, 11 pipers, 10 lords and so on, but there's no 13 of nothin'. And no one slaps "Do Not Open Till After Christmas" stickers on the packages under their tree.

There's Christmas and then there's every other day, at least for vast numbers of the U.S. populace who celebrate the holiday religiously, secularly or both. And frankly, it's that way for the NBA too, which traditionally has used Christmas as its coming-out celebration of another season of basketball tastiness.

With a slate of three, four or five intriguing games and an audience eager for leisure viewing once the AA batteries are dead and that same fruitcake is handed off for another year, the NBA has made Christmas a special event on its schedule.

It is the day that national broadcast TV coverage (now ABC) begins, with cable outlets ESPN and TNT staying busy on the holiday as well. The NFL's plotlines usually are winding down, its regular season nearing completion, while the NBA's stories and standings have had about eight weeks to take shape. If pitchers and catchers reporting is the start of baseball's rebirth each February, Christmas is the NBA's way of making merry and revving up, both at the same time. Whether Stan Van Gundy likes it or not.

Until now.

The NBA on Christmas is in jeopardy, with the possibility of no games for only the third time since the league began and the second time since 1947 (the league's second season). The culprit this time, as it was in 1999, would be a protracted labor dispute. Thirteen years ago, the lockout stretched from July 1, 1998, all the way to Jan. 6, 1999, taking Christmas and 464 games in all before NBA salvaged a 50-game season that began on Feb. 5.

No one was happy with the late start, no one was happy with the shortened schedule and no one -- not even Phil Jackson, who was going to get a yuletide break anyway during his sabbatical between the Bulls and the Lakers jobs -- was happy with the lost Christmas.

That explained the flurry of activity that began Tuesday, as first cited by Yahoo! Sports, and continued Wednesday as reported by multiple outlets.

Settlement talks of the players' antitrust lawsuit filed against the NBA last week had begun and, however cursory they might have been, the potential for significant progress and a swift resolution to the lengthy lockout (146 days) provided at least a glimmer of hope that a shortened 2011-12 season might save Christmas for the league. Save it? It might even turn Santa's big day into the NBA's opening night.

NBA commissioner David Stern has said repeatedly that the league would need 30 days from a handshake deal to tipoff of a regular season, not only to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement but to prepare for the business of basketball (free agency, training camps, a possible "preseason" game or two). That would suggest a deadline of Friday, Nov. 25, for Christmas to remain in play.

But a source close to the settlement talks told the turnaround time "theoretically" could be tightened by several days. Technically, the players' antitrust litigation that otherwise is set to begin next month in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis would have to be resolved out of court. An agreement would provide a framework for a new CBA between the owners and a re-formed union.

In a statement to the media Wednesday, players' attorney Jonathan Schiller -- working with David Boies, who has had the more public role so far -- confirmed that "there would be preliminary settlement discussions with the NBA immediately after Thanksgiving." The talks are believed to be building on the bones of the deal last offered by the NBA before collective bargaining broke down Nov. 14.

Ideally, a wishbone.

The NBA, which has limited its public comments since shortly after the players' decision to dissolve their union and sue the league, said through a spokesman Wednesday that it "remains in favor of a negotiated resolution" but declined to comment further.

Getting a season under way by Christmas could tap into some warm-fuzzies of the holiday, with a festive (and forgiving?) public perhaps giving in to curiosity about the top teams and brightest stars.

Sooner would be better than later, too, if the owners and players want to salvage as many games as possible -- and keep the "2011" in their 2011-12 season. The New York Times reported that, if the schedule began on Christmas, a 66-game schedule could be played. That would mean more revenue for the teams, more paydays for the players. By Dec. 25 last year, most teams already had played 28-32 games; this way, only 16 per team would be flushed by the lockout.

A hypothetical breakdown of a 66-game schedule provided by's John Schuhmann shows that each team could face its division opponents four times (16) and play the other 25 teams twice. That would get every opponent into every arena at least, keeping Miami, Dallas, the Lakers and others as big gate attractions.

Also, depending on when the NBA would complete the regular season (with a tighter first-round playoff schedule), the fill-in scheduling might not be too grueling for players or fans. Schuhmann calculated that if the season ran until April 25 -- basically a week longer than usual, similar to what was proposed for a 72-game season beginning Dec. 15 -- teams would average 3.92 games per week with All-Star Weekend left intact. If the All-Star Weekend were canceled (that was the case in 1999), the pace of games would be 3.79 per week.

Push the season finales back to May 2 (in 1999, the season ended May 5) and those per-week rates drop to 3.7 and 3.58, with or without All-Star Weekend. A normal NBA season has teams averaging 3.46 games per week. In 1999, they squeezed in 3.89 per week.

All of which might be getting ahead of the process. If the owners and the players can't find compromise on the system issues that caused the breakdown and litigation in the first place -- squabbles over the "mini" mid-level exceptions, sign-and-trade rights, "repeat offender" luxury taxes, D-League send-downs and so on -- Christmas might wind up as a day of socks and underwear inside that pretty paper after all.

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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