If you care about America and want to understand the times we live in, it would be a huge mistake to ignore the Billy Hunter-Derek Fisher war.
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In it, particularly in the allegations leveled in Hunter’s lawsuit against Fisher and the NBA Players Association, you can clearly see how the rich protect their wealth by screwing the unsuspecting people beneath them.
It’s difficult for the working man or woman to think he/she has anything in common with a rank-and-file millionaire professional athlete. But in a labor dispute pitting a major corporation against union employees, a career union assembly line worker such as my mother has a lot in common with a nine-year NBA vet such as Nick Collison.
My mother, now retired except for seasonal work for tax-preparer H&R Block, has always been a proud member of the 99 percent. Despite working overtime at AT&T’s Western Electric and occasionally taking a second job, my mother never earned more than $62,000 annually during her 35-year work career. Collison has averaged about $4.5 million a season. He’s part of the NBA’s 99 percent. He was in the same draft as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Bron and ‘Melo represent the 1 percent; they have averaged about $11 million per season.
The NBA’s 99 percent and the league’s elite 1 percent had conflicting agendas during the labor dispute.
In his lawsuit, Hunter contends that he was caught between the two different factions. He also alleges Derek Fisher was not. Hunter says that Fisher was at the end of his playing career and looking to parlay his union post into a management position within the NBA. Fisher would not be the first players’ union employee to do just that. Hunter also says that one of the league’s highest-paid players and his agent called him on Oct. 27, 2011, and informed Hunter that a labor deal had already been struck with ownership, and Hunter should sign off on it.
In his statement to the media on Thursday, Hunter claimed that Fisher and certain highly compensated players had a strong motivation to give into ownership’s desire to claw back the gains that Hunter had won in his self-described “successful” negotiations in 2005.
“Each game canceled during the lockout represented income that Fisher would never realize and would be unlikely to recover because his remaining playing career was limited,” Hunter’s lawsuit claims. “For similar reasons, some of the highest-compensated NBA players… and their agents shared Fisher’s sentiment that the lockout must end.”
Hunter, as I reported on Oct. 29, 2011, says he confronted Fisher regarding concerns that Fisher had weakened the union’s negotiating leverage by assuring representatives of ownership that the players would agree to a 50-50 split of basketball-related income. Under the previous labor agreement, the players received 57 percent of BRI.
According to all the experts, the NBA labor agreement struck in early 2012 squeezed the league’s middle class. Does that sound familiar? Does that not sound exactly like every labor deal struck in America the past 20 years? The difference in BRI will come out of Nick Collison’s compensation, not LeBron’s or Carmelo’s.
Now let’s dig deeper. Since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson reinvented the NBA and set the table for Michael Jordan to turn the league into a multi-billion-dollar economic force, let’s take a look at the transformation of the NBA Players Association.
Here are the names of the player presidents of the union from 1954 to 2001: Bob Cousy, Tom Heinsohn, Oscar Robertson, Paul Silas, Bob Lanier, Junior Bridgeman, Alex English, Isiah Thomas, Buck Williams and Patrick Ewing. This time frame is important because it covers the league’s fight for relevancy and traction and the union’s fight for fair compensation once Magic, Larry and Michael made the league highly relevant and ridiculously profitable. Every player president during this time frame except for Bridgeman was an exceptional, All-Star caliber performer. And Bridgeman was a really good player.
My point is as the league was on its way up and the players were clawing for authentic wealth, the NBA’s best players were intimately involved in union activities.
Here are the player presidents since 2001: Michael Curry, Antonio Davis and Derek Fisher. Here are the players who served on the NBPA executive committee during Billy Hunter’s last years as executive director: Derek Fisher, James Jones, Chris Paul, Matt Bonner, Keyon Dooling, Maurice Evans, Roger Mason, Etan Thomas and Theo Ratliff.
Hunter became executive director in 1996. He spent the overwhelming majority of his tenure working intimately with the NBA’s 99 percent. Once the superstar players financially feasted at the table set by Michael, Larry and Magic, the NBA’s 1 percent lost interest in union activities.
Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant walked straight out of high school into a league built on the backs of Larry, Michael, Magic, Isiah, Doctor J, Sir Charles, the Mailman, the Dream and Ewing. Garnett and Bryant together have earned in excess of $550 million in NBA salaries. Guys making that kind of coin don’t have time to bother themselves with union issues until there is a crisis.
I’ve been to the NBPA’s summer meetings in the Bahamas. It was attended by the 99 percent. Those are the players Hunter worked with and communicated with on a regular basis. Hunter’s perspective on union issues was shaped by the 99 percent. I don’t say that because I believe Hunter is some sort of righteous union leader. I say it because those were the players he most often engaged with on union activities.
So Hunter claims that one of the highest-compensated players and his agent called him on Oct. 27, 2011, and said a 50-50 BRI deal had been struck with ownership and Hunter should accept it.
I am not certain who that player is. I have been told by two different sources it was Kobe Bryant. Bryant and Fisher share the same agent — Rob Pelinka. Bryant and Fisher are close friends; they joined the Lakers the same year. Bryant was the NBA’s highest-paid player in 2011-12, earning $25 million. Bryant spent part of the 2011 offseason in Germany receiving experimental treatment for his arthritic knee. Given his salary, advancing age, health concerns and legendary competitive zeal, no NBA player had more reason to be desperate for an end to the lockout than Bryant.
On Friday, I made several attempts to speak with Pelinka. We’ve known each other for 20 years. He was a role player on the Michigan “Fab Five” basketball teams that I covered for the Ann Arbor News. We also occasionally run into each other in Los Angeles. I left a message at his office. I left a voicemail on his cell phone. I wrote him a detailed email explaining why I was contacting him. I also sent him a text message that my iPhone confirmed that he read. Pelinka did not respond to my inquiries.
Whether it was Bryant, Garnett or some other highly compensated veteran player who contacted Hunter on Oct. 27, 2011, doesn’t really matter. (Although a court case and Hunter’s phone records will eventually reveal the callers.) The point is that during the lockout, Hunter was caught between the NBA’s elite and the rank-and-file players who actually worked in the union.
Fisher could argue he was caught in the same spot. He has never been an NBA elite. He’s played the same number of seasons as Bryant and earned one-fourth of Bryant’s nearly $250 million.
But the problem with being represented by a marginal player at the end of his career is that the player will be tempted to position himself for his next career. That is not written to cast Fisher as evil. It’s written to convey he’s human, which means he’s flawed, which means he’s vulnerable to the same temptations many players believe seduced Michael Curry when he was player president during a labor dispute.
Re-examine Fisher’s actions during the lockout. In the summer of 2011, before I reported the major rift between Fisher and Hunter, Fisher and his flunky, Jamie Wior, made numerous public moves that undermined Hunter’s position as chief union negotiator. I wrote about it at the time.
Much of the alleged “reporting” and analysis on the NBA lockout, the Fisher-Hunter feud and the so-called investigation into Hunter’s business practices lacked balance, fairness, sophistication and nuance. It was all dumbed down to good guys vs. bad guys. This is because David Stern and a handful of power agents control the NBA media.
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski is terrific. I read him. But you can’t break every NBA signing story without doing the bidding of the power agents. Media outlets are so clicks-driven that they believe breaking news about inconsequential free-agent signings is far more important than providing legitimate insightful perspective.
That’s why there’s so much collective silence surrounding Hunter’s fascinating, look-behind-the-curtain lawsuit. Most of the NBA media (CBS’s Ken Berger is a rare exception) apparently haven’t been given permission by their “sources” to write about Hunter’s lawsuit. Most outlets used the AP story and the playoffs as an excuse to avoid the topic.
It’s the okeydoke. The fourth estate is supposed to represent your interest, the workingman’s interest. Most often, when it really matters, we represent corporate interest.
Look at what’s happening in our country right now. The market is going gangbusters. Our economic recovery is blowing away Europe’s. The middle class is not participating in the recovery. The people getting rich aren’t hiring new employees at decent wages. The major media outlets can’t discuss this in an attention-grabbing way. We have to get to the bottom of the Benghazi talking points and the IRS scrutinizing groups who think their taxes are too high. Meanwhile, the Obama administration and its Wall Street friends continue to stuff their wallets off the recovery sparked by the taxpayer-funded bailouts.
It’s the okeydoke.
The NBA power agents wanted Hunter removed and they want a puppet installed. Stern needed to swipe 7 percent of basketball-related income from the union without pissing off the superstar players who drive TV ratings.
Squeeze the middle class, bury their mouthpiece (Hunter) and spoon-feed key media an easily digested, harmless narrative. Works every time.
I know this column sounds sympathetic to Hunter. That’s not the intent. Hunter failed as a leader. I wrote in 2011 that he appeared too old, too tired and too disinterested to do the work necessary to engage and inspire his constituents and put Fisher in his place. Union politics are dirty and vicious. They’re a young man’s game. Hunter’s attitude and work ethic mirrored Kobe’s, Garnett’s and all the other fat and happy superstars. Hunter was highly compensated and relatively content. He planned on raking in another $10 million, packing up his office and family and retiring from the union in three or four years.
Like every king or union boss who overstays his hold on the people and works in an environment at peace with betrayal, Hunter surrounded himself with people he could trust — family.
Hunter’s actions and Fisher’s all make sense. It’s my belief they would’ve behaved more appropriately had the media functioned in a fair manner. The 99 percent would not get screwed as frequently and as devastatingly if the media were not such willing co-conspirators with the 1 percent.