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NBA OWNERS BLINKED - NOW IT'S UP TO THE PLAYERS

UNTIL THE BREAKTHROUGH late Tuesday night, the chances of having an NBA season this year weren't good. But just before midnight (EDT), the NBA and its players union announced an agreement. The day had been saved. The season would go on, pending approval of the union, which must vote in a few weeks whether to accept the deal or decertify.

The announcement was the first good news on the NBA labor front in weeks. For most of this summer, life in the NBA looked like the set of "Waterworld" - a makeshift ship adrift at sea, looking for land with little hope of finding it. It wasn't a league with a union and reasonable people making mutually beneficial decisions. It was an unorganized smattering of miscreants looking out for their own best interests; an uncertain world populated by roguish agents and mutinous players who promised the good life for all - if only anarchy was allowed to reign.It has been a summer in which it's been hard to even identify who was fighting whom in the first place. Now how did it go? Was it the owners against the union? The union against Michael Jordan and the agents? MJ and the agents against the owners?

Had the union and league been unable to work out a deal Tuesday, the matter would have eventually been turned over to the courts. The union would have decertified and the lockout would have remained in place. The NBA heirarchy was banking on the likelihood that there is no legal precedence that says a business has to stay open if it doesn't want to. Without a union to bargain with, the NBA was going to take its basketball and go home.

But the agents claimed the courts would force the owners to allow games to be played, on grounds that they violated antitrust laws.

And so the stage for a protracted court battle was set.

The agreement may have done more than save the season. It probably saved the lives of small market teams such as the Jazz. With no labor agreement and no salary cap restrictions, players could offer their services to the highest bidder. Thus, the superstars would be able to command many times more than they already do. The small market teams, unless they have an owner worth billions - such as Portland - would be unable to compete for the best talent. The best players would play in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and a handful of other mega-markets.

In a unionless world, Karl Malone could command three times what he's making for the Jazz. Theoretically, he could also demand a Lear jet to fly him and his family to games, Sundays and holidays off.

The other side of the totally free market system is that you may have found Jamie Watson playing for $40,000 a year and taking a train to road games.

Ensuring team unity would be another matter.

As it now stands, the future of the NBA is still somewhat uncertain. Though the agreement has been struck, the six-year deal must be ratified by the union. And there's still the chance of decertification.

Even though the new deal eliminates the possibility of a luxury tax, provides a $1 million salary cap exception to sign free agents and allows teams to use 50 percent of an injured player's salary to sign another player, Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer representing Jordan and the dissident players, insisted the second agreement is still "too good for the owners at a time when the Knicks are charging $1,000 a seat."

Despite Kessler's rhetoric, the new deal gave the players virtually everthing they wanted. It was as lopsided as a communist election. The players got all the above concessions and the owners got a few bones tossed to them such as a rookie salary cap, the chance to reopen the contract in three years and . . . um . . . well . . . the go-ahead to open their doors for business this year.

So now that the owners have blinked, it's a matter of the players deciding whether to screw up the season or go play. They can show the fans they truly want to play basketball or they can follow Jordan and the agents. Any further delays and fans can surmise that basketball is just another verse in an old song of greed and accusations.

Barring an outbreak of dementia, the NBA will be back in business this November. "I Love this Game!" will again ring out. And wins and losses will actually be decided on the courts, not in them.