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Hunter-Fisher feud stunts NBA's growth
OK, let me get this straight. Billy Hunter is Jimmy Hoffa and Derek Fisher is Bobby Kennedy, and we’re in the middle of the NBA’s reenactment of “Blood Feud,” the 1983 TV miniseries that explored the apoplectic battle between the corrupt Teamsters president and an anti-corruption attorney general.
As a bizarre, disappointing, strike-shortened NBA regular season draws to a close, there are agents, journalists and Fisher supporters who want us to believe Hunter’s nepotistic silver-spooning of family members and a failed 2009 business proposal that never cost the players union a dime are the key reasons the NBPA got run over in the lockout.
We’re also supposed to believe Hunter and Fisher are at war because Fisher wants to clean up all the corruption.
OK. Got it. I like fairy tales. I just don’t tell them.
Hunter, the executive director of the union, and Fisher, the president of the union, are at war primarily for the same reason the NFL’s Gene Upshaw and some ex-players and the NHL’s Bob Goodenow and Trevor Linden tangled just as viciously, albeit less publicly.
As the active players have become more wealthy, they’ve grown in their belief that their business acumen matches their athletic acumen and they should exercise more control over the union than the executive directors do.
Multiple media outlets, including Bloomberg, The New York Times, Yahoo!, SBJ and ESPN, are reporting the latest goings-on in the Fisher-Hunter blood bath. The focus now is on the Fisher-friendly narrative that, in an effort to stop Hunter from funneling jobs and business opportunities to his grown children, the Oklahoma City Thunder backup is calling for an independent audit of union business practices. The Fisher-friendly narrative emerged in the immediate aftermath of the union executive committee voting 8-0 for Fisher to resign as president.
I’m not going to referee this dispute. From my vantage point, there are no “good guys” in this war. I wrote in October that Fisher was in over his head trying to moonlight as a labor negotiator against David Stern. Several sources told me then what the executive committee has made public now: that Fisher was at odds with Hunter and members of the executive committee because of Fisher’s penchant for solo decision-making and the perception he had been co-opted by David Stern. And while Hunter’s nepotism might not have damaged the union’s bargaining against the owners, I find the practice grossly immature, embarrassingly greedy, indefensible and — as the son of a former union leader — sadly predictable.
I get why the executive committee has sided with Hunter: Helping your family is easier to defend than the perception you helped David Stern.
Having said that, Hunter and Fisher both need to go. And so do Stern and his sidekick, Adam Silver.
The Hunter-Fisher feud is a symptom of a much larger problem for the NBA. The league lacks viable leadership, and I say that with all due respect to David Stern, one of the great sports commissioners. Stern, like Hunter, has stayed in power way too long. Stern has been commissioner since 1984. Hunter has been leading the players union since 1996. Left in the hands of the same person year after year, power corrupts, creates a sense of entitlement and stifles intellectual evolution.
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Hunter doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong. In his mind, he made the players union extremely wealthy. Why shouldn’t his children benefit from all he did for the union? Stern can no longer build enough consensus among ownership to push the league in a new direction. Despite a league overflowing with talent and good kids, Stern can’t grow the game. Record numbers are watching the NBA (and other sports) on TV because we have record numbers of people in the United States and record numbers of people with access to televisions.
With LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki and Jeremy Lin, the NBA should be gaining ground on the NFL in terms of relevance.
Rather than an argument about the basketball-related-income split, the lockout should’ve been about fixing the game of basketball. The NFL’s most important advantage over the NBA is that football fans don’t choose between college football and pro football. Football fans are football fans. They like high school, college and pro. Hell, they like Arena Football. Basketball fans are segregated. Too many choose between the NBA and the college game. Too many college fans hate the NBA because the league “steals” its best players.
New NBA leadership — from the commissioner’s office to the NBPA — should aggressively figure out a way to financially incentivize young players to stay in college so that they bring an actual fan base with them when they join the NBA. The NBA, in conjunction with the college game's television partners, can force the NCAA to massage its amateur rules.
American basketball can be fixed. But not by the current leaders. They’re stale. Too much of their energy is spent holding on to their power rather than trying to figure out how to take the game in a new, exciting direction.
When Hunter and Fisher are done killing each other in the media, let’s hope they — or someone — start in on Stern and Silver.