Derek Fisher was one of the last players to file into the conference room after Tuesday's collective bargaining talks broke down. He was impeccably dressed, as usual, and as he reached the podium, he patiently prepared his notes before starting his address.
Fisher has been, without question, the most impressive part of the NBPA throughout this entire process. While the union's lawyers linger and mingle with the media after each meeting, eager to offer their input, Fisher makes intelligent points, offers level headed perspective with genuine sincerity and then quickly departs. There is no propaganda from him, no posturing and no act. Fisher, a widely respected veteran and five-time champion, may be all that is keeping this union together right now.
There is a reason why David Stern threatened a $1 million fine for any owner or team employee who spoke publicly about the lockout. The mission is to keep everyone on the same message, even when there are disagreements behind closed doors. And if you don't think the owners have had their own spats about decisions Stern has made, you're being naive. But in negotiations over billions of dollars, the slightest sign of weakness can be used as leverage.
This is why some agents, while intending to take the wheel from the reeling executive director Billy Hunter, have really only given Stern and the owners more fuel by publicly criticizing the union for what is viewed as conceding too much in negotiations.
"Part of the problem is that the agents are not in the room," Hunter said, "and they would like to be in the room. But we have their players in the room and these players can set the record straight in terms of what actually happens.
"But I think what happens is people begin to make up stories about what’s going on when they don’t know what the reality is."
It goes like this: players in these meetings relay what's being said to other players, who pass it along to the agents, who, of course, flip it to the media. The stories are sensational -- Dwyane Wade was portrayed as a hero for standing up to Stern, which subliminally also made it appear Wade did something Hunter was unwilling to do -- and fun to read, but they're also incendiary.
As a fan, you are often left not knowing what to believe out of source-based reports. Now just imagine how players who aren't in the room feel. Right now they don't know who or what to trust. Derek Fisher tries very hard to maintain that trust. And some semblance of dignity.
A fractured union is the result of weakness and distrust in leadership. And Stern is carefully using the agent strong-arming to his advantage in the collective bargaining process. Seeing a union on the verge of fracture, he applied some added pressure by revealing to the media the concept of the 50-50 BRI split, which was discussed only in private and never put on the table.
The owners knew: just wait until the majority of players saw that offer was rejected. The sides were actually getting closer as Tuesday afternoon went into the evening at that Times Squre hotel, but rather than keep working at it, the union instead broke off talks and Hunter spoke in aggressive tones about how the next meeting might not be for another month or two.
We should point out here that it was the agents who, in a letter released on Monday (and, to little surprise, leaked to several national media outlets), told the players not to accept anything less than the 53 percent already offered.
So with Hunter taking the 50-50 back to the players and having it rejected, does this suggest the agents are now driving the bus?
It seems along with a battle of wills with the owners, Hunter is also in a power struggle with these agents, firing off letters to players to counter things the agents are saying in their own letters to players. In the most recent letter, first reported by Yahoo! Sports, Hunter explained why the 50-50 deal was rejected: because, he said, the players, who have come down from 57 percent of the BRI to 53 percent, have already given back enough.
And that echoed what the agents said in their letter, too.
Clearly Hunter, deserved or not, is in the crosshairs. Perhaps it's because players feel the union did not properly prepare them for a long battle. As we've previously reported, the union held $25,000 per player for the past three years to build up a war chest. That's $75,000 per player for a group that, on average, takes home $92,000 a week in salary. So as a result, we now have star players such as Kobe Bryant offering to loan money like a bank and, yes, there will be interest.
So young players who were enjoying the "Baller" lifestyle and hadn't quite built up a bank account just yet must turn to veterans, instead of their union, for some assistance. Just like regular people, you're starting out a career already in debt.
But really there isn't much Hunter and the union can do about lost wages. Still, the players' loyalty to Hunter may have started to wane as early as last June, when one of the league's smartest players, Shane Battier, asked a simple, innocent question of Hunter during a union meeting.
Battier made reference to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, who vowed to accept only $1 in salary during the NFL lockout, and asked Hunter if he would do the same. Hunter, who reportedly earns a little over $2 million a year as the union leader, was caught off guard and it took some members of the NBPA's executive committee to defend him. [It should be mentioned here that Stern, whose take home has been reported to be anywhere from $10 million to as much as $20 million per year, announced he would not draw a paycheck from the owners during the lockout].
Curiously, Battier hasn't been heard from since. On Twitter, he has said little about the lockout or the maddening lack of progress after each meeting. He did, however, reply to a frustrated tweet by Chase Budinger by saying, "when your [sic] ready for advice. Come talk to me."
One of the smartest minds the players could tap into has been absent from meetings -- he's not the only one, I know of two other high-IQ players who have vowed to never again waste their time attending a union meeting -- and absent from standing beside Fisher. Battier was instead replaced by Wade, who was class-clowning with LeBron, Baron Davis and Co. behind Fisher during the press conference after Friday's meeting. Good move, union.
It should be noted, however, that the input of Paul Pierce -- who may be petulant on the court, but if you look into his off-the-court ventures, he's extremely thoughtful and level-headed -- has been a positive recent addition as Fisher's wingman. (Coincidentally, Pierce's agent, Jeff Schwartz, is one of the renegade agents pushing for decertification. But Pierce doesn't echo that sentiment.)
And additionally encouraging is a report Wednesday by ESPN's Chris Broussard, who said on Twitter that Richard Hamilton threatened to dump his agent, Leon Rose, if he "doesn't leave the 'anti-union' group." Hamilton is no longer an influential player in the league, but the move could spark some momentum. Rose also represents many of the league's top stars, including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
If others follow Hamilton's reported move -- which he has subsequently denied via Twitter (*facepalm*) -- that could not only save this union and protect Hunter, for the time being, but would clearly keep the talks with the league on track and the hope for a full season alive.
To get there, everyone has to keep calm and follow Fisher's example. It was hard not to notice his quiet resolve amid the white noise that came out of Tuesday.
And with lawyers whispering after press conferences, the NBPA spin machine in full cycle, feeding the excuses to reporters, agents, driven by personal agenda, throwing poison darts and four hundred-plus players growing more and more confused and frustrated by the day, Fisher stood at that podium in front of all of this mayhem like the first mate at the bow of a ship lost at sea. While everyone else around him was panicking, he was doing his best to keep the crew from mutiny.
* * *
* - Despite the suggestion that talks have broken off and could be dormant for a while, with the fate of the regular season still hanging in the balance, you can expect the NBA and NBPA will, at the very least, touch base one more time before Stern's Monday deadline to cancel the first two weeks of the regular season. From experience, it is usually at this time in the process when talks go underground and, considering the presence of the meddling agents, this might be the best plan of action for Hunter.
Though Yom Kippur eliminates Saturday as a potential work day, there is still Thursday, Friday and Sunday -- and, to some extent, Monday -- to hammer out a deal. Will they? That remains to be seen.
But, quite frankly, it's better if it's not heard about under AFTER it happens.
* - Many of you have asked about decertification and what it would mean. The renegade agents believe the best move is to decertify, which would dissolve the NBPA and leave the players to individually file antitrust lawsuits against the NBA, as we saw with the NFL in the spring. The lead counsel on a majority of these lawsuits? Jeffrey Kessler, who also happens to serve as outside counsel for the NBPA.
Decertification isn't entirely a bad idea. In fact, it happens very often in labor battles around the country. In this case, however, it is about timing. The NFLPA chose to decertify in March, months before the NFL season was scheduled to begin. It allowed time for the process to begin and the owners and players to come together again to hammer out a new deal in time to preserve the regular season.
[By the way, the football season was saved when the NFLPA accepted a 53-47 deal after coming down from a 50-50 split in the previous CBA].
At this point, decertification for the NBPA would be a nuclear option and this is another reason why faith in Hunter is disintegrating. Hunter continually rejected the idea of decertificaiton when the lockout began in July because he believed the better option was to collectively bargain with the league.
Then the NBA filed its own antitrust lawsuit against the NBPA in early August as a preemptive strike against decertification, by aiming to prove the league is within its rights to lock out the players. Statements will be heard in Federal Court on Nov. 2 and it is a process, with appeals and counter-suits, which could take months to resolve.
"Decertification," one well-versed player with direct knowledge of the negotiations said, "almost ensures no season this year."
One issue all sides -- agents included -- can agree on is that is not the end result anyone wants to see.