HOUSTON – Calling it “a day of change,” Derek Fisher told a roomful of reporters that the National Basketball Players Association had voted unanimously to terminate the employment of Billy Hunter, the union’s executive director since 1996.
That’s how Fisher, the union president, opened his statement. Moments later – and there weren’t many of those in the brief-statement, no-questions news conference that lasted fewer than three minutes – Fisher added: “We do not doubt that this process will possibly continue in an ugly way.”
Apparently, a day of change doesn’t happen overnight.
A group of NBA players estimated to number somewhere between 35 to 50 – All-Stars, participants in assorted weekend events, team player representatives and other interested union members – gathered Saturday afternoon to hear specifics in the NBPA’s dispute with Hunter and ultimately decide his fate. The roll-call included Miami’s LeBron James, New York’s Tyson Chandler, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, Minnesota’s Kevin Love, the L.A. Lakers’ Steve Blake, Houston’s Chandler Parsons and Cleveland’s Daniel Gibson, among the many.
Battle lines were drawn three weeks ago when an independent business review commissioned by the players was released, citing Hunter for nepotism and conflicts of interest and raising questions about the validity of his most recent contract extension. Hunter countered by saying that none of the incidents reported – including hiring two of his daughters or directing union financial business to an investment firm that employs his son – rose to the level of criminal conduct, though he swiftly instituted “reforms” against such activity. He also maintained that his contract – which pays Hunter an annual salary of about $3 million, with an estimated $10.5 million still due him – did receive proper oversight, per NBPA by-laws.
Friction between Hunter and Fisher sparked during and after the 2011 NBA lockout. The in-fighting led to a unanimous vote by what then was an eight-member executive committee of players seeking Fisher’s resignation. But with report last month from law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a newly configured committee voted 5-0 to place Hunter on paid leave of absence.
By announcing Hunter’s dismissal without fielding questions, there was no explanation offered for how an 8-0 committee vote against Fisher got turned around so thoroughly. Or what the veteran NBA guard’s future holds in relation to his union role. Or whether a broader vote by the general membership would be held or needed.
Up at the podium Saturday, Fisher said simply that he would continue as president. San Antonio forward Matt Bonner will serve as vice president and Miami’s James Jones continues as secretary-treasurer.
Brooklyn’s Jerry Stackhouse – who had been urging an NBPA housecleaning that would sweep out Hunter and Fisher – is the first vice president-elect. Chris Paul, Roger Mason Jr., Andre Iguodala, Stephan Curry and Willie Green will serves as vice presidents on the new executive committee.
Fisher’s brief statement did not provide a specific reason for Hunter’s termination or comment on the validity of his contract. Instead, Fisher said: We want to make it clear that we are here to serve only the best interests of the players. No threats, no lies, no distractions will stop us from serving our membership.”
Fisher alluded to “three ongoing government investigations pending” into Hunter’s business practices, including the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York. Some outsiders had speculated that the players might keep Hunter on his paid leave of absence while waiting for those investigations to be completed, perhaps in the hope they would provide “cause” for his firing.
But a union source told NBA.com that bringing the situation to a head now, rather than waiting, would be more helpful to the NBPA if the two sides opt to reach some settlement.
The 70-year-old Hunter, who had held his post since 1996, had wanted to participate in the players’ annual meeting at All-Star Weekend to provide his side of the story but he was told by the union he would not be permitted to attend. Instead, he put his rebuttal on a website, challenging the union’s position on him and handling of the matter.
But Fisher and his peers, as they stood at the front of a mostly empty banquet hall, seemed eager at least for the sounds of closure. “Going forward,” he said, “we’ll no longer be divided, misled, misinformed. This is our union and we’re taking it back.”