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If players in the National Basketball Association reject the latest agreement reached before the stroke of midnight Tuesday, they will show clearly where their loyalties lie.

And it won't be with the fans, nor with the integrity of the game.Athletes often are stereotyped as possessing great physical strength and little mental acumen. It's an unfair assessment. But make no mistake. If NBA players vote against the latest deal agreed to by the league and its union, it will be because of excessive greed and ingratitude, not a lack of intelligence. The deal doesn't require an advanced degree to appreciate.

It would nearly double the average player's salary over six years, from the current $1.7 million to about $3 million. It would raise each team's salary cap from $15 million to $24 million in the first year, but the number of exceptions it allows to that cap makes it about as airtight as a block of Swiss cheese.

Among the exceptions: players who have been with the same team for two years would be allowed to re-sign at double their salary.

The agreement does impose a rookie salary cap, which limits each new player to the average wage earned for everyone picked in the same spot in the draft over the previous seven years - plus 20 percent. But it does away with the so-called luxury tax, which would have penalized teams that exceeded the salary cap.

In other words, this is a deal that turns baskets into gold. It allows grown men to become financially independent by bouncing balls, exercising and competing - three things a lot of people do for free, just for fun.

It's doubtful any worker in the world would reject such terms. Most would gladly accept half of what the average player makes currently. That's what makes the statements by Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer representing 16 superstars who want to disband the union, so disturbing. He said the latest terms still are too good for the owners.

True, team owners are making more than ever off of their NBA franchises. Players are making more than ever, as well. But Kessler and a handful of superstars and their agents have forgotten about the loyal fans.

For them, pro basketball is measured in the expense column.

For them, ticket prices ranging from about $50 per game for a decent seat in Utah to $1,000 in New York City do not engender feelings of sympathy toward players who want more.

The players are scheduled to vote on the latest deal on Aug. 30 and Sept. 7. If they reject it, they also will decertify their union, and the 1995-96 season likely will be postponed or canceled.

In Utah, that would mean a loss of revenue for Larry Miller, who still has obligations to retire debt on the Delta Center. But it also would mean a loss of jobs for concessionaires and other support industries. And it would mean a temporary loss of collective statewide pride in the Jazz, whose games provide an important diversion in many stressful lives.

While basketball is just a game, the NBA's scope and influence go far beyond the court. But the enormous goodwill now enjoyed by the league can be easily and quickly squandered by a misstep now.

The league and the union are to be commended for coming to terms in time to save the season. Surely the players, who could become wealthy for life under this new agreement, can appreciate that and vote in favor of the agreement.