Agents pushing for clear union strategy

Players Association executive director Billy Hunter has resisted efforts to decertify

After listening to Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and the executive committee players at an informational meeting in Los Angeles in August, witnesses described agent Bill Duffy probing union officials on labor talks with the NBA. Duffy was rational and reasoned, asking tough, fair questions, witnesses said. Only, the answers weren’t clear to Duffy, nor many of the agents in the conference room at the Beverly Hilton.

Finally, Duffy lamented that the meeting was ending and the union’s strategy to combat ownership in the collective bargaining talks was still hazy to him. What are we doing here?

This was when NBPA tempers flared, witnesses said, and union vice president Maurice Evans(notes) let loose on the agent – and indirectly – the dozens more in the room. Tension had been building between agents and union officials, and Evans offered a window into the union’s frustration with the challenges and second-guessing from agents.

“Evans went on and on about how the agents always want to tell [the union] what to do but don’t have any suggestions on how to make things better. Then Duffy would start to explain in a calm manner what he meant, and Evans kept interrupting him, cursing…”

“Just a mess,” another agent in the room said.

It didn’t matter that the union had enlisted Kobe Bryant(notes) for a pep talk to the players later that day, many left like they had in several other cities on the union’s tour: angry, beleaguered and feeling like the union is on a death march to defeat. The NBA and the Players Association are meeting on Wednesday and Thursday in New York, and everyone agrees: the next seven to 10 days will determine so much about the outcome of this lockout. Either the owners will get serious about making a deal, or wait for the players to start missing paychecks in November and December, and ultimately try to get them to take a one-sided deal with the cancellation of the 2011-12 season looming.

Most of the major NBA agents have told Yahoo! Sports they wanted to decertify the union and file an antitrust suit against the league. Hunter resisted those advances, wanting to see his unfair labor practice charges against the NBA through the National Labor Relations Board, and fight commissioner David Stern at the negotiating table.

“We all know how this ends,” one agent said. “It ends like all the others have – with us giving back everything. Billy had a chance to get out ahead with decertification early on, like [DeMaurice] Smith did with the NFL. Now, if it happens, he won’t be able to take the lead on it.”

For the agents, decertification throws the fear of an unfavorable court ruling into the owner’s minds, and, perhaps, motivates them to become more reasonable, more concessionary, in the labor talks. This week will test Hunter’s mettle, because if the NBA doesn’t come back with a serious, new proposal, what does he do? Keep offering more concessions, negotiating against himself? He’s insisted that won’t happen. Soon, the question will be simple: Have enough players banked enough money to wait this out, and call commissioner David Stern’s bluff?

China isn’t taking NBA players with contracts, the European market is lean, and talks of global and domestic barnstorming tours with star players have been met with a shortage of corporate sponsors to pay the bills. The big-market owners don’t want to lose the season, but the players can’t get them to turn on small- and mid-market peers unless the players are holding together once the paychecks stop coming.

Hunter prepared the players for more than two years to take on Stern and the owners, and always talked big in meetings about how he didn’t want to give them back anything. They were always going to give back to the NBA, it was just a matter of how much. That’s why the agents feel like they’re on a death march here, why they wanted to muck it up with decertification. They fear they’re going to lose everything – legitimate free agency, guaranteed contracts and fair compensation for stars who pack buildings, drive TV ratings and win championships.

Between the powerbroker agents and the union, tempers flared in August and that will assuredly happen again. It’s September, the negotiating sessions are supposed to real now, and Billy Hunter is in a tough, tough place. It won’t be long until this gets much nastier, until all hell breaks loose. Won’t be long at all.

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