Commentary

Hunter ready for troubled waters

Originally Published: July 9, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Billy Hunter & David SternAP Photo/Joe CavarettaBilly Hunter will work with commissioner David Stern to avoid a lockout in 2011.
NEW YORK -- War or peace?

Billy Hunter isn't sure which is coming to the NBA two summers from now, but he's preparing for the former while hoping for the latter.

As the NBA meanders through a summer of free-agent frugality in which the rich are getting richer, talent-wise, and the poor are staying poor, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association is taking a broad view of the events unfolding before him, trying to determine if those circumstances fit with what he believes is the owners' master plan: to stoke the fears of an upcoming work stoppage two years down the road.

If July 1, 2010, represents the beginning of the Summer of LeBron, then July 1, 2011, should henceforth be referred to as the Summer of Stern.

Armistice or Armageddon?

And from the signs Hunter is receiving from the league office, the outcome of that battle will not be known until late on the night of June 30, 2011, when the current NBA collective bargaining agreement is expected to expire.

The owners have until Dec. 10, 2010, to decide whether to pick up their option to extend the current CBA into the 2011-12 season.

And in Hunter's eyes, all signs point to that option's being declined.

"I anticipate they're not going to exercise their option; at least that's what they've been telegraphing for the last two years," Hunter told ESPN.com. "So I anticipate that with the economy being what it is, et cetera, if we don't have a deal by June 30, 2011, we're going to be facing a lockout -- and that's what I've told my players.

"I feel strongly that way. I have to prepare for the worst, and I'll be able to determine over the next year or so as we move forward how valid that representation is, whether it's real. But at this moment, you have to be prepared to go to the mat, and then you go from there."

[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty ImagesIf LeBron changes teams in 2010, will he get to play in 2011 with a lockout looming?

It has been more than a decade since the NBA went through its previous work stoppage, a seven-month lockout that reduced the 1998-99 season to 50 games.

Hunter was a relative neophyte when he helped negotiate an end to that stalemate, the players acquiescing to the owners' demands for a maximum salary level to be instituted, and to a system under which 10 percent of the players' paychecks are withheld for possible redistribution among the owners in the event that the percentage of league revenues being devoted to player salaries exceeds a predetermined level.

Hunter was also at the helm in 2005, when the owners and players agreed on an updated CBA that institutionalized the luxury tax system for the teams with the highest payrolls, and instituted an age limit that ended the practice of players' jumping straight from high school to the pros.

Union and league officials have been meeting regularly ever since (they generally hold a half-dozen or so sit-downs each calendar year), and they'll hold their first formal collective bargaining session later this summer.

"The vibe that I get in those meetings is that they're going to opt out -- that they're definitely opting out," Hunter said. "I am trying to determine how serious the NBA owners are about reaching an agreement, whether they're about reaching a fair deal or about trying to turn the tables on the players."

With the resignation of Donald Fehr as the director of the Major League Baseball players' union, Hunter, 65, is the elder statesman among leaders of the major professional sports unions.

He took over the union in 1996 at a time of turmoil, the organization having gone through three leadership changes (Charles Grantham, Alex English and Simon Gourdine all held Hunter's title) during 1994-96. Hunter's first two years were spent preparing for the war of 1998 that came off as predicted, and the experience he has gained through the NBA's decade of labor peace has left him better equipped to prepare a new generation of players for the type of doomsday scenario he has already lived through.

For all the pomp and circumstance of the sides' formal negotiating sessions, the biggest leaps during the past two collective bargaining talks have come when Hunter and commissioner David Stern have huddled privately.

The mutual distrust and unease that characterized their relationship a decade ago has evolved into a relationship of congeniality. Stern and his deputies long ago grew accustomed to Hunter's unpredictability while learning to temper that dynamic through an increase in regular dialogue and by channeling their energies toward mutually beneficial ends. Hunter is proud that player mentoring, pension and benefit improvements and career development programs (such as Shaquille O'Neal's taking broadcasting classes at Syracuse as part of the NBPA's Career Education Program) have blossomed in proportion to the increase in total player salaries (from $995 million in 1997-98 to $2.27 billion in 2008-09) over the course of his tenure.

But the global economic downtown, the possibility of two consecutive years of shrinking salary caps and the prospect of another labor war are what occupy his thoughts these days. The message to the player representatives from the 30 NBA teams at last month's union meeting in Las Vegas was clear: The smoke signals emanating from the league's Fifth Avenue office tower and from the mouths of many of the owners (several of whom have entered the league since the 1998-99 lockout) could foreshadow a combative future when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated.

[+] EnlargeShaquille O'Neal
David Liam Kyle/NBAE/Getty ImagesShaq will take broadcasting classes at Syracuse thanks in part to Hunter's career develoment programs.

"We've built a very respectful relationship between David and Billy Hunter and between out staffs, but we recognize there are times when we'll be at odds, and it's nothing personal. We both understand that both sides will benefit if both sides avoid a work interruption," NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver said.

For all the tough talk about raising the age limit to 20, eliminating 10.5 percent annual pay raises and lowering the maximum length of contracts, the real meat of the discussions is expected to be centered around the division of revenues and the percent the players are getting: 57, which is nearly 9 percentage points more than they were allocated when the salary cap was instituted in the 1980s.

The owners want a bigger slice of the pie and believe the current economic system is no longer sustainable; the players want to hang on to what they've bargained for in the past.

"The challenge somewhat mirrors the challenge of '98, because the array of owners has changed, and 90 percent of the players from '98-99 are no longer in the league," Hunter said. "We have an entirely new crop of players who have little or no understanding or recollection of the experience we had in the lockout of '98-99, and I think that's also the case with the current crop of NBA owners that are new to the game.

"And I think many of them may be using what transpired in the negotiations between the hockey players and the NHL sort of as their mantra of standards.

"So the question is whether they're really serious about trying to reach an agreement that's not going to damage or stymie the success of the league and destroy its vitality, or whether they want to turn the clock back. And I'm hearing they want to turn the clock back."

Time will tell, and the clock could start ticking on Dec. 10 of next year when the owners must decide whether to exercise their option to extend the agreement through 2011-12.

But whether they do or not, they'll eventually find themselves trying to hammer out a new deal with the former halfback from Syracuse who later became a U.S. attorney before taking on the job he currently holds. Hunter's own contract runs through 2012, meaning there is no uncertainty regarding who will be the dealmaker sitting across the table from Stern.

"If I had my druthers, I'd extend the current deal. I'd do an extension tomorrow," Hunter said. "The players are saying they're hoping we can reach [an] agreement without a lockout, and they generally feel like the deal as structured is working. They don't really see any need for any drastic changes, and the reality is that with an adjustment here and there we can enter into an extension, if that is the inclination of the commissioner and the current owners."

An extension, however, seems far less likely at this point than some sort of confrontation, whether it's merely a dustup or an all-out battle. Only time will tell which it'll be.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.