Billy Hunter is the biggest wishbone in pro sports right now.
When the NBA union chief walks into a boardroom at a Manhattan hotel Thursday, with only the beginning of the season in the balance, Commissioner David Stern will be tugging on one lapel. NBA players, who will soon start missing paychecks because of their economic stalemate with team owners, will be tugging at the other.
Hunter has repeatedly shot down the owners’ proposal for a hard salary cap, which would mean the Los Angeles Lakers could no longer pay two or three times more for their roster than, say, the Sacramento Kings, pay for theirs. A “blood issue,” Hunter has called it.
If the league doesn’t bend on it, players will soon be out millions of dollars.
And so will their agents, the most prominent of whom have done their own pulling and prodding of Hunter, who went through this same saga 13 years ago.
“It may come down to there will be games lost,” Hunter acknowledged in a telephone interview. “No one wants that. I’m not interested in taking an intransigent position.”
He added that he actually sent a pre-lockout letter to Stern, guaranteeing the players would not strike if the league would not lock the players out. The idea was to keep negotiating during the season.
Once Stern declined his request, the labor chess match was on.
Beyond dollars, Hunter realizes what’s at stake long-term if the two sides can’t find a way to divvy up revenues totaling between last season’s $3.8 billion and potentially $5 billion in 10 years. Anyone who consumed the drama of last season — of LeBron James angering one city and enrapturing another, of emerging stars such as Kevin Durant rising up over the old guard, of an NBA Finals won thrillingly by Dirk Nowitzki’s Mavericks over LeBron’s favored Heat — saw the beginning of the league’s next renaissance.
“Coming off the year we had the past year, it’s ludicrous not to try to reach a deal,” Hunter said.
And yet, beginning this week, the NBA season is officially in jeopardy of losing games. Thirteen years ago, in the league’s last big labor dispute, Sept. 24 was the date training camp was postponed and preseason games were lopped off the schedule. By mid-October, part of the regular season began to bite the dust, leading eventually to a shortened, 50-game season that soured fans and sponsors.
I knew back then Hunter loved a good scrap. He wasn’t going to satisfy everybody but he was going to make sure the deal he got for his players enabled him to sleep well. The same goes now.
“The problem is they’ve anchored themselves so far away,” he said of the owners who have requested about $1 billion in salary rollbacks to compensate for their own losses. “You can’t anchor yourself at $900 million dollars. And now I’m supposed to negotiate toward you?”
Owners want a 10-year deal, in which player salaries are frozen for the majority of those years. Players wouldn’t share in revenue growth until the owners have healed their economic woes. Hunter’s accountants are no doubt telling him it’s going to take 20 years or more for players to recoup that kind of giveback.
The players have reduced their piece of the total revenue pie from 57.1 percent to somewhere between 54 percent and 53 percent, but the owners want more and expect LeBron and friends to do their part in compromising.
Depending on how unseemly things get in the boardroom, the real fight happens when Hunter leaves and doesn’t have a deal. Then he has people whispering in players’ ears, many of whom have their own agenda — including agents pushing for union decertification.
“I refuse to treat decertification as a game,” he said. “I won’t take it off the table because it’s still a last resort. But that’s not what I have in mind at the moment. If we end up decertifying, it means we’re through talking — and that’s not going to be good for anybody.
“Look, some of the agents are hurting,” Hunter continued, adding that many have been supportive of his efforts. “But some? They don’t have money coming in. They have big payrolls. A lot of this is about the agents and not the players.
“We prepared the players to miss paychecks. Some of the agents, though, have acted out of their own self-interest. If something doesn’t happen, some are going out of business.”
The reality is, both sides are on the outside of about a six-week window to get everything done — a new collective bargaining agreement, a free agent signing period, training camp. If there is no progress by Monday, the calendar is making the decision for them. The regular season is scheduled to begin Nov. 1.
“We might have to cancel preseason,” Hunter said. “You figure you need two weeks of signings, two weeks of training camp and they’d be ready to go. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. I’ve given the concessions that I think are fair.”
Stern’s main adversary was asked whether the entire season could be lost. “I would hope not,” Hunter said. “I would work diligently to prevent that.”
I believe him. Now let’s see if the owners also believe him.