Wednesday, April 23, 2014
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

NBA All-Star break could be the end for union head

NEW YORK — After 17 years fighting for NBA players, Billy Hunter might be down to his last, most difficult battle.

This one is for his own job.

A lengthy report critical of seemingly every aspect of Hunter’s leadership has given players plenty of reason to fire him as executive director of the players’ association, and some will go to Houston for All-Star weekend with that intention.

“First, I just feel like it’s time for a new leader,” Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins said.

Some other notable players agree, and plenty more could follow if they take the advice of their agents, many of whom have long disliked and disagreed with Hunter.

Others, realizing that Hunter hasn’t been found to have done anything illegal, may not support his removal from the position he’s held since 1996.

His future is expected to be the focus of the players’ meeting, unless there’s a resolution beforehand. He’s already been placed on indefinite leave, likely the first step in a termination that could be voted on during the meeting.

After a lengthy labor struggle with the NBA in 2011, union leaders have now turned on each other, creating a situation that superstar Kobe Bryant said last week is a “mess right now.”

It resulted from the fallout between Hunter and union president Derek Fisher, Bryant’s longtime teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers. Fisher urged a review of the NBPA’s business practices, which was completed by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

Released in January after eight months of reviewing financial records and NBPA emails, along with interviews of more than three dozen witnesses, the report contains hundreds of pages of questions about Hunter’s judgment and decision making, leaving readers to wonder whether the issue is that Hunter didn’t know better or should have done better.

He was aware his contract was never properly approved. He hired family and friends, or companies that employed them. Red flags are raised about vacation pay, travel expenses and purchases of gifts, among others.

The report urges players to consider Hunter’s position this weekend, and players such as Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Andre Iguodala have called for his ouster. Yet even Bryant, a veteran who can be as informed as he wants through his friendship with Fisher, called himself “pretty ignorant” about the issues, and many other players either don’t seem to know or care what’s going on.

“I think one of the weaknesses so far at this point has been a lack of communication. I think a lot of us were taken by surprise by a lot of things that supposedly have been found,” said Kyle Korver, Atlanta’s alternate player representative.

“I think it would be helpful if people who found the report would come sit down and talk to everyone and say exactly what they found, because it’s hard to know, to trust a side. Because agents have their side, obviously. We all picked agents that we trust, but they have a stake in something. The union, they’re trying to protect jobs. They have a stake in something. The media is trying to tell a story and it’s hard I think for the players to get the truth a lot of times.”

Representatives from the law firm will brief players at the meeting. Still unclear is whether Hunter will be in Houston, or exactly what the steps are to firing him.

He’s been completely cut off since being put on leave Feb. 1. The 70-year-old Hunter would like to keep his $3 million a year job, and if given a chance to address players he could make some persuasive points on his behalf.

As he’s noted since the report’s release, he wasn’t found to have taken part in any criminal activity involving union funds. There was no anti-nepotism policy, and Hunter has since fired his daughter and daughter-in-law — whom the report said were qualified and not unusually compensated — after enacting one.

The report even notes that his previous contract extensions were handled in the same manner as his 2010 one, which hadn’t been approved by executive committee and player representatives according to union bylaws, perhaps allowing him to make the argument that extensions aren’t governed by the same rules as appointments.

Hunter, still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. attorney’s office, has said little, though he did defend his record in an interview with the New York Times. He didn’t return a call from the AP seeking comment.

He has brought what was once a struggling organization financially into good shape. He was well-liked by many players but few of their agents, who have been furious with some the union’s collective bargaining strategies.

Players accepted maximum salaries during the 1998 lockout. They went from a 57 percent guarantee of basketball-related income in the previous labor deal to 50 in this one, a cut of about $280 million annually in salary costs, though some owners were angry the league didn’t get more.

“I have lots of thoughts but I don’t think it would be prudent to express them, other than to say that as I sit back and watch the march of collective bargaining, it’s interesting to me that the NFL was about a 50-50 deal, the NHL was a 50-50 deal, we’re a 50-50 deal,” Commissioner David Stern said when asked about Hunter’s situation.

“I think that the union, our union, which is not just about Billy Hunter but was about Kevin Murphy, a very respected economist (who) was in every session, and Jeffrey Kessler, a very famous sports lawyer who counseled players and unions in all three sports was there for every part of it. It wasn’t just about Billy, it was about a team that was put together.”

Some or all of the team could soon be replaced. First, players have to decide on Hunter. That may not be easy. Multiple veterans have not only said players won’t read the report, but that it didn’t uncover anything new.

“It’s all alarming. But like I said, there was nothing in that report I hadn’t heard over the last 12 years,” Miami’s Shane Battier said.

He acknowledged that it’s “on the players” for being so disconnected that Hunter may have grown to feel he could run the union any way he saw fit. Bryant agreed it may be time for star players to get more involved in a union whose executive committee is filled almost entirely by lower-level players. There will be elections to open spots Saturday.

Hunter’s situation could be the one that gets them to start paying attention.

“First, you’ve got to get the right leaders and then you’ve got to discuss situations,” Perkins said. “Without going into details, you’ve got a lot of guys that’s unhappy about a lot of certain things that happened in the last CBA that wasn’t agreed upon, that just happened. At the end of the day, we’ve just got to make sure that we do it together and just discuss it.”

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

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