On Friday I spent most of the day in Harlem, talking with executive director Billy Hunter and officials at the headquarters of the National Basketball Players Association. Most of the substance of the discussion is in the resulting news story, in which the union and league disagree about broad financial health of the league. There was more, however. For instance:
Hunter's current position requires him to tangle with David Stern. Agents, journalists and pundits and others have suggested that Hunter is outmatched compared to the NBA's squad of pit bull negotiators. And indeed, many of the finer aspects of the CBA favor the owners. However, it's worth noting that the players have done well. The last two CBAs have seen players earn plenty of money -- a ton in a great economy, and a very solid amount even as the economy tanked. Indeed, the league says its biggest problem at the moment is, essentially, that the players got all the money last time around. That has to mean something. The second point is that Hunter's current job is hardly intimidating compared to previous roles, especially as one of the youngest U.S. Attorneys in history. The stories are the stuff of legend, from helping the Black Panthers as a young lawyer, to later helping to prosecute leader Huey Newton. He played a key role in Jimmy Carter's pardon of Patty Hearst. Hunter has prosecuted the Hell's Angels, and most chillingly (he can tell some amazing stories) had an up-close role -- in Bay Area politics, in Guyana and in the courts during the aftermath -- during the rise and dreadful fall of Jim Jones and his People's Temple. Not to mention, he was an NFL player. After all those tales of violence, strife, woe, and high stakes ... it seems almost quaint to be quibbling over basketball-related income.
Related to nothing: The union offices are in a fantastic Harlem office building they renovated. Their tenant on the ground floor is one of the hottest restaurants in Manhattan, where President Obama will hold a swanky fundraiser soon.
On the NBA's talk of contraction, Hunter says: "I don't think it's anything other than posturing."
Similarly, Hunter says that talk of a franchise player tag is something that he has heard about in the media, but not in negotiations with the league. He also points out that the current CBA has a similar effect already. "The incentives are there for the player to stay there. How long is enough? LeBron stayed seven years. Bosh stayed seven years. Carmelo stayed seven-and-a-half."
The union favors eliminating the current CBA's ban on players straight from high-school, but says that the issue has not yet been a big factor. Hunter explains the union's proposal: "I don't know if there has been much discussion. Our position is that players should be incentivized to stay in school if that's what they want. Let's reduce the duration of the rookie scale. For every year a guy stays in school, a year comes off the rookie scale. So if a kid decides to stay for four years, he'd come in, maybe spend a year in the league, then he'd be an unrestricted free agent."
Hunter says neither side has expressed an interest in trying to prevent superstars from flocking together, and rightly so: "There's been a history of this kind of stocking since the damn forties. If you go back and check it, every decade three or four teams have been the power teams. So now you have a player, as an aberration, decide that he wants to end up with another player. It's written up as if it's something new, something with some originality, something that comes from the players, but that's not true at all. You had the Bird era in Boston. You had the Lakers with Kareem and all the others. These power teams have existed."
Hunter says he is aware of economic analysis suggesting superstars like LeBron James are worth many times a maximum salary: "We don't have a problem with LeBron making $30 million or whatever it is -- as long as they have money to pay everybody else. Basketball is not a one man game. So, everybody else has to be paid. Our attitude is high tides float all ships."
The key issue in these negotiations, as Hunter sees it, is a hard cap. The league has stressed the need for one, and Hunter sounds more than a little ready to dig in to prevent one.