|President Derek Fisher's look into the NBPA's business dealings has led to him being voted. (Getty Images)|
Any self-respecting sports owner, when asked what his best asset might be in a collective bargaining fight with the players, would have the same answer.
Simply, the players.
That's how it's been in NBA collective bargaining past. It briefly got that way during the 149-day lockout, but mostly, the tables were turned. It was owner vs. owner between July 1 and Nov. 26, when the deal finally was made. Behind the scenes, though, there was more infighting in the National Basketball Players Association than we knew. And that discord has spilled all the way into April, all the way to the final week of the 66-game season that was saved.
All the way to a power struggle between Billy Hunter and Derek Fisher, a showdown that was inevitable and one that could get messier than the labor fight with the owners ever was, even in its darkest hours.
Seeds for this rift were planted before the lockout even began, according to sources familiar with the union's business. Fisher, the five-time champion who was elected union president by his peers for the most crucial negotiation of their lifetimes, began to suspect early last summer that something was rotten in Harlem, the home base of the NBPA. Perhaps fueled by his own powers of deduction or helped along by the connecting of dots by operatives who have long been gunning for Hunter, the executive director, Fisher began to ask questions about union's finances and business dealings, sources said.
There was immediate and strong pushback from Hunter, and Fisher -- sensing that discord between the two faces of the union would hamper their efforts against the owners -- stood down, one of the people familiar with the dynamics said. But the discomfort between Hunter and Fisher did not subside. Through many, many months of torturous bargaining sessions against commissioner David Stern, deputy commissioner and lead negotiator Adam Silver and various factions of owners with different agendas connected only by their shared dysfunction, the rift between Hunter and Fisher widened.
Fisher, meticulous if nothing else in his preparation for basketball, bargaining or a union coup, sought the counsel of Manhattan law firm Patton Boggs, sources said. Recently, Fisher persuaded his fellow members of the NBPA's executive committee to retain the firm and conduct a review of the union's business practices. Several executive committee members, however, grew uncomfortable with Fisher's secrecy about his suspicions regarding the union's conduct, and at least one committee member urged Fisher to have a sitdown with Hunter to "clear the air," one of the sources said.
A conference call was arranged Tuesday with the executive committee and Hunter, but Fisher didn't participate, sources said. Hunter briefed the other committee members and persuaded them that no review was necessary -- at least not at Fisher's direction or on his terms. During the call, Fisher was contacting committee members and asking them to instead join him on a separate conference call with the lawyers he wanted to retain. The players refused, with the exception of the Heat's James Jones, who according to one union official dialed into Fisher's call -- apparently out of confusion.
The next day, amid the chaos, Fisher's fellow union officers voted 8-0 that he should resign as president. Fisher has refused, sending an email first to his fellow board members and then to the entire membership in which he challenged the committee to fulfill their "fiduciary duties" to the players and move ahead with the business review, which would examine such areas as finances, investments, hiring practices and the union's business relationships.
"Instead of looking at me and challenging me," a person who has seen Fisher's letter said, paraphrasing it, "I'm asking why aren't you looking at the person who's trying so hard to make sure this doesn't happen?"
Later Friday, Fisher issued a statement in which he accused fellow committee members of "protecting their own best interests instead of protecting the players," and said the committee has "waged a personal character attack on me to divert attention from the real issue. The truth." Fisher urged fellow union members to demand a player representative vote calling for a review of the NBPA's business practices and finances.
"The allegations now being directed at me are defamatory," Fisher said in the statement. "But I urge our members to order an independent review beginning immediately, and that will be proven -- along with finding out definitively if there are any issues with the NBPA's business practices and finances."
Fisher's fellow committee members believe he's gone rogue with a vendetta against Hunter, and one of them said Fisher has been at best an absentee president since the lockout ended. But Fisher, now with the Oklahoma City Thunder, believes he is making a stand against possible union corruption out of his duty as the president and at great political risk, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
"Why would I try and ask certain questions and call into review the association that I'm the president of unless I thought that there were some serious questions that needed to be answered?" Fisher told reporters Friday. "... I'll take the hits or the negative comments that may come or whatever may happen."
As for Fisher's destroyed relationship with his fellow union officers, a person close to Fisher said, "If he has to go down to protect them, then that's what he's going to do."
In reiterating the executive committee's no-confidence vote on Fisher, the NBPA issued a statement Friday accusing Fisher of "numerous instances over the past six months" of "conduct detrimental to the union, including acting in contravention of the players' best interests in collective bargaining." Hunter did not respond to attempts to contact him for comment beyond the union's statement.
Should Fisher continue to resist, the next step would be for the executive committee to call for a vote by the league's player representatives on whether Fisher should stay or go as president. Majority would rule either way, according to a person familiar with the union's constitution and bylaws. But even if Fisher chose or was forced to resign, a person familiar with his strategy said he would continue to press forward as a union member and demand that the business review he's seeking takes place. It is a strategy with limitations; not only is Fisher incapable of forcing the other board members to join him in taking on Hunter, but he also "doesn't have the votes" to keep his job, a person who has briefed players on the matter said.
"He's lost the confidence of the players and he's not representing our interests," a player said. "We gave him the courtesy of resigning without letting this thing get messy."
Basically, as you may have come to expect by now when it comes to the NBA's business dealings, it's another in a long line of good old fashioned crapstorms. The end of the lockout -- and, indeed, the end of the season that the lockout begat -- has only unleashed more turmoil, more fury.
I'm not a lawyer, even though I played one during the lockout. But either way, I have no evidence that Fisher has been derelict in his duties and can't explain what ulterior motives he might have to put his reputation on the line simply to smear Hunter. Also, I have no evidence that Hunter is guilty of anything illegal or unethical. All I have are a dozen years of financial statements that the NBA has been required by law to file with the U.S. Dept. of Labor, the most recent version of which is here. I'm not an accountant, either, but nothing jumps out -- other than Hunter's nearly $2.4 million salary and six-figure expense account, or Allen Iverson's $10,000 membership dues being refunded last year, all of which is interesting but hardly criminal.
All I know is that, in addition to the financial statements filed with the federal government, the NBPA is subject to annual financial audits and has from time to time conducted reviews of its business practices -- most recently, after negotiation of the 1999 and 2005 collective bargaining agreements. Union officials plan to subject the organization to another one, but not at the direction of Fisher and his handpicked law firm, sources said.
Whether Fisher is a brave whistle blower in the face of corruption or a player with an axe to grind whose power has been usurped by those who've been targeting Hunter for years should be left to those with real law degrees -- not just the honorary one I earned with a 149-day crash course from July to November. But I do know this: The players and their union have fallen into the very trap the owners have come to expect and relish.
If Fisher or any other dues-paying NBPA member wanted to lawyer up and perform a post-mortem on financial statements or business practices, their time would've been better spent on those of the owners. That's where the union officials believed the funny business was all along -- the third-party transactions, interest and depreciation expenses, all used to justify the $3 billion haircut over 10 years that was performed on the players in collective bargaining. It was a brilliant strategy, all in the name of "competitive balance," which as you can see is alive and well in Charlotte, where the Bobcats have won seven games, and many other cities where the scores are more lopsided than the CBA.
But instead, players are being players. They're doing what the owners always count on, engaging in a practice that is more common than Stern telling Hunter, "No." They're fighting amongst themselves. And this nasty case of Fisher vs. Hunter -- and player vs. player, for the leadership of the union -- is shaping up to make the labor talks look like Bingo night at the senior home.
Just when we thought the fighting was over, the fight got real.