Longtime MLB and NHL labor nemesis Donald Fehr’s name has been mentioned. The acting director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, B. Todd Jones, might be approached, though he already has two jobs and he’s in the midst of his own controversy at the moment. And NBA.com’s David Aldridge on Monday offered up a trio of candidates who could be worthy choices to head up the National Basketball Players Association.
All this speculation about Billy Hunter’s possible successor as NBPA executive director was enough to trigger Hunter’s first interview defending his performance and arguing why he should continue in his job.
It might, however, be too little, too late. Again.
Too late because, for the second time in a week (and borrowing a term from politics), Hunter has tried to lead from behind. It was only after he was cited in an independent audit commissioned by the players for incidents of nepotism and conflict of interest that Hunter announced a series of “governance reforms” in how the NBPA would conduct its business.
Now, even as a list of replacements was being informally (or maybe even formally) compiled, Hunter tried to catch up to the process in a sitdown interview with the New York Times Wednesday. He is on indefinite paid leave blocking him from NBPA business or contact with NBA players while the union sorts through its options in advance of a highly scrutinized Feb. 16 meeting at All-Star Weekend in Houston.
Of course, Hunter’s silence to this point might have been driven by legal advice. A federal investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan and the Labor Department still is underway. The Times, citing an anonymous source, reported that “grand-jury subpoenas were issued to a number of players and union employees over the last several weeks and that the state of New York’s attorney general has begun an inquiry. Hunter has maintained throughout that none of his actions rise to the criminal level:
“They didn’t find one dime missing, nothing out of place.”
The too-little part? It’s risky to confuse quantity with quality in interview situations — men and women of few words can speak volumes — but Hunter’s quotes in Howard Beck’s story totaled a mere 184 words. In what was billed as a 65-minute interview, much of the time seemingly was taken up by Hunter’s attorney, Thomas Ashley, or by disputing specifics in the damaging report compiled by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
Among the more significant concerns cited in the audit were Hunter’s hiring of family members; his receipt of a $1.3 million vacation payout that was inadequately documented; the decision to spend $80,000 in “due diligence” on a possible investment in a failing bank that had ties to his son; and questionable travel expenses. Hunter called the report “just a lot of little things.”
“It’s almost like you put enough together, and you throw it up against the wall, hopefully something will stick,” he said. “But when you look at them each individually, we can rebut them.”
The challenge for Hunter might be getting an appropriate forum. The Times story noted that Boston’s Paul Pierce and Brooklyn’s Deron Williams already have spoken publicly about the need for a replacement. And veteran Jerry Stackhouse is ready for a change, too, according to Vincent Goodwill of the Detroit News.
The Times story noted, too, that the 70-year-old director might not be permitted to attend meetings at All-Star Weekend that could decide his fate. Hunter seemed skeptical that he would be given a fair chance by union president Derek Fisher or the executive committee to present his side of the issues, beyond what he already has done.
“I assume that between now and then that Derek will be doing everything he can to stack the deck,” Hunter said, referring to the coming union meeting, “so that they have the appropriate players in place to vote according to their request or plan.”
Hunter’s future would be determined by a vote of the NBPA’s 30 player representatives. In the event things don’t go as he might like, Hunter and Ashley said that – if he were terminated – they feel the $10.5 million and benefits left on his contract still would be due him. A legal fight for it, if necessary, surely would ensue.
Two items of interest related to that: First, the NBPA’s coffers apparently are in great shape, with a reported $80 million surplus, according to the Times story.
Second, NBA players have talked for years about their “partnership” with the owners. Well, one thing owners sure are good at is firing people in leadership positions (a.k.a. coaches) and paying them not to work even as they hire – and pay – replacementa. The NBPA soon might be feeling that partnership more than ever.