NEW YORK - In his office overlooking Lenox Avenue and 125th Street, the main artery of Harlem, Billy Hunter takes a deep breath and contemplates his first vacation in two years.
It will begin Dec. 26, but first he will attend the Celtics-Knicks game at Madison Square Garden. An NBA season Hunter worked so feverishly to secure, even when it appeared owners and players were determined to damage the sport by bickering over percentage points, will begin on Sunday after a new collective bargaining agreement was reached last month.
Hunter remains the executive director of the NBA Players Association, a job he plans to hold at least another five years. Despite those players who have come out publicly against him, and despite those agents and pundits who believed he should have decertified the union in July and played a high-stakes game of chicken with commissioner David Stern, Hunter maintained his agenda of negotiating in good faith, hoping the owners would reciprocate.
Hunter did decertify the union a few days before Thanksgiving to reignite negotiations, and at 3 a.m. on Nov. 26 the sides reached a long-awaited agreement that avoided irreparable harm.
A vacation for Hunter is overdue, in the islands with his wife, he said, away from basketball-related incomes, luxury taxes, and in-season drug testing. Away from the constant criticism from those constituents who believed he should have procured a deal a month earlier.
“We had no choice, we had to do it,’’ Hunter said about remaining stubborn during the lockout. “Keep in mind, the union is comprised of a diverse group of 450 players, so depending on who you talked to at any given moment, the players had different ideas and reactions of how you should play it.
“We got to the place where the owners thought they had us cornered and that we had to take the deal, and we just said, ‘No way.’ In order for you to go into a deal you had to get something. An opportunity availed itself to bring about a settlement and it was a settlement in retrospect neither side appears to be happy with.’’
Hunter said the union was committed to pursuing its two class-action lawsuits, filed in San Francisco and Minneapolis, until learning that each was assigned to what the union perceived to be a conservative labor judge, and that encouraged the union to restart negotiations on a deal that likely saved both sides millions of dollars in legal costs, and saved the sport from further embarrassment.
The NBA was coming off its best season of the post-Jordan era, and there was the perception that the owners and players would have enough sense to solve their labor issues to capitalize on that momentum, especially since the immensely popular NFL ended its lockout just in time to preserve a full preseason and regular season.
It became apparent during the summer that the NBA would not be as fortunate. Hours of negotiations produced little besides finger-pointing and pessimism. There were those players who took to Twitter to encourage Hunter to accept whatever deal the owners offered.
When the owners proposed a 50-50 split of basketball-related income, Hunter balked and said the union would not accept less than 52 percent, after receiving 57 in the last agreement. He was heavily criticized by those players who believed an even split sounded fair, even though many had not attended one labor meeting. Former Celtic Glen Davis said the players should take the even split, while free agent DeShawn Stevenson said days before an agreement was reached that Hunter was doing a “horrible’’ job.
“I think it’s just part of the process and it can’t be avoided,’’ Hunter said. “We had the same issue in ’98 and that a lot of our guys didn’t follow it and a lot of times they react because someone else is giving them misinformation and they really don’t understand the deal. And time will tell. As contracts become publicly known, then attitudes are then formed as a consequence of that.’’
From early indications based on the free agency period, it doesn’t appear the players are suffering from the new agreement. Marcus Thornton signed a four-year, $33 million deal with the Kings, while fellow former second-rounder Arron Afflalo agreed to a five-year, $43 million deal with the Nuggets, and former first-round bust Kwame Brown signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Warriors.
Hunter said one of his goals was to preserve the NBA middle class, and so far it is getting paid.
“Yeah, right away somebody tells you it was a bad deal,’’ said Hunter of the 49-51 band split the players OK’d. “[The players] know we took a reduction in percentage, and more importantly, athletes are accustomed to winning and that’s all they understand. So if you end up not hitting a home run, they’re not so sure you did as well as you could have.’’
With the owners claiming $300 million in losses per season, it became apparent the players were going to have to relinquish some of their financial power. Initially, owners wanted rollbacks of 30 percent, according to Hunter, the elimination of guaranteed contracts, and a hard salary cap, similar to that of the NHL. There were a group of smaller-market owners, angry about LeBron James’s move to Miami and determined to prevent players from jumping to big markets, who wanted to essentially eliminate the NBA middle class.
Hunter said a player such as Kobe Bryant, who will earn $25.2 million this season, would have earned $11.5 million under the owners’ initial proposal. The league received none of those concessions in the new deal.
“Guys will continue to earn millions of dollars and be the highest-paid group of athletes on the globe, and that’s what we’ve historically been,’’ said Hunter, a short-time NFL wide receiver in the 1960s. “What we said was we would not agree to any deal where players would take a cut, and they haven’t taken a cut.’’
During the latter stages of negotiations, when games were being canceled and Stern threatened a “nuclear winter,’’ there was widespread speculation that Hunter would be removed as executive director, that he should have agreed to the owners’ proposal months before and would lose his job as a result of the stalemate.
“The problem is, unless you were in the room and you were really engaged in the process, it’s all about Monday morning quarterbacking and people really didn’t know,’’ he said. “We have been doing this for two years and we had a strategy and we followed that.
“The agents were saying decertifying in July. They really weren’t interested in decertification, what they were interested in was leverage. Being a lawyer and knowing the law, I know that once you decertify the biggest argument you’ve got to get over is [whether it’s] a sham.’’
Hunter said the union finally decided to disband when Stern announced his “take it or leave it’’ offer Nov. 10. Such a move was designed to spark an agreement, but added ammunition to the union’s legal claim that owners were no longer negotiating in good faith. The disbandment lasted 16 days.
Hunter said the union would have been more stringent in its legal fight had it not viewed its chances of winning at 50-50 with the judges assigned to the class-action cases. Neither side wanted further litigation, and an agreement was reached after three more days of discussions.
While there were dozens of tweets criticizing the process and expressing dissatisfaction with Hunter and his board, he said the post-agreement reaction has been more positive. The players are consumed with the upcoming season, uninterested in lashing out at Hunter for what appears to be a more beneficial agreement as each day passes.
Hunter doesn’t hesitate in saying he thought a deal would be consummated regardless of the threats by Stern and the owners.
“I knew there would be a deal,’’ Hunter said. “The only way it would not have been if it got past Feb. 7, we wouldn’t have had a season, but I never saw that happening. Just having been there before and the losses would be so extreme.’’
The 69-year-old Hunter said he has no plans to step down, and has essentially ignored his detractors. “I’ve got like five years remaining on my contract, and that probably will be enough,’’ he said.
And while he and Stern spent months trading barbs, they are professional friends, two astute lawyers paid to spin perceptions to their sides. Each understands that negotiations are often painful, but necessary.
“We have a mutual respect,’’ said Hunter. “There’s wisdom in a sense that we’re both engaged in a business, you go to war and when the war is over you see generals visiting North Vietnam and they sit down and have discussions with their adversary. They find they have many things in common. I think that’s how it is with us. Our ultimate goals are the same, to promote the game because we all live as a consequence of the game. I just want to make sure my constituency gets their fair share since they’re the ones on the front line.
“To me, it’s all in a day’s work. It’s something we had to do.’’