Lockout begins at 9 tonight

It’s official, according to The Associated Press, which just reported:

Union chief Billy Hunter says owners are locking out players after failing to reach a new collective bargaining agreement, potentially putting the 2011-12 season in jeopardy.

Despite a three-hour meeting today, the sides could not close the enormous gap that remained in their positions. The CBA was due to expire at 9 p.m. (PDT).

Hunter said the union made a “moderate” new financial proposal, but it wasn’t enough to keep the two sides at the bargaining table.

Hunter said the two sides plan to meet again in the next two to three weeks.

All league business is officially on hold, starting with the free agency period that would have opened tonight at 9 p.m., and games eventually could be lost, too. The last lockout reduced the 1998-99 season to just a 50-game schedule, the only time the NBA missed games for a work stoppage.

Here’s the league’s statement, courtesy deputy commissioner Adam Silver:

“The expiring collective bargaining agreement created a broken system that produced huge financial losses for our teams. We need a sustainable business model that allows all 30 teams to be able to compete for a championship, fairly compensates our players and provides teams, if well-managed, with an opportunity to be profitable.”

The bottom line is the owners want a hard salary cap and the players don’t.