HOUSTON – Traditionally, All-Star Saturday calls to mind images of dunkers, marksmen and practitioners of the pebble-grain arts in a night filled with hoopla and hoops. This weekend, though, All-Star Saturday will be a call to order — a call to arms, even — with the bonus imagery of grim-faced NBA stars in street clothes emerging from hotel meeting rooms.
Those sort of lockout flashbacks could be in play given the busy agenda for the NBA players’ union in its mid-winter meeting Saturday afternoon. Billy Hunter, embattled executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, could be ousted by a players vote if the findings of an independent business review animate and carry the day. Or, Hunter’s paid leave of absence – imposed on Feb. 1 amid charges that he engaged in nepotism, conflicts of interest and other improper business practices – could continue indefinitely while the NBPA explores its tactical and legal options.
“To be honest, I don’t know that much about it,” Chicago center Joakim Noah said during All-Star media availability Friday. “But the things that I hear are kind of alarming. It doesn’t feel clean. It’s not a good feeling to feel that way. We should feel comfortable, if he’s representing us, as players.”
Noah’s reaction is typical of a lot of union members – he happens to be one of Chicago’s player reps – who pay attention mostly to the big stuff: elections, lockouts and alleged violations of trust. That’s why the report in late January by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison — commissioned by the players out of a rift between Hunter and NBPA president Derek Fisher – is grabbing their attention.
Hunter was criticized in the report for hiring two daughters, for directing NBPA financial business to an investment firm (Prim Capital) that employed his son, for using union funds for personal expenses and for allegedly working on a contract – which pays him an annual salary of about $3 million – that was improperly ratified. He was not cited for any criminal infractions, he defended his conduct and, after the report was released, Hunter recommended policy reforms to prevent similar abuses in the future.
The chances of Hunter hanging onto his job have worsened over the past two weeks. Several NBA players, including Boston’s Paul Pierce and Brooklyn’s Jerry Stackhouse, called for his removal as one of several union changes. Arn Tellem, one of the league’s most powerful player agents, wrote a letter to his clients urging them to vote for Hunter’s termination.
His plan to explain to and persuade the players by attending their meeting Saturday ended when they opted not to invite him. Instead, Hunter and a team of attorneys posted statements of his position – and the PowerPoint presentation he had intended to show the players – on a “blog” Friday. Hunter, 70, has held his position since 1996, steering the union through two major lockouts and presiding over an increase in the average player salary to $5 million.
“Billy Hunter’s always been, in my eyes, an honest person and I support him,” Memphis forward Zach Randolph said. “Whatever he does, I don’t have no problem with it. I read some of the report that came out and I didn’t see him doing anything wrong.”
Randolph said he “might be at the meeting” and that, if the opportunity arises, he “definitely would” speak up on Hunter’s behalf. Others sounded more non-committal, seeking details before passing judgment.
“Part of why I’ll be at the meeting, I want to know exactly what’s going on,” Bulls forward Luol Deng said. “I can’t speak out for something I’m not 100 percent about. I know Billy Hunter’s a good guy. Everything that’s happened? I don’t know.”
Said Golden State forward David Lee: “The most important thing is, we need to all be united in whatever we decide. Right now, it looks like there’s some indecision and some things we need sorted out. Whatever we decide, whatever direction we go in, we all need to be on the same page.”
Getting this fixed – Hunter has a reported $10.5 million left on his contract and will sue to be paid in full, sources said – represents a challenge to the NBPA. Like a lot of similar associations, apathy can take hold and member involvement often slackens until the next crisis.
“But it’s very important,” said L.A. Clippers guard Chris Paul, a member of the interim executive committee. “Players are the union. We want to make sure we have a strong union, everybody believes in what’s going on and we move on.”
San Antonio reserve Matt Bonner, also on the five-man committee of union vice presidents, said this can be an opportunity for the NBPA, as well. Having its business put out in the street like this is a public relations blow, he acknowledged. But a greater good could follow.
“Players reps will be here, additional players will be here, and we can have a really productive discussion on how we’re going to move this thing forward,” Bonner said. “The more player involvement we have, the better.