With perhaps the entire NBA season on the line, owners and players reached a “tentative” agreement early Saturday to end the 149-day old lockout and start the season Dec. 25.

“We have reached a tentative understanding,” NBA commissioner David Stern confirmed during a press conference at 3:30 a.m. that followed a 15-hour negotiating session in Manhattan. “We’re optimistic that the NBA season will come to pass on Dec. 25, Christmas Day, with a triple-header.”

Stern expects owners to approve the deal via a simple majority and ex-union chief Billy Hunter also is optimistic that he’ll get a simple majority of the league’s 430 players to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement once the NBA Players Association reforms.

According to Stern, the Christmas kick-off to the season _ a key date because it starts the national TV schedule _ will feature the originally scheduled triple-header that includes the Knicks-Boston game at the Garden to kick off the season at noon.

Stern, in particular, felt it was huge to save the Christmas Day games for the league, which could have pulled the plug on its entire season had a deal not been reached this weekend.Although that was also seen as posturing _ the last lockout in 1999 lasted 206 days and was settled in January and resulted in a 50-game season _ the two sides met for three days starting last Tuesday in an all-out effort to make sure they came to an agreement. Stern had repeatedly said during the often-contentious talks that the league required 30 days to get up and running after reaching a deal. The 30-day mark for Christmas Day games to be played was Friday.

All I feel right now is ‘finally,'” Dwyane Wade told The Associated Press.

Just 12 days after talks broke down and Stern declared the NBA could be headed to a “nuclear winter,” he sat next to former union executive director Hunter to announce the deal.

“We thought it was in both of our interest to try to reach a resolution and save the game and to be able to provide the mind of superb entertainment the NBA historically has provided,” said Hunter, who could again lead the union at least temporarily once it reforms.


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