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NBA, UNION REACH LAST-MINUTE AGREEMENT

The NBA and its union got together on a last-minute labor deal. Can the players get together and approve it?

With yet another contract proposal before it, a divided membership must decide whether to accept the six-year deal or dissolve the union and try to win better terms through the courts, potentially jeopardizing the start of the 1995-96 season.After reaching the tentative agreement late Tuesday night, NBA commissioner David Stern and leaders of the players association will spend the next three weeks selling the revamped deal, which replaces one the players rejected in June. Its approval would end the month-old lockout.

"We have our work cut out for us," union president Buck Williams of the Portland Trail Blazers said. "We have to get out and explain the deal and let it stand on its own merits."

Stern, flanked by 25 players at a midnight press conference, was more optimistic.

"Our indications are that it won't be a difficult sell," he said. "We don't think it's going to be a problem."

The targets of the hard sell will be Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and other players whose opposition scuttled the previous deal, causing a deep rift among the membership and triggering a drive to abolish the union.

A previously set vote on disbanding the union now will also be a referendum on the revised deal, union executive director Simon Gourdine said.

"We're very happy the NBA met our concerns," Williams said. "We feel very fortunate that we could work out an agreement at 5 minutes, 10 minutes before midnight."

The talks were a last effort to get a new deal before the union acquiesced to the wishes of Jordan's faction and relinquished its authority as the players' bargaining agent. The union had said it would take that step if there wasn't an agreement by midnight.

More than three hours of negotiations produced an agreement that eliminates the luxury tax, a sticking point with players in the previous pact, and includes a $1 million exception for teams over the salary cap to sign free agents.

Also included are two additional exceptions to the salary cap: a provision under which teams can use 50 percent of an injured player's salary to sign another player and one that permits a player who has completed two seasons with the same team to re-sign at double his salary.

In exchange, the union agreed to let the NBA reopen the contract after three years if salaries exceed a certain revenue percentage. And the NBA still gets a rookie salary scale and abolishes multimillion "balloon' payments tacked on the end of some veterans' contracts.

Houston's Clyde Drexler said he believed there was much for players to like in the revised agreement.

"I still think it's very fair," he said. "Everything has been increased from the last deal. The cap continues to rise and there's more free agency."

"It gives more people freedom to move from team to team," Cleveland's Danny Ferry said. "The players should feel this is fair and reasonable. At least now they have two sides they can look at."

Should the players vote to decertify rather than to accept the new contract, it would clear the way for an antitrust lawsuit filed against the league by Jordan, Ewing and 14 other players. The suit seeks to end the lockout and abolish the salary cap and college draft.

Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer who filed the suit, said the second agreement is still "too good for the owners at a time when the Knicks are charging $1,000 a seat."

The league and the union reached an agreement in June on a six-year deal containing approximately $5 billion in player salaries and benefits. But it was derailed when Jordan and Ewing, displeased with the proposal and with the union leadership, advocated dissolving the union. Approximately 200 players signed petitions, filed with the National Labor Relations Board, saying they no longer wished to be represented by the players' association.

The NLRB called for a decertification election on Aug. 30 and Sept. 7. More than 400 players will be eligible to vote for either decertification or accepting the new deal.

No vote was scheduled for team owners, and Stern indicated he would wait to call one until the players make their decision. He said making the 11th-hour deal was the only way to make sure the season starts on time.

"For us, the issue turned on the fact that the erroneous legal advice our players had been receiving would be tested by the potential loss of the 1995-96 season," he said. "That was a risk we very much did not want to take."