NEW YORK – All weekend, Billy Hunter had an eye on the owners’ proposal and an ear on the angry mob of agents and players chasing him with fistfuls of decertification petitions. These were designed to wrest away his power, his influence, his money as the Players Association's executive director. He had left one of the biggest negotiating sessions of his life on Thursday, and let his players watch him live on television bemoaning that the air inside the five-star hotel conference room was too hot and too cold, too stuffy.
The owners had Hunter beat, had him prepared to take a bad deal and have the players go back to work. Only, David Stern couldn’t stop himself. The owners wouldn’t pull back the press, wouldn’t let themselves be satisfied with emptying the bench and running out the clock on the most lopsided labor victory in the history of major professional sports. The NBA kept pushing and pushing, never truly expecting the players to respond with such ferocity.
As much as anything, the NBA has started down this dark, uncertain path because leadership has been so deplorable. From union officials to agents, from star players to the commissioner’s office to hard-line owners, they’ve all conspired to take a doable deal and push it to a catastrophic brink that will cause irreparable damage to the industry.
Ultimately, Stern has failed to finesse those hard-liners, instead inspiring as much loathing with some owners as he has with players. He can’t sell a fair deal to his hardline owners, which left him unable to sell a one-sided agreement to his players.
After Hunter played the part of the beaten man on Thursday night, he had the sense to realize that the Players Association had slowly, surely become united over the NBA’s bully tactics. Stern and his deputy, Adam Silver, showed an inability to artfully sell the players on why the league believed it could so easily take back $3 billion and so much of their free agency movement. The players weren’t rallying for Hunter, but against Stern and the owners. Threats stacked upon threats, ultimatums on top of ultimatums, and Stern underestimated how much of this fight was truly about those final few small gaps on system issues, and how much more was about a resistance to those strong-arm tactics.
And so Monday afternoon, there was Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant(notes) inside the Ambassador Ballroom of the Westin Times Square. He had been a proponent of fighting through the final issues and reaching a deal, and the momentum was gone to make that happen. Bryant didn’t love this option, and he wasn’t alone.
A source briefed on the meeting said Bryant essentially told those player reps: If we’re going to give up our salaries for a year, you better be in this for the long run. You better be prepared to fight.
Make no mistake: Hunter didn’t sell those players on a long court battle, a possible victory with millions and millions of dollars paid for damages. He sold it as a way to lure the owners back to the table, to do something he had been unwilling to do out of self-interest for the longest time: Create leverage and take the fight to the NBA. He’ll never admit it, but those players didn’t walk out of the room completely believing they had forfeited a year’s salary.
Too many of the player reps didn’t know the difference between a disclaimer of interest, decertification and "Dancing with the Stars" when they walked into that meeting. As it usually goes in these labor talks, whoever gets the players’ ears last can talk them in and out of almost any directive. The agents were locked out, cell phones confiscated at the door, and Hunter had a captive audience with some big fancy antitrust lawyers to make his case. Too many of those player reps are young kids who were given the task as a locker-room punishment, or older guys looking for the free annual meeting in the Caribbean.
Hunter should’ve been out recruiting the best of the best for this labor fight, but why would he want Shane Battier(notes) in that room, challenging him, asking him like he did in June: Why are you still taking a salary when the NFL’s DeMaurice Smith gave up his during the lockout?
Hunter sold a plan that – surprise, surprise – keeps him on his $2.5 million salary, keeps him in charge of the court battle. But most of all, this move gives the NBA a much better chance of selling a judge on Stern’s charges that this was a charade, a phony negotiating tactic.
On a lot of levels, it was a gutsy move for the players. Yet, they wouldn’t have been here so late in November, risking the entire season, had they been fully engaged in this fight for months and had a game plan. Because the star players, the smartest, most capable guys, are not inclined to be active in the union. This is why Hunter could get those player reps in the room on Monday, get an executive committee of too many hand-picked loyalists, and convince them that a disclaimer of interest was a shrewder, swifter way to leveraging the owners into a deal than a hostile decertification by the agents.
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It preserved Hunter’s power, his standing with the attorneys, Jeffrey Kessler and David Boies. No one does self-preservation like Hunter. When I asked executive committee member Keyon Dooling(notes) why the union hadn’t done this in July, when it was already known the NBA would never negotiate a favorable deal with the union, he couldn’t answer the question.
These were the same player reps Hunter convinced to spend hundreds of thousands of the union's dollars – who knows, maybe more – on legal fees to chase an unfair labor practice case against the NBA. Forget decertification, Hunter told the agents and players. They could file that expensive, time-consuming grievance with the National Labor Relations Board and get back on the floor. The NLRB hasn’t ruled on the case, and never will because Hunter’s disclaimer means the filing has to be dropped.
Lots of billable hours on the backs of the players, and no results. That case was one more decoy to hold off decertification, something that should’ve been done long ago.
The agents, the players, they deserve the union they have. They needed everything to fight the machinery of the NBA, and they’re still scattered, vulnerable and unsure about what they did. The owners were hoping the Players Association would take this to a general vote on Monday, and half-expected the players would come back to them with amendments on the system issues that could get the deal done.
With the Boston Celtics’ Paul Pierce(notes) as the front man, the agents had planned a hostile decertification with a case filed in San Francisco federal court, sources said. They still expect to go through with it to balance Hunter’s disclaimer of interest.
What’s more, the agents are also considering a lawsuit filed on behalf of the league’s rookies, sources said, citing that the rookies are not yet part of the union, and that they’re ready, willing and able to play in the NBA and have been denied the opportunity. The agents are going to keep filing suits to create chaos and uncertainty in the minds of the NBA owners and hope the threat of potential legal damages will coax them back to the bargaining table. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll go to court, get a lucky bounce and decimate the owners with damages.
[ Yahoo! Sports Radio: Players union takes risky gamble in NBA labor battle ]
So congratulations, Commissioner Stern. Three weeks ago, you were on the cusp of a victory, a full season schedule and a fool-proof economic system to ensure even the league’s biggest buffoons would make money. And now, out of hubris, out of desperation and miscalculation, Stern and the owners have done the unthinkable: Stirred the "Bleep You" gene within the players, and inspired cooperation with the agents .
“These calls have turned into a mutual love-fest,” said one source who was on a conference call with 25 agents on Monday. “The players have somehow inspired a sense of camaraderie among a group of people that hate each other more than Israel and Palestine.”
That’s what happens in these labor disputes: improbable partnerships, agendas blurred and the greater good forever scorned. The players did the right thing on Monday – fighting back against a deal they didn’t believe fair, responding to an ultimatum from Stern that this was the end of negotiations.
History may show that the right thing was done the wrong way, but the consequences are still uncertain.
The season isn’t lost, but, right now, the owners and players are.
Bluff called, but the biggest bluffers – Billy Hunter and David Stern – are still fighting to hold onto power, to control this train careening down the side of a mountain. There are owners and superstar players on the clock now, too. These are supposed to be the guardians of this game, and they’d best start acting on those responsibilities. For now, there’s still a phone call to be made from Stern to Hunter, a deal to be done, before the lawyers file that antitrust suit. Sometime soon, there needs to be real leadership here, someone to rise above the agendas, the acrimony, the personal disdain and do the most noble thing of all: Save the NBA season.
And just maybe, save the sport from itself.
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