NEW YORK – As last summer's NBA lockout dragged on, the questions, puzzlement and second-guessing grew.
Why wasn't the National Basketball Player's Association decertifying? Why wasn't the union following the NFLPA lead of disbanding and filing an antitrust suit, a maneuver that put football owners back on their heels and saved the players as much as they could in final negotiations?
Why was the NBPA instead employing a legal strategy that consisted of an unfair labor complaint being filed with the National Labor Relations Board?
Some of the lawyers that worked the NFL lockout couldn't make sense of it. Agents for NBA players fumed and ranted and held conference calls, plotting for a way to change course.
This was never going to work, so many said. And, indeed, in the end, it didn't.
It wasn't until November when the players gave up on the unfair practices lawsuit and began moving toward disbandment and continued to consolidate an antitrust suit that a settlement with the NBA was reached.
By then, however, the owners had whittled the revenue sharing percentage from 57-43 in favor of the players to 50-50. That represented a loss of $3 billion in future salaries.
This was an epic labor beat-down by the owners, a near complete annihilation.
Now comes word, courtesy of a Yahoo! Sports investigation, that the law firm that helped craft the union's labor strategy, Steptoe & Johnson, was paid more than $1 million by the NBPA since April 2011.
That was around the same time the firm hired a new special counsel – Alexis Hunter, daughter of NBPA executive director Billy Hunter.
Hunter's family has several connections to the union. Billy has a daughter and a daughter-in-law working directly for the NBPA. A son, two daughters and a daughter-in-law have worked for the NBPA or companies that did business with the NBPA. Hunter also sought a $7 million investment from the union into a failing New Jersey bank, which had ties to Billy's son, Todd. The investment never happened.
The NBPA says the hirings were vetted and explained to the membership. This should cause concern for the players, but, apparently, they aren't moved.
That's fine. It was the union's lockout strategy that should concern the players the most. If Billy Hunter is showing favoritism to his kids, well, that may not be an ideal practice, but I think LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the players will survive.
Losing a collective $3 billion in future salaries is different.
[ Related: NBPA compensation by the numbers ]
Questioning why Hunter held onto the NLRB strategy for so long is fair. As is analyzing whether Steptoe & Johnson was the best choice for the NBPA – and how that decision was even made.
In the end, the plan cost the NBPA time and leverage and money. It almost cost them an entire season. There are too many broke former players for the current ones not to realize they deserve and should demand the best from their union leaders.
Perhaps there are appropriate answers to everything. Steptoe & Johnson cite their deep experience in these kinds of cases, and it stands to reason they didn't hope to lose. Maybe Hunter really believed in the course of action and it just didn't work.
I don't know.
But it's also unlikely all the players know all the answers. Not without a full outside review.
The internal workings of the player's union aren't particularly interesting to most fans. A lot of people were rooting for the owners anyway. At the end of the day, the players are rich, the teams are rich and the playoffs are about to finally start.
Who cares, right?
Well, you'd think the players would care. You'd think they'd care deeply. Apparently they don't, and that, of all things, might be the most curious part of this entire battle.
If $3 billion doesn't get their attention, what will?
[ Related: Billy Hunter's family ties to NBPA ]
The one player speaking out loudest about the need for audits and cries about nepotism is NBPA president and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Derek Fisher. He's been at odds with Hunter since the lockout began, embroiled in a bitter battle that's gone public complete with spin and accusations.
It was a circus. It remains a circus.
Fisher's basic point calling for an independent investigation seems rather reasonable at this juncture. Except the NBPA executive committee, made up of players, just voted 8-0 for him to resign.
"I have tried to convey the legal and moral obligations we have as union officers," Fisher said recently in a statement. "Sadly, the executive committee has now waged a personal character attack on me to divert attention from the real issue."
The "Blame Fisher" faction has worked hard throughout the fall and even across the season to paint him as a stooge for the owners and an overmatched negotiator. It wasn't difficult to find an unnamed source to rip Fisher – the sources actively sought out reporters from Y! Sports and other media organizations.
PR stunts, though, can't cloud the reality there are questions that demand further answers. Reasonable players should look at Steptoe & Johnson's strategy and ask questions. They should wonder why Fisher is getting pushed out and why former union treasurer Pat Garrity was shouted down in 2009 when he asked why Hunter wanted to invest in a failing bank with ties to his son.
If there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to hide. To try to shout down the questions is wrong. That the players can't see it or don't understand it or simply don't care about it says all you need to know about their union.
They deserved to get their clocks cleaned in the lockout.
Somewhere a NBA owner is sitting around cursing that he and his peers didn't push harder for more givebacks in the league's labor battle with the union. Forget $3 billion in concessions. Getting an additional billion or two might have been possible considering the circus they were negotiating against.
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