Hunter promises union will stick to its guns as labor battle drags on
Billy Hunter said the players are unified and won't back down to owners' threats
Hunter's strongest words were saved for Stern, who he said has been misleading
With both sides digging in, next week's mediation might be the season's final hope
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- The gunslinging was over.
Billy Hunter had said his piece, then brandished it, countering the wit and wizardry of the David Stern media tour this week with a verbal shootout at the Not-So-OK Corral. The players won't back down no matter how many times the NBA commissioner threatens a lost season, the union head promised after Friday's meeting in Beverly Hills, which was attended by approximately 30 players. This pain will be shared, holes shot through the flawed strategy of the owners by young men who are not to be trifled with in this NBA lockout.
"This is the wrong group to try that with, because the players are committed," Hunter told SI.com as he headed for his hotel room, long after firing the gun metaphor heard 'round the basketball world. "We've spent a lot of time over the last two years trying to get these kids ready, telling them what it was going to be like. We told them, 'You don't play basketball in July and August. You play basketball in the winter. And when things get heated, the locker room gets heated and you're going to see a different attitude.'"
Translation: Game on.
"I think that the owners and David have to start thinking about what their strategy is," Hunter continued as he packed his bag for a flight to New York. "There are a lot of owners who were not involved in the '98 lockout, and they have no idea what it's like. They just think that they can anchor down and the players will capitulate. And I know that not to be the case. These kids here are a lot more strident than I am."
Not on this day, ironically enough. At least, not one of them.
With officials from both sides set to meet with federal mediator George Cohen separately on Monday and together on Tuesday, and with Stern issuing an unofficial warning that he doesn't see games being played on Christmas Day without a deal by then, the union could have done without JaVale McGee shooting a blank. The 23-year-old Washington center headed for the exits less than two hours into a meeting that lasted more than three, but not before saying, "There's definitely some guys in there saying that they're ready to fold, but ... the majority are willing to stand strong."
A union source said players learned of the comment via Twitter during the meeting and "were furious," and it surprised no one when the message coming out was even heavier than usual on all the resolve and unity rhetoric. They all denied McGee had a clue when it came to representing the masses, then went to work explaining why this strategy isn't nearly as futile as so many of us believe it to be.
For better or worse, this is their approach. The next few weeks will determine whether all the talk of "blood issues" will turn into an actual bloodbath for both sides, and whether these millionaires have even the slightest chance of outlasting the billionaires. Hunter and Co. are convinced the owners are bluffing, that two years of threats were built on the premise that the majority of players would start sounding like McGee soon enough.
All the talk of players losing approximately $165 million of salaries combined in the first two weeks has left them unfazed, with NBPA vice president Maurice Evans and every other union voice instead focusing on the price that will be paid by the owners whom they insist have a greater divide among their ranks -- specifically, the large- and small-market teams -- than the players. Stern and the owners have warned that the offers only get worse when games are lost, and that's when all hope of having a season is likely gone, but the players simply aren't buying it.
"As they want to inflict these self-inflicted wounds, the gash is only going to get bigger, franchise values are going to decimate," Evans said. "Best-case scenario -- when we ran the numbers -- 2023 is when they would recover [financially] and get back to where we are with BRI (basketball-related income) if we lost an entire season. So continuing to threaten that it's a season and that it's two years is only going to further damage your business. Again, that's not even speaking for individual owners and what they stand to lose. Not every owner would be able to, again, come out of this lockout. There would be some contraction, potentially, if they want to lock us out for a year or longer."
Nothing changed about the core issues on Friday. The union still wants 53 percent of BRI, but the owners won't give it more than 47 -- and both parties know full well there's a deal to be had somewhere in the middle. The players are firmly against the owners' proposed luxury-tax system, one that is far more punitive than they believe is good for the game or its workforce.
The only revelation was Hunter's complaint regarding the timeline with the mediator, as Stern has scheduled owners meetings on Wednesday and Thursday and thus will only meet with Cohen before then. The union, it made clear, would prefer to meet with Cohen for the entire week and expressed frustration that such a positive step is being handicapped by these parameters.
But this wasn't about the issues. This was about the tone, the tough talk. As Hunter admitted immediately afterward, he was, in essence, looking to fire back after being fired upon.
Union president and Lakers guard Derek Fisher had been waxing poetic again in the press conference, repeating the same old mantras to the attending media in a somewhat-lifeless room. Then Hunter, somewhat abruptly, went for his holster and grabbed the microphone that might as well have been a Smith & Wesson.
"Well I think it can only get worse for both of us," Hunter said in response to a question about the owners' future offers worsening over time because of the losses. "If somebody is pointing a gun at my head, I'm going to point one back at him. That door doesn't swing one way. It's not just the players that are going to suffer if there are games lost. What (Stern) has failed to reveal to you is the amount of economic damage they're going to suffer as a consequence. He points out the players will lose $170 million every two weeks. The owners will lose the same ... amount, coupled with any damage that their franchises sustained as a consequence. The pain is mutual."
As Hunter left his hotel room, there was far more pride on his face than pain. He zipped his bag and grabbed his latest book, "The Master Game," a story of power in our world's history and what ideals and influences led us to where we are. And why not, considering he's in a power struggle of his own?
"It's a great book," Hunter said. "It's about the folks who have been running the world for the last 2,000 years. It's not fiction. I don't read fiction. I only read stuff I can learn something from."
Then in an all-too-perfect moment, the suit-wearing Hunter grabbed a pair of brown cowboy boots he had brought along for this ride and headed for the doors. Guns blazing and walkin' boots in hand, he swears he's ready for this fight.