Where am I going?" Derek Fisher asks himself, understandably distracted. Then he remembers. "I'm going to Newark," he tells the driver. "Newark Airport."
The Lakers guard had arrived in New York City on the red-eye early on this final day of June to participate in a last-ditch negotiating session between NBA management and the National Basketball Players Association, of which Fisher is president, and now in the late afternoon he is headed back to Los Angeles, where under normal circumstances he would be focused on winning his sixth NBA championship. But the normal NBA cycles have been eclipsed today: Only minutes earlier, after a three-hour meeting, he was informed by Spurs owner and chairman of the owners' labor relations committee Peter Holt that the owners would lock out the players at midnight.
"So here we are," says Fisher, now leaning into the limo's backseat in his navy suit and red tie, his legs sprawled out before him. He finds himself musing over the body language of Holt, NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver as they dropped the hammer on the players. "It was a very efficient, to-the-point sit-down—not as if they just arrived at their thinking. You wouldn't [show] a change in mood if this is where you thought you'd be anyway."
Where they are now is at the beginning of a lockout that threatens to be far longer and more contentious than what has paralyzed the NFL this year and at the very least equal to the disagreement that cost the NHL its entire 2004--05 season. The owners simply want to pay less money to the players, and the argument is especially complicated because each side has reason to believe it occupies the high ground and that its opponent simply is wrong. The prospects for a new collective bargaining agreement may hinge on the respect commanded on both sides of the table by Fisher, who sounds both sober and upbeat as his car pushes through the rush-hour clog of the Holland Tunnel. He looks as if he has lost Game 1 of a playoff series he remains confident of winning.
The NBPA is led by Fisher, the active player who has been union chief since 2006, and Billy Hunter, now in his 15th year—and second lockout—as executive director. "I don't think there's much difference between his demeanor as a player and as the person we've worked with here at the union," says Hunter, who communicates with Fisher almost daily. Traditionally Hunter has served as the point man in negotiations with Stern, while the president has been a liaison to the players. But Fisher has worked hard to extend the reach of his office, and union insiders say that no player leader has had a better, more nuanced grasp of the CBA or been better able to articulate a vision for the union.
When the union officials met with the NBA on the eve of the lockout at the Omni Berkshire Place in Manhattan, Fisher made his latest try at persuading the owners that a money-grab wouldn't solve their problems. He began his presentation by detailing the variety of roles he had embraced on behalf of the Lakers' consecutive championship teams of 1999--2000 through '01--02.
When Fisher mentioned that he had come off the bench during L.A.'s 2004 run to the Finals, he was interrupted by Holt. "Zero-point-four," the Spurs' owner said with a grin. The reference, of course, was to Fisher's turnaround jumper on an inbounds play with 0.4 of a second remaining to steal Game 5 of the '04 conference semifinals from San Antonio.
The dialogue, however, became less agreeable when Fisher raised his objection to one of the owners' key positions: the right to waive underperforming players with long-term guaranteed deals without having to pay the outstanding balance of their contracts. Holt responded that not every NBA player possesses Fisher's competitive spirit and work ethic.
"They talk about the money they have locked up on the Eddy Currys and the Stephon Marburys, and that it would free up money for everybody else," Fisher is saying now. "I don't follow that type of thinking, and it's going to be hard for me as president of the players' association to ever sign off on any agreement that would put us in that position."
The league contends that owners and players together will grow financially and thrive in competitive balance as long as the richest teams aren't permitted to overspend and the smallest markets are assured of profitability. The players respond that management is fooling itself to think that reclaiming money from the union will set the NBA on the road to growth. Fisher says he doubts dysfunctional franchises will be incentivized to become more efficient if they're guaranteed a windfall of new cash. "Decision-making on which players to draft and how best to develop them and which front-office personnel to hire and which community-relations programs to run—all of these go into running a successful business," says Fisher. "But it doesn't seem like those things are fully valued [by the owners]."