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NBA DEAL HAS BACKING OF VETERANS

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It seemed wildly improbable - the NBA's labor negotiating team scurrying into a meeting with 25 players with less than four hours left before the union's midnight deadline for self-destruction, then the two sides emerging at 11:45 p.m. to announce they had a deal.

But the five men in suits, including NBA commissioner David Stern and union president Buck Williams, weren't on their own in announcing a new collective bargaining agreement.Standing behind them were some of the game's most respected veterans, a roll call of role models: Utah's John Stockton, Houston's Clyde Drexler, San Antonio's Doc Rivers, Cleveland's Mark Price, Phoenix's Danny Manning and Detroit's Joe Dumars.

The support they lent to the contract proposal and the 11th-hour proceedings may just be enough to convince their colleagues to go the safe route of approving the deal instead of following two superstars, Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing, into the courts.

"Both sides came here," Drexler said, "with the thought of finding a solution."

A final solution it may not be, but the tentative agreement on a six-year labor deal could put locked-out pro basketball back on top in the troubled business of professional sports.

Whether players will approve the deal and keep their union in business depends on how reluctant they are to take hard-line stance of their brethren in baseball and hockey and risk losing part of the schedule - and part of their paychecks.

Players will decide on two voting days - Aug. 30 and Sept. 7 - whether to accept the contract or to dissolve their union and go through the federal courts to end the lockout and get a better deal.

"I'm sure this deal may not please everyone, but it's a deal the players behind me support fully and it's a deal I feel will be ratified," Williams said Tuesday night when the negotiations were finished.

Initial indications from players and their agents, neither of whom had gotten a chance to fully analyze the provisions of the agreement, were guardedly favorable. And the league and the union were engaged in a full-court press to win them over.

For the union, staging the last-minute negotiations was a risky move.

A players' insurgency had killed a deal in June because it was viewed as too favorable to owners. Negotiations resumed after the NBA initiated the first labor action in its history, locking out players July 1.

But Ewing sent out a strongly worded letter urging players to view with suspicion any new deal the union leadership made. And when talks broke off Aug. 3, it appeared the union leadership was so weakened it had no choice except joining forces with Jordan and agreeing to dissolve.