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The National Basketball Players Association is pretty obviously in a transitional period right now. After the labor losses of the 2011 lockout and the removal of longtime executive director Billy Hunter, the union has yet to settle on a replacement and will soon be faced with choosing a successor to soon-to-retire president Derek Fisher. It must decide on a direction and pick the leadership to raise it up.
In recent weeks, one particularly high-profile player has emerged as a potential candidate for the union presidency. While stars have headed the union before — Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, and Isiah Thomas are three especially prominent Hall of Famers who have held the position — the clear best player in the NBA never has. Yet, as LeBron James confirmed on Saturday, he is considering making himself a candidate for the job. From an interview with Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com:
LeBron James said the National Basketball Players Association is "not in a good place right now" and that's why he's considering running for the union's vacant presidency.
"I just think the union is going backwards, and it's not in a good place right now," James said Saturday in an interview with ESPN after an event for his foundation at which he gave away hundreds of bicycles and tablet computers to underprivileged children in his hometown. "I think my voice could be huge in that situation." [...]
If elected, James would be the most high-profile star to lead the union since Patrick Ewing held the role more than 15 years ago. But with so many demands on his time, James hasn't decided whether he'll officially run. The union's summer meeting is later this month in Las Vegas.
"I'm not sure I have the time to do it, but it's something I'm going to think about with my team and go from there," James said. "But I think we all can agree there's been a lot of transition in our union in the last couple of years. If it's not me in that seat then I hope it's someone who is comfortable with it and can do the job."
It's unclear if LeBron is referring to the general position of the union post-lockout or the specific dilemma of operating without an executive director, but the four-time MVP does appear to be taking these labor issues seriously. While most candidates likely don't have to consult with their management team to decide if serving as union president fits with their aims as budding global icons, the mere fact that he's willing to consider the commitment the role requires shows that he's looking at it with clear eyes. It's a real job, and he's treating it as such.
James still looks like a long shot to become the next NBPA president, both because of his personal needs and the requirements of the role itself. There are good reasons that respected veterans like Fisher tend to serve as president: they have developed a sense of the NBA landscape and the players' position within it; they have cultivated reputations as trustworthy teammtes; and, most crucially, they're role players who represent the vast majority of union members. While there's no reason that a superstar can't learn to see the NBA through the eyes of a rank-and-file union member, it's also true that players like Fisher do so naturally. A union exists to represent the interests of everyone, particularly an increasingly vulnerable majority. With a collective bargaining agreement that makes it less feasible for teams to pay non-stars high-level wages, does it make sense for one of those superstars to lead the fight for power with the owners?
A union survives on the solidarity and unity of purpose of its members, so it's good news for the NBPA that a player as good as LeBron has special interest in these issues and could get other stars involved. Yet, if he wants to be an effective leader of his peers, it's important that everyone involved knows exactly what message is being sent. Leadership doesn't work the same in a union as it does on the court. A single transcendent star cannot elevate everyone to a common goal through his own greatness — effective collective bargaining requires prizing the needs of the group over those of the elite. LeBron may well realize that point already, and a responsible union would find out if he does before voting for him. Before any decisions are made, it's worth remembering that the best player isn't always the man best fit for representing all other players. He needs to prove himself in this arena just as he has in the NBA over the past decade.