After Kevin Garnett(notes) delivered an inspired sermon in the NBA players union meeting a week ago, declaring his willingness to sit out the season and forfeit $18.8 million in salary, a far more measured voice spoke up with 60 rank-and-file players in a New York hotel ballroom.
Shane Battier’s(notes) question, directed to Players Association executive director Billy Hunter, was simple: The NFL’s union leader, DeMaurice Smith, had agreed to take $1 in salary for the length of the NFL lockout.
Will you do it too, Billy?
The mere suggestion seemed to offend Hunter, players witnessing the exchange privately told Yahoo! Sports. After Hunter told Battier he hadn’t given it much thought, members of the union’s executive board came to Hunter’s defense. Hunter had taken the union from the red to the black in his term, done a good job, they said. Hunter never did give Battier a firm answer, nor would he answer the question for Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday.
Salary can be a touchy subject within pockets of the union, especially since it leaves some questioning the urgency and motivation for Hunter to work for a deal. Two years ago, Hunter had gone to the Players Association and asked that he be compensated for several years' worth of unused vacation time. There was resistance to the request, but eventually the union board agreed to award him $1.1 million, the Sports Business Journal reported. Hunter makes a little more than $2 million a year as the union’s executive director.
This is still a sore spot for some agents and players, but several union board members felt Battier was grandstanding with his question. Nevertheless, there are those in the rank-and-file who think Hunter and his executive board members have a habit of getting too snippy, too defensive with dissenting voices. If a lockout endures, these will be questions that Hunter has to answer within his union. Eventually, the players will stop getting checks in November, and if Hunter’s still getting paid … well, Battier’s voice won’t be alone.
“Billy isn’t afraid to embarrass you in front of other players, if he doesn’t like your line of questioning,” an Eastern Conference player said. “He’s done a good job keeping us informed and fighting [NBA commissioner David] Stern, but I don’t need to be lectured by the guy. I’m allowed to ask a question.”
The lockout is coming Friday at 12:01 a.m. ET, and a final bargaining session on Thursday in New York promises to be perfunctory. The union plans no counterproposal to the owners, and there are lots of players and agents who think the union shouldn’t even sit down with the commissioner and owners with such unprecedented givebacks being ordered.
Hunter has a great ability to rally the rank-and-file, and turning to Garnett in the meeting was a smart move. No one is better with a cause than Garnett, one of the great leaders in the NBA. He isn’t the most popular among his peers, but he’s one of the most respected. The union needed Garnett and Paul Pierce(notes) – who stand to lose a combined $32.7 million – selling the message to the player representatives in the room.
For all the talk the players have heard from the union about an ownership group splintering with agenda, threatening to usurp Stern’s judgment on issues, the players in the bargaining session last Friday had to admit: For a better part of four hours, Stern was running everything.
Stern dominated the meeting, with most owners reduced to bystanders. As one player said, “They’re always scared to talk when we’re in the room, especially when our stars come.” Still, several players could see the grimace on Stern’s face when notorious windbag Robert Sarver, the Phoenix Suns owner, started to speak.
There was an informal vote taken in the players’ meeting last Thursday in New York, where an overwhelming majority of the room insisted they would go the distance with the union. The owners want rollbacks on existing contracts, a hard salary cap and provisions that make owning and operating a profitable franchise a paint-by-numbers enterprise. The NBA and union will meet one final time on Thursday before a lockout comes on July 1, and there are many on the players’ side who wonder why they’ll even bother.
“Just look at the proposal the owners have made: How do you expect anyone to respond to that in good faith?” agent Mark Bartelstein said. “It’s laughable. GMs around the league have acknowledged that to me. Every GM has acknowledged that there’s nowhere for the players to go with what’s been proposed by the owners.
“The system doesn’t work for the players now, because it’s so restrictive. It doesn’t work for the owners because they’ve made a lot of bad decisions. That’s the reality. This is a horrible system for the NBA player, incredibly restrictive in every way you look at it. If the NBA owners can’t be successful in this system, blame that on nothing but poor management.”
In the end, this is a fight that’ll come down to the side’s two leaders: Billy Hunter and David Stern. Who can stand tougher, longer and endure the most pain? Here comes the NBA’s Armageddon, here comes Hunter’s and Stern’s moment of truth.
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