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Hunter, Fisher stand tall ... and almost alone

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Fisher says he's working 'tirelessly' for the players, but do they appreciate it? (Getty Images)  
Fisher says he's working 'tirelessly' for the players, but do they appreciate it? (Getty Images)  

Billy Hunter was facing a coup from afar Thursday when he held a meeting in Las Vegas to rally the union and put to rest the notion that it was splintering. And the coup threats remained afar -- as in far, far away.

Funny, agents representing 30 percent of the players are trying to topple the NBPA and send it on the path to destruction, yet dozens and dozens of their clients couldn't even be bothered to show up for a critical meeting of their union. Granted, this was no meeting of the full union membership; one of those could be coming in the next few weeks, sources said. But since when did NBA players need an excuse to go to Vegas?

This shameful display of non-unity -- 35 freakin' players at a meeting two days after labor talks fell apart amid outside pressure to scrap whatever progress has been made and try a new, flawed strategy -- is just par for the course in this fight among the billionaires who are waging it and the players who prefer to sit back and watch.

While the Roger Mason Jrs. and Theo Ratliffs and Keyon Doolings and Matt Bonners and Etan Thomases of the world stood with NBPA president Derek Fisher and Hunter, the stars of the NBA -- many of them represented by the agents saber-rattling for decertification -- remained out of the picture. They pass the time poking fun at each other on Twitter (see Dwyane Wade and LeBron James), organizing ill conceived rec-leagues and doing who-knows-what-else.

All I know is, every third tweet I see from an NBA player has him saying "wheels up" on his way from one coast to another. And yet only 35 of them could find an airplane scheduled to land in Las Vegas?

The owners have their issues, too, dealing with the rogue hard liners like Robert Sarver and Dan Gilbert, who unsurprisingly were reported to have been the foremost deal killers on Tuesday -- when optimism turned to dust and canceled games seemed ever more likely. But at least those guys are doing the work. At least they're in the room.

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Hunter is absolutely correct in resisting the decertification strategy that didn't work for the NFL players in their lockout and won't work for the NBPA. Fisher, proving day after day to be a capable, meticulous president of the union, went out of his way Thursday to rein in the rogue forces with a borderline brilliant letter to the union membership -- a letter that was clearly intended for public consumption, something Fisher went so far as to write.

"To Each & Every Player," Fisher began in the letter -- obtained by SI.com -- to all 400-plus players. In addition to asserting that it was division among the owners that led to a breakdown in talks, Fisher meticulously took down the agents who've been clamoring for dissolving the union -- among them, Arn Tellem, Mark Bartelstein, Bill Buffy and Dan Fegan, among the most powerful in the league.

"I have made myself available to each and every agent," Fisher wrote. "But not once have I heard from them. If they are so concerned about the direction of the union, then why have they not contacted me? ... If there is a genuine concern, a suggestion, a question, call me. Email me. Text me. I'm working tirelessly each and every day on behalf of the over 400 players that they represent. Working for nothing but the best interests of THEIR guys. I don't make a commission, I don't make a salary for serving as President. I have NO ulterior motives. None.

"It is because they have not come to me once that I question their motives," Fisher wrote.

The players' strategy to thwart the lockout was to challenge the league's bargaining tactics under federal labor law with the National Labor Relations Board. Had they decertified and filed an antitrust lawsuit, they would've followed the same fruitless path through the federal court system that the NFL players tried. All the NFL players got was a narrow ruling from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a district judge didn't have the authority to enjoin the lockout. The appeals panel didn't touch the validity of the NFLPA's decertification.

What ultimately led to a deal was the same thing that will lead to one in the NBA: the calendar. With NFL training camps about to open, both sides decided that the time for posturing and suing each other was over and the time to actually negotiate a labor agreement was upon them.

Courts were never going to end the NFL lockout, and they're not going to end the NBA's, either. But one thing is for sure on the legal front: The NBPA's best -- and perhaps only -- chance at winning a federal injunction lifting the lockout will come under labor law through the NLRB. And guess what happens to the players' NLRB complaint if they decertify or if the union disclaims interest in representing them anymore?

It goes down the toilet, along with most or all of the 2011-12 season.

That is one of the reasons Fisher recruited DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA's executive director, to speak with what turned out to be only a handful of players Thursday in Las Vegas. Fisher wanted Smith to explain to the players that decertification is not the magic bullet some have made it out to be, and to remind them to stick together.

What a contradictory message that turned out to be, a union leader urging unity in a room with, at best, 10 percent of the union membership present. The 35-40 players who did show up wore the now well-known "STAND" T-shirts. But it only made you wonder what the other 400-plus players were wearing, and more important, where they were.

Where they "stand."

"Billy has been put in a really tough position," said Bartelstein, one of the agents pushing to decertify. "You can't negotiate by yourself. He's tried to show that he wants to make a deal, and the league has responded by saying, 'No, we're not going to do anything until there's more pain, until you start missing paychecks.' My only goal in this thing is try to find solutions, to try to find a fair and equitable deal and not lose the season."

Hunter has signaled his willingness to move on the economics, perhaps as low as 52-53 percent -- down from the players' previous take of 57 percent -- to get a deal. But on Tuesday in New York, he told the owners he wasn't going to give them the money and the system they want to go with it. With an unknown number of owners hellbent on a hard salary cap -- Fisher said Thursday he believes it's actually less than half -- Hunter is facing the most difficult fight of his 15-year tenure leading the players union.

But the tough position he finds himself in cannot be credited solely to the owners, the opponent. It is also attributable to the enemy within -- the forces who insist on zigging while he zags -- and the hundreds of players who remain silent while he and Fisher and an executive committee of journeymen stick up for them.

At some point, if the NLRB continues on its typically glacial government pace, Hunter's hand could be forced. But know this: He will not zig out of turn, or under pressure. He will not be persuaded to blow up his best legal chance at ending the lockout just weeks before a decision is due.

Would you do that, apply the scissors to your nose to spite your face? Would you give a sworn affidavit to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York that you had no plans to decertify your union -- as Hunter did recently -- and then turn around and do it?

If you had been accused by your employer of plotting an illegal strategy, would you save them the trouble of having to prove it?

No, Hunter will not. He and Fisher are in charge of this negotiation for the players, even as so few players seem to notice or participate. They are prepared to lead the talks down the path they ultimately must find -- to a handshake between Hunter and Stern on another collective bargaining agreement, almost certainly the last for both.

There is no questioning Hunter's or Fisher's motives, but where the rest of the players stand remains a mystery. The stars who get all the money and endorsements, who want all the shots at the end of the game, are still on the bench -- still not in this fight.

By the time they get to the scorer's table, or the airport security line, it might be too late.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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