NEW YORK -- The good news on the NBA lockout front is that the sides are back speaking to one another. The bad news is that time is getting short.
Unfortunately for basketball fans, the bad news outweighed the good Thursday as the league canceled 24 exhibition games and postponed the start of training camps indefinitely.
The lockout went through its 86th day with only the faintest of hopes for a timely resolution, and the likelihood grew that the league will be forced to cancel regular season games because of a work stoppage for the first time in its history.
"Nobody wants to miss the whole season, but there are 29 owners that are willing to do so if they have to," deputy commissioner Russ Granik said.
The unprecedented cancellation of two dozen games came one day after commissioner David Stern, Granik, union director Billy Hunter and union president Patrick Ewing met for about an hour at the union's offices -- the first sit-down between the sides since owners stormed out of a bargaining session Aug. 6.
The sides discussed whether to resume formal talks, at which the owners would be expected to present a new proposal. The regular season remains scheduled to tip off Nov. 3.
"I don't know if we got the ball rolling or not," Granik said. "We tried to offer some suggestions, but I don't know if the process will move forward. We're waiting to hear back from them on whether there's any point to having another meeting."
"We're ready to meet tonight if we can to resume bargaining."
But with owners looking for a definitive limit on salary costs, including a phaseout of the so-called Larry Bird exception (which allows teams to exceed the salary cap to sign their own free agents) and the union holding to its position that it won't agree to any kind of a "hard" salary cap, prospects for a speedy resolution appeared grim.
Hunter was out of his office Thursday and could not be reached for comment.
The league, which previously canceled an exhibition game set for Oct. 12 in Israel between the Miami Heat and Maccabi Tel-Aviv, canceled four more days worth of games -- including the three-time defending champion Chicago Bulls' first exhibition game at the United Center on Oct. 13 against the Atlanta Hawks.
Also canceled were neutral-site contests in Syracuse, N.Y., Albany, N.Y., Winston-Salem, N.C., Green Bay, Wis., Honolulu, Buffalo, N.Y., Huntsville, Ala., and Baltimore.
"Unfortunately, it is now clear there will not be enough time for teams to fill their rosters and go through the necessary period of conditioning and be ready to play preseason games by mid-October," Granik said in a news release.
Training camps, which were due to open Oct. 6, have been postponed indefinitely. Another batch of exhibition games could be canceled next week if no progress is being made.
One of the preseason games in jeopardy is an Oct. 25 matchup between the Bulls and Indiana Pacers at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, which has the potential for being Tim Floyd's return to his old arena.
Floyd, the Bulls' coach-in-waiting, won't know for sure whether he will be taking over the team until the lockout ends and Chicago makes one final overture asking former coach Phil Jackson to return.
Michael Jordan has maintained he won't play for any coach other than Jackson.
The league imposed the lockout July 1 after the sides failed to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement. The owners had the right to reopen the contract if the percentage of basketball-related income devoted to player salaries exceeded 51.8 percent.
Owners claim that percentage has risen above 57 percent.
"The owners are all on the same page," Granik said, dismissing talk that there is a core of at least eight owners who would prefer to miss the entire 1998-99 season. "The agreement has to be something that makes long-term economic sense."
Still pending is the union's grievance with arbitrator John Feerick claiming that some 220 players with guaranteed contracts worth about $800 million for the upcoming season should be paid during the lockout.
Feerick's ruling could come any time between now and Oct. 19, but a victory for the players would be challenged by the owners in federal court.
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