NBA union faces test of strength

For three long hours in midtown Manhattan, union executive director Billy Hunter and his board of players sat waiting for the NBA owners to come back with a counterproposal. All this time, commissioner David Stern and the owners must be returning with something besides, well, get lost.

Once again, the union had made an offer of significant concessions. And once again, it wouldn’t matter. New system, new rules, new day for the owners. And after all that time, the NBA’s message was numbing: Yes, we want the favorable split of revenue percentages the players are offering … and still we want it within our new system. Hard salary cap. Non-guaranteed contracts. Rollbacks on current deals.

The NBA's owners want everything, because they don't believe they'll need to compromise. They want everything, because they believe this union will crumble, and bow before them.

Three hours of waiting, and Hunter had to be sick to his stomach on Tuesday. Now, the 2011-12 season is certain to be delayed, and yes, games will be lost. Perhaps Hunter gave too much, too fast, but the players desperately wanted to make a deal this week. They’ll lose this collective bargaining fight to the owners; they just don’t want to lose in a complete bloodbath.

Now, the bigger issue looms for Hunter: When he goes to Las Vegas on Wednesday for the most important players meeting of his tenure as executive director, does he find a coup awaiting him?

“Now Billy has to go to Las Vegas with nothing to bring the players,” a prominent agent told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday night.

“He’s chosen a particular path, and there hasn’t been any progress on that path. There was all this false optimism in the last week about how the league was going to come with a new proposal that he could take back to the players, and they came with nothing. Stern wants to stall, and stall until the players start missing paychecks.

“Billy was hoping that he could keep the players engaged, excited that a deal was coming. There was all that rhetoric of good feelings, and today was the day that Stern was going to come with a proposal. He was relying on the fact that Stern would negotiate in good faith with him, that he didn’t want to lose games. He thought that Stern would blink, start to negotiate. He was relying on the fact Stern didn’t want to hurt the game, and he was wrong.”

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Yes, there had to be a pit in Hunter’s stomach. Three hours waiting for the owners to debate among themselves, big markets wanting to cut a deal, and small markets willing to lose games – lose the season – to get guaranteed profits and maybe a better chance to chase championships.

There’s a big labor meeting in Las Vegas on Thursday, and Hunter is competing for the hearts and minds of his rank-and-file players. He’s already lost the top agents, who are laying the groundwork for a coup, sources told Yahoo! Sports. The decision to make a move on Hunter could come as soon as this week, agents privately said.

Several high-profile agents, including Jeff Schwartz, Arn Tellem, Mark Bartelstein, Bill Duffy and Dan Fegan, have been on the phones with each other this week. Sources briefed on the conversations say they’re getting closer to pursuing a signed petition, with 30 percent of the NBA’s players needed to bring a formal vote on dissolving the union.

After that, they would need a majority of the NBA players to vote. To that end, the core agents had been recruiting rival agents to join them in the overthrow, trying to get the majority vote needed to decertify.

“They’re all militant against the union now,” an agent who works in one of those agencies told Yahoo!.

One agent says he’s had several conversations in the last 48 hours with the powerbrokers, and feels inclined to eventually join the cause. “There are still players who are on board with [Hunter], but many are not anymore,” the agent told Yahoo! Sports. “This will not be a pretty meeting.”

Hunter has a plan for Thursday, and it’ll center around what he calls “the division of interest” within ownership. Big-market owners want a deal, small and mid-markets want a prolonged war. Hunter and Players Association president Derek Fisher(notes) believed the owners were bickering among themselves in those three hours away from the players on Tuesday, debating how they should respond to the players' capitulations at the bargaining table. The union gave the Jerry Busses and Jim Dolans reasons to sit down, and start hammering out a deal. The Dan Gilberts and Robert Sarvers don’t want compromise, they want total annihilation, and they’re willing to miss games, perhaps even the season, to get it.

So Hunter will tell the players: Eventually, Stern and the owners will crack and negotiate a deal with us. We just have to stay together. Of course, he’s kidding himself. It’s always been, and always will be, far easier to keep 29 NBA owners on board than it will be 400 NBA players. Hunter wants more time to wait on his NLRB filings, more time to watch how the owners go after each other. Yet still, it’s been 2½ years now, and this fight is precisely where the owners always promised it would be, where they always wanted it.

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Hunter waited three hours, and Stern came back with nothing. The union finally walked out of the meeting, and now knows that the paychecks will stop coming in November and December, and that the commissioner’s strategy will have played out perfectly. Hunter could’ve decertified months ago, but refused. He likes the power, likes the paycheck and hates the agents. He never wanted to believe Stern had become so weak, so overrun, that he would let the NBA miss games during this golden age of superstars and television ratings.

Yet now, Hunter climbs aboard a plane to Vegas on Wednesday morning, and comes to meet his players with no progress, no possibilities. He kept caving, and the owners simply said, Keep handing it all back, and we’ll tell you when to stop.

Several players told Yahoo! Sports they’ll travel to Vegas for the meeting, and one player texted late Tuesday: “It’s time for results.”

Hunter had to believe a proposal was coming on Tuesday, had to believe that Stern and the owners wouldn’t keep playing this petulant hard-line game with so much to lose, with such concessions already coming from the players. Only, Stern and the owners did. Long flight out West on Wednesday morning, tough room awaiting him. The commissioner, the owners, they aren’t even the biggest problem for Billy Hunter now. That’s why this could be over for him, why all hell could break loose in Vegas.

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