NBA winning public fight with players

Beyond the scoring, beyond the stats, Carmelo Anthony(notes) has never understood the responsibilities of a franchise star. The easy parts of the job always appealed to him, but never the grind of accountability, leadership. Suddenly, he’s searching for someone to make the Players Association’s case, and that campaign could’ve started long ago with the man in the mirror.

“I don't think we're getting our message out there,” Anthony told reporters over the weekend. “The owners are definitely doing a great job getting their message out. They have David Stern and the owners, we only have Derek Fisher(notes).”

So, who’s stopping Anthony? Who’s muzzled him? Maybe Anthony ought to start paying attention, immerse himself in the issues and do his part. Few owners in the NBA have the platform that 'Melo and most of peers do. So, stop making excuses and deliver a message. Come on down and be a franchise star.

The owners are made to sit out, leaving the NBA’s stars the opportunity to do so much more than puff out chests behind Fisher in photo-ops. Out of necessity, out of the fear of $5 million fines, the owners are kept silent in these labor disputes. Some of these owners are liable to make tame a Kenyon Martin(notes) Twitter rant, and Stern never gives them the stage. There are a lot of crazy uncles in that attic, and Stern knows to keep them stored away until the lockout’s over.

In these labor conflicts, the commissioner is like the old Student Body Right at USC: You know what’s coming and you still can’t stop it. Stern’s playbook is small, predictable and impossible to stop. Flooding the airwaves late last week, Stern framed the argument with the kind of red meat the public easily devours: The players make too much, my owners make too little.

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Fisher has to walk the finest of lines in this debate, and he’s done it well. If he doesn’t hit the owners hard enough, the agents and players think he’s soft. If he hits them too hard, the public thinks he’s an angry black guy who should shut up and be glad he and the players get paid to play basketball. Hunter has always been willing to play the heavy, and that’s an easier fit for him than Fisher. The public fight matters in this debate, so, yes, Hunter will be left to answer questions on why he’s hired DEK Media out of suburban New Jersey to help with the union's message.

Billions of dollars are at stake, and somehow Hunter has enlisted a powerhouse public-relations firm with a website that includes a perforated, cut-out coupon for a one-hour free consultation. A coupon for a free consultation. Nothing says powerbroker like that does. Hunter must have been out shopping for discounts on dry cleaning and lube jobs, and stumbled across David Cummings’ coupon. Players are fighting to keep a financial war chest to hold off the owners, and Hunter is throwing money at a former sportswriter and magazine editor who decided not long ago that he is now a PR executive.

That one’s on Hunter, not Fisher. The NBA has unlimited resources, and the Players Association has to make the best of its financial limitations. This is a big-time fight, and Hunter should be surrounding himself with the best of the best. The NBPA shouldn’t be an ATM for his cronies.

This fight has grown nastier, more personal, in the past weeks. Privately, management insists that everything changed when the Boston Celtics' Kevin Garnett(notes) walked into the negotiating room on Oct. 4. The owners knew it wouldn’t go well when Garnett started glowering across the table, sources said, like the league lawyers, owners and officials were opponents at the center jump. He was defiant, determined and downright ornery. He was K.G. Everyone knew Hunter had to cede to the wishes of the stars, and the stars demanded that the players stop making concessions to the owners.

As one league official said, “We were making progress, until Garnett [expletive] everything up.”

[Related: Kevin Durant says NBA owners at fault for lockout]

Easy for management to say, and yes, Stern spent the next meeting griping to Hunter and Fisher about the superstars parachuting into the meetings and usurping the process. Stern hounded the top union officials about who held the authority to make a deal with the NBA, about who was running things here. Within 24 hours Stern had canceled the season’s first two weeks and talks have ground to a stop.

Nevertheless, Garnett had every right to interject himself into the process. This is a stars league, and the NBA will need those stars to sell it again. To end this lockout with the best players in the league feeling left out of the discussion, left silent, everyone’s asking for trouble, because it will not be Donald Sterling and Robert Sarver and James Dolan bringing the NBA back in the public eye. It will be the best players. Whenever this ends, they had to be a part of the fight, the debate and, ultimately, the resolution.

“We can’t have completely poisoned waters here when this is over,” one front-office executive said. “Stern gets that, but I’m not sure all of our owners do. We have to have these guys on board, or where are we as a league?”

Yes, Stern is hard to tackle in the open field of framing and controlling the debate. Some owners don’t believe he’s the ideal face to have out front now, but it doesn’t matter. This is an easy campaign for him, selling the public on lower taxes, better schools and an anti-terrorism policy. For a public that so easily turns on the players, Stern’s platform of less pay, shorter contracts and anti-Miami Heat constellations cross party lines. The commissioner has the easy, populist bumper stickers, and that’s why the players need superstars well-versed in the nuances of the debate.

And that’s why, for one, Carmelo Anthony’s of little use to them now. To hear 'Melo, all the union has on its side is Derek Fisher. Maybe so, but who’s to blame for that?

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