Progress made in latest meeting, but Hunter's fate rests on solution
Owners and players met again Wednesday, but no new details were released
Billy Hunter is feeling the pressure from players and agents to get a deal done
Hunter needs to deliver or the union could decertify, likely costing him his job
The NBA's no-news-is-good-news tour continued in New York on Wednesday, when the relative silence regarding the latest negotiation session was once again deemed golden.
League officials joined representatives from the National Basketball Players Association for the second time in eight days and just the fourth time since the work stoppage began on July 1, and the mutual agreement to not discuss details was upheld for the second consecutive meeting. Meanwhile in every other relevant corner of this lockout life, the chatter grew even louder.
And much of it, as you might have heard, has involved the discussion of Billy Hunter.
The executive director of the NBPA is in a precarious position these days. Some agents question his every move, glossing over his respectable résumé and wondering aloud about the competency and leadership of the former U.S. attorney who took the union helm in 1996. They question why there wasn't a move to decertify the union at the outset of the lockout, some of them subtly suggesting that Hunter is more interested in saving his own skin (he wouldn't be paid in that scenario) than doing what's best for his constituents. Other player representatives simply stew about the state of affairs, unsure who to blame and ever-mindful of the fact that someone must lead their clients to a best-case scenario finish here no matter how draconian commissioner David Stern and the owners prove to be. A possible head Hunter, in other words, comes in many forms.
The pressure is indeed building, but these last eight days have been good for the union head. Two small-group sessions featuring Hunter and Stern are already in the books, with another scheduled for Thursday and possibly another on Friday. Hunter will need to deliver results in the coming weeks or risk a mutiny, but the incremental progress has continued if only because the two sides are talking again.
In the absence of extreme plays like decertification, the previous lack of negotiations had led to fair questions about Hunter's plan. The pressure put on so many agents by their clients is at the root of it, with the 'billionaires-beat-millionaires' credo meaning players are getting antsier about their money by the day while the 10-digit types are a long ways from hitting the panic button. And while the pending decision on the NBPA's claim against the league with the National Labor Relations Board is worth waiting for and potentially relevant, the union's inability to convince the owners to meet more than once in the first 61 days of the lockout was a shared failure of which Hunter certainly played a part.
Yet as this process has been prolonged and the internal scrutiny has increased, there are indications that Hunter has made an effort to connect with his critics in a more comprehensive manner because, well, there's that saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. The lack of communication between the union and agents is a frequent complaint, but one that has been addressed recently with measures like the recent coast-to-coast tour to discuss the labor situation with players and agents. Union officials have made more of a point to inform the most prominent agents of the latest happenings, too, knowing full-well the influential role they play with the league's players.
It is tension-filled moments like the one reported by Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday that Hunter is trying to avoid.
According to the story, agent Bill Duffy was reportedly questioning the union's strategy -- or perceived lack thereof -- during an August meeting in Los Angeles when vice president/free agent guard Maurice Evans interrupted and cursed at Duffy while defending Hunter. It's a role Evans has grown accustomed to, as he did a similar deed in late June when free agent forward Shane Battier suggested during a union meeting that Hunter follow the lead of NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith and forgo his salary during the lockout.
In an interview with SI.com on Wednesday, Evans -- who has not taken part in the last two meetings in which Union president Derek Fisher has been the only player present -- defended Hunter and his actions.
"Billy has more than proven his value and his worth to the players and the union throughout his tenure," Evans wrote via text message. "Hopefully by the end of this process -- regardless of the outcome -- everyone will have recognized that he means as much to the players as Stern does to the owners."
Evans, who has clearly grown wary of some agents' motives and agendas, declined to discuss the incident involving Duffy.
"This process isn't about Mo Evans' personal feelings," he wrote via text message. "[It's about] players and owners working together to obtain a deal that represents the best interest of the players and owners alike."
It's about the legal process too, of course. Jeffrey Kessler, the lead outside counsel for the NBPA who was one of nine participants in Wednesday's meeting, confirmed a CBSSports.com report stating that both sides were scheduled to take part in a conference call with a U.S. District Judge on Wednesday evening. In the call, the NBPA intended to inform Judge Paul G. Gardephe of its intent to file a motion to dismiss the league's lawsuit in the Southern District of New York. The suit, which was filed by the NBA in early August, was a pre-emptive strike on the part of the league asserting that the lockout does not violate antitrust laws and thus attempting to railroad any attempts at decertification.
"It's basically a procedural call and we expect the judge will let us go ahead and file the motion," Kessler told SI.com on Wednesday. "If the judge says, 'Go ahead and file,' then we'll find out what schedule the judge would like us to file on and we'll go ahead and file it."
Decertification remains an option, no matter how tricky it might be, but the message sent by taking that route will have changed dramatically if that's the path the players choose. On July 1, it would have been a punch-first strategy intended to help the union and the players gain a badly needed edge. From here on out, it would be a clear indication that Hunter's approval rating was at an all-time low and an almost-certain sign that the season would be lost.
And that, contrary to these recent turns of events, wouldn't be good news for Hunter or anyone else involved.
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