We were sitting in the conference room in his Harlem office, and Billy Hunter’s voice was rising now, because this was a story he loved to tell. This was March, the NBA was bursting with popularity, and the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association felt strong and sure, buoyed by a TKO of David Stern in an impromptu All-Star weekend locker-room scrap with his superstars watching.
He wasn’t talking so much for the commissioner’s ears but those of his unwieldy 400-plus players union. This was Hunter, an old prosecutor, where he does his best work: hyperbole reaching a crescendo, a rallying cry for the one chance he had to sidestep a collective bargaining slaughter, holding together his players, pushing back desperation.
Here he was, sitting at the big oak table, eyes alive and hands flailing in the air. These had been words delivered to Stern, he promised. Yes, this was the best of Billy Hunter.
"I don’t know where you were raised, but I lived with rats," Hunter told the emperor of basketball. “I used to kill rats. We had a .22 rifle and we would lay in the kitchen and shoot them on the floor. One thing my grandmother taught me was that if you got a rat trapped, you’ve got to give his ass a way out because he will fight you if he has to.
“If you don’t give us a way out, a chance for a compromise, you’re going to get a fight.”
When a large gathering of players meets him in Las Vegas on Thursday, this is undoubtedly the Hunter they will see and hear – and for his sake, hopefully feel. He has nothing to bring them except grim labor news: no counterproposal from the owners, no optimism that a deal can be struck before they start missing paychecks and missing regular-season games. The agents have lost faith in Hunter, but that doesn’t mean his rank-and-file follow blindly with them. He’s always been much stronger with his players – much more connected – than he’s been with the agents who represent them.
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Hunter will again tell the players about the charges of unfair labor which the union filed against the NBA with the National Labor Relations Board, about how the findings on that case will be known within a few weeks. He’ll implore them to hang in there, to believe that there are still too many owners who don’t have the stomach for shutting down a complete season so that they can coerce the players into taking a crushing, one-sided deal. As long as most of the owners sense weakness in the players – sense a void of resolve – they’ll go along with the rabid minority who want complete overhaul.
Eventually, the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat will start to have louder voices – and start to insist that they should engage the players on the massive givebacks they’ve already offered, find a common ground and get a deal done. Yet the owners won’t do that until they’ve been convinced the players are willing to go the distance and lose a year of paychecks to preserve the structure of this system.
This will be an important day for Hunter, an important meeting. He still can’t sell results, and it’s getting later and later in the game to keep selling faith in him. The agents are coming for his job, his union, and someone needs to convince the players that Hunter isn’t walking them straight into the abyss. He’s always been his best advocate, using fire and brimstone to rally in the bleakest moments. Everything still promises to get darker, gloomier, and Billy Hunter needs a way out, a compromise – and the NBA isn’t giving it to him. He promised David Stern a fight, and everyone’s left to wonder: Who’s still left to go the distance with him?
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