Will next NBPA head do the job right?

The sport of basketball has vast potential, and the next head of the NBPA had better have the vision to tap it, Jason Whitlock says.

In an effort to lift itself from the dysfunction and ineffectiveness of the Billy Hunter-Derek Fisher regime, the NBA players association has spent the past month identifying four candidates to succeed Hunter as executive director.

Led by 18-year veteran Jerry Stackhouse, the NBPA has narrowed its options to former NBA coach and league executive Stu Jackson, Pistons legend and former NBA coach Isiah Thomas, former Madison Square Garden executive Steve Mills and Charlotte Bobcats president Fred Whitfield, FOXSports.com has learned. Sports attorney David Cornwell is said to be a longshot candidate.

“I’m totally denying we are down to those four prospects,” Stackhouse told me Sunday afternoon. “Those are just four well-known guys, guys who know our business, guys who have ideas we wanted to hear from. They are not the only guys we want the search firm to vet. I haven’t even had a chance to talk with Fred Whitfield yet. I was planning to do that on Monday.”

Stackhouse said the timetable for the union to name an executive director is between Christmas and NBA All-Star Weekend. He said the union needed to first clean up its bylaws and structure.

“Our long-term deadline is to have our guy in place around the same time as when Adam (Silver) replaces David Stern,” Stackhouse said. “We want our guy in place to begin the process of forging a relationship with Adam.”

Mills, who runs a financial planning company for athletes and entertainers, has been considered the front-runner ever since Hunter was ousted in February. Like Stu Jackson, Mills has a strong rapport with deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who will replace David Stern as commissioner midway through the upcoming season.

Regardless of who gets the job, it’s clear the NBA and the NBPA want to usher in a spirit of cooperation and shared goals that were missing during the Stern-Hunter era. Stern and Hunter feuded. Hunter fell into the media-laid trap of believing his only job was to engage Stern in a racially tinged war over the collective bargaining agreement.

Silver and the new executive director will likely embrace the Gene Upshaw-Paul Tagliabue-NFL model. Upshaw, a Hall of Fame player, was ridiculed by misguided members of the media because he worked with Tagliabue and Pete Rozelle on growing the league rather than focusing solely on the players’ percentage of revenue. A smaller percentage of a bigger pie can be significantly more profitable than a bigger percentage of a smaller pie.

My point in bringing all this up is there is a terrific opportunity for the NBPA’s next executive director. He will be provided the chance to influence the direction of basketball in a way Hunter was not.

In fact, the new executive director should seek the position with the clear goal of being a transformative figure in the world of sports. As I have argued in previous columns, the NBA should set its sights on catching the NFL in terms of relevancy and popularity.

Basketball is the sports world’s No. 1 underachiever. Everyone — male and female, short and tall, fat and skinny — plays and understands the game. The temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs isn’t as pervasive (baseball) and it's not as rife with injury risks (football). And the game is blessed with sports’ most charismatic and interesting stars.

What basketball — not just the NBA — has lacked is leadership and synergy. The new executive director will be assuming power at the perfect time. All signs point to the NCAA instituting radical change. The commissioners of the power conferences are demanding change. The public is demanding change. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel wrote a story last week suggesting “seismic” change within the NCAA.

Football and men’s basketball are driving this movement. The NBA and NFL players’ unions should play large roles in how young football and basketball players are governed and developed before they reach the professional ranks.

Billy Hunter’s lack of vision always frustrated me. He never recognized the power of his position or he never had the energy to galvanize the necessary support to wield the power that was within his reach.

It’s my hope that the next NBPA executive director seizes that power and uses it to improve basketball and the entire system that shepherds a 13-year-old prospect into the professional ranks. If he does that, the new executive director could be an important figure beyond the world of sports.

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, there is a debate raging around racial profiling, black criminality and who bears responsibility for addressing these issues. The topic is being exploited by the talk-show crowd on both sides of the political aisle.

Throughout this country’s history, sports have played a crucial role in bringing us all together, helping us understand each other and find common ground. Keep in mind, Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey were nearly two decades ahead of the civil-rights movement. Robinson’s success with the Brooklyn Dodgers inspired the civil-rights movement.

The NBPA, with its black leadership and primarily black membership, can inspire a new movement. As black people, we don’t do enough to control our own destiny. For a multitude of reasons, including mass incarceration, we don’t do a good enough job taking responsibility for molding and leading our young people along the right path.

Football and basketball, sports reliant on the talent of young black men, are driving the collegiate power structure — the commissioners of the five power conferences — to reshape the way the NCAA conducts business. Decisions are being made about young football and basketball players and there will be no significant black voices influencing those decisions.

I don’t blame white people for that. I blame us. I blame Billy Hunter and DeMaurice Smith. I blame LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Ray Lewis, Charles Woodson, Kevin Durant, Adrian Peterson, Ndamukong Suh and all the other professional black athletes who don’t think it’s their responsibility to play an active role in how their games are governed.

By dangling the possibility of returning 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds to college basketball, the NBPA could dictate the terms of NCAA reform, and those reforms could very well include compensation for those athletes and year-round academies for teenage prospects.

After winning his second NBA title, LeBron James answered his critics by explaining that the deck was stacked against him at birth and statistics showed that someone from his background should be dead, in jail or trapped in poverty.

In my opinion, it’s LeBron’s responsibility to do what he can to make it easier for other kids — particularly athletes — born into a similar situation to find the path to a better life. One of the best things he could do is force the NBA and the NCAA to involve themselves with the development of promising athletes at age 12 or 13.

Kids are pledging allegiance to gangs at that age. Why not bait them into pledging allegiance to an academic-based athletic culture/academy at that age? Only a handful of them may make it to the NBA, but they will all benefit from the experience and the overall game of basketball will benefit, too.

The new executive director of the NBPA will be staring at a historic opportunity. I hope he’s not just another puppet looking to collect a fat paycheck.

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