Sterling misdeeds unite league, union

Last weekend when the world woke up to the Donald Sterling TMZ tape, it wasn't just an instant crisis for the NBA league office and its owners. The players' union also found itself called to act, as the labor force where high-level management had been impugned as a bigot.

But the National Basketball Players Association had a few problems: More than half of its membership was scattered for the offseason. Union president Chris Paul was in Sterling's employ, as the starting point guard of the Clippers, in the middle of an intense playoff series. To top it off, the union has been without an executive director since Billy Hunter's disgrace.

Within days, however, NPBA adviser and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall arm in arm with current and past stars claiming victory. The threat of a league-wide player playoff boycott had helped convince NBA commissioner Adam Silver to mete out the toughest punishment possible for Sterling.

Silver needed the players to back him, to end the corrosive dialogue around Sterling that tore at the fabric of the league. Johnson and Silver had been partners in stressful times once before -- both were integral to backroom politicking by which the Kings did not ditch Sacramento, California, for the bigger, richer market of Seattle.

The players needed something too: a reason to come together.

Economists say the biggest names in the NBA are worth many times what they're paid, and that generally the players are the straw that stirs the NBA's drink. Their challenge in actualizing that power, however, has been in working together well enough through tough negotiations. Players presumably could wield significantly more power, on economic and other issues, if they had a galvanizing event.

Both the league and the union got what they wanted, with the union enjoying one of its best days in years.

Taking a hard stand against racist statements was a no-brainer. Sterling offered up the ideal opportunity. Basketball players and politicians alike know you take a free layup like that. Johnson's political instincts enabled him to take advantage -- complete with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steve Nash standing with him.

Armed with some positive momentum, Johnson is now trying to keep the players together.

"This was galvanizing for us, it was a powerful moment for the union," Johnson told ESPN.com. "We saw this as an opportunity to reset the players' relationship with the league because ultimately we have the same goals."

Johnson's role with the union was sudden, strategic and productive in a way the union hasn't experienced while in a long-term quagmire. With players and agent factions jockeying for position in the wake of an embezzlement and nepotism scandal from past executive director Hunter that is raging on for a second year, Paul brought in Johnson less than a month ago to attempt to restart the process and create more trust.

This is a big change. In the lockout, Hunter called for limits on Stern's limitless powers to punish players. The proposal didn't get far. With Stern in retirement, however, the dynamic between the league and the union shows signs of shifting.

"The league and the players recently have been working more closely together across the board, not just through this event," said Ron Klempner, the NBPA's acting executive director. "Our player programs staffs have experienced something of a thaw. Everyone feels more secure and confident, knowing that we can work together with the league on projects that will benefit the players."

Paul and Johnson quickly agreed to expand his role within hours of the Sterling tape becoming public last Saturday. Before Silver's plane had even landed in Memphis, Tennessee, Johnson was on the phone setting up the union's position and gathering support and creating a position to make sure the union would be involved.

By the next day, Silver and Johnson were meeting in Oakland, California, before the Clippers and Warriors played in a playoff game where a silent protest was waged by players.

Both men were looking for support. Silver needed the players to remain patient while he sorted through his options and Johnson needed Silver to include the union in a process from which it might have been excluded in the past. Almost instantly, Johnson and Silver formed an alliance.

"The players felt right from the start of this that they had to be equal partners," Johnson said. "Commissioner Silver was very receptive and he was very open with us about what his powers were as he explained the options."

It's a long way from 2017, which is the next time the CBA can be up for renewal and the union and league will likely hunker down. But it's also a long way from 2011, when the lockout had the two sides at each other's throats for months.

In an unexpected way, the drama the Sterling matter created ended up becoming a foundation for a new face of the union and the new commissioner coming together to solve a problem in a way that benefited both of them.

Already the nature of the calendar -- this period between CBAs is fertile for creating better working relationships -- had seen the sides lower their guards. The new blood has helped and will continue to develop with a new executive director expected by the start of next season.

Johnson's ability to execute and his respect level among current players would make him a strong candidate for becoming the permanent union executive director, a job that has carried a seven-figure salary. But Johnson, whose political career is on the upswing, says he's no candidate.

"I don't believe this is a job for me," Johnson says. "But we're absolutely going to get the right person to be the executive director and this process has helped strengthen the field."