As in the NFL, the NBA is facing a perilous period of player/owner relations. Threats of lockouts loom over the sport, as the economic stagnation of the country has both sides trying to make sure they aren’t left out in the cold. Here NBA Executive Board member and Oklahoma City Thunder Player Etan Thomas and Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin speak with NBA Players Association Executive Director Billy Hunter.
Dave Zirin: Let me ask you the same question I asked NFL union chief DeMaurice Smith: What are the chances of a lockout
Billy Hunter: Well, I guess it pretty much depends upon how serious the NBA owners and Mr. Stern are about reaching an agreement. I’m sure that they understand that they have at this point presented us with a proposal that they should’ve had no expectations of us actually giving any serious consideration to. So, I don’t know whether its just part of negotiations or if they were serious. If they’re serious, then the probability of us reaching an accord is slim to none.
DZ: What was so repellent about their proposal?
BH: They wanted the elimination of guaranteed contracts, the implementation of a hard salary cap, a reduction of the length of contracts, elimination of all guarantees, a general rollback from players reveiving 57% of the revenue back to about 50%. That would mean imposition of a hard salary cap that would
probably be in the area of about $43-44 million as opposed to – most teams are well over the cap now at an average of about $70 million….If that happened, the top players would see salaries compressed to about 11-12 million a year and we’d probably have a system similar to the one that we had in 1998 when we went through the lockout where at least two-thirds of players – were minimum salary-players.
Etan Thomas: One of the things that really amazed me in speaking with DeMaurice Smith was that the NFL doesn’t show their union their books,
Now we don’t have that same problem. But what happens if we disagree with their numbers or our experts tell us numbers that differ with what they have reported?
BH: Well, if we disagree, we would take the position that we’re currently taking which is that we’re not going to negotiate based on their numbers. They’re not losing that kind of money. As a matter of fact, for the past 12 years, since the lockout in 1998, the owners experienced with the exception of maybe the last year or two – or a year or so ago when we had the economic implosion -about a 12% economic increase in franchise value per year.
DZ: So what can fans do if they don’t want to see a lockout?
BH: I’ll use the example of President Obama who says that he understands what people want and he’s in a position to make it happen but he needs grassroots pressure from the general public. So, if there are matters that concern them that they think the President should take action on, then they’ve got to start a movement, they’ve got to put pressure on him to do it. I adopt the same philosophy in regard to the NBA and basketball that if the fans begin to voice their opposition and express their concern and say that if there’s a lockout and you can’t reach an accord, they’re going to walk away from the game, then I think that creates a problem for both the owners and for us, and it’s something that we have to seriously consider. It took us – after the 1998 lockout – it took 5 years for us to recover to get to the pre-lockout revenue and my contention is, with the economy being like it is, if we were to have a work stoppage, it would probably take about 10 years to get back. I would think that’s something that would clearly get Mr. Stern’s attention as well as the owners, that the league may not recover. Fans may leave and they’ll never come back, and so we have to exercise good judgment, good sound prudent judgment.
ET: A few years ago you equated a lockout to the devastation of being a player who tore an ACL, and I thought that was just a perfect illustration of how devastating it would be to the league. You know our fans have been great in support in the face of everything that’s been going on economically, but a lockout – just to really impress on people how serious of a problem that would be as far as the league recovering as a whole.
BH: Well, you know I think that the overall attitude in corporate America today just seems to be greed. Everywhere you look, everyone wants as much or more than they deserve, and so they feel they’re in a position to demand it, and that’s what they’ve done. We’re saying no way. It isn’t going to happen…. Now Larry Ellison or Oracle wants to by the Golden State Warriors. Michael Jordan purchased the Charlotte Bobcats. Why are these people buying these franchises if they are such a poor nvestment? And not only are they buying them, but what is the league, or the respective sellers, what are they telling them to convince them to buy them under these circumstances if things are so bad?
ET: Let’s talk free agency. The league likes the idea of a free agent market. They hype it up like, where’s LeBron going, where’s Chris Bosh
going, where’s Dwyane Wade going? David Stern was talking about it. Why exactly would they want to restrict that type of movement and flexibility?
BH: Remember, free agency was negotiated some 20 years ago in the NBA. The reality is that the publicity generated by LeBron James creates a
lot of attention and positive press for the NBA, the act that people all over the world are concerned as to where this kid is going to go. Obviously the impact, and I think the argument that David (Stern) is making, is that he feels there should be a relationship between a given player and the community to which he is assigned to a given team. You have LeBron in Cleveland. They would like to see him stay there because he has obviously had a positive impact on the city of Cleveland, it’s economy, the franchise, etc. But, because he is a professional athlete, and because we do have free agency and that he should have the right to seek others who are prepared to pay him.
DZ: There are a lot of similarities in terms of what the NFL Players Association is dealing with and what the NBA Players Association is dealing. Do you see opportunities for perhaps joint work with the NFL PA and the NBAPA and how would that work? Is that something that you and Demaurice Smith have discussed at all?
BH: Yeah, as a matter of fact, De called me the other day. We have our summer meeting coming up on June 23rd, and DeMaurice raised, the
possibility of us having some kind of joint meeting sometime before the summer ends where we have his players come in, our players come just so we can exchange ideas. They can hear what it’s like to go through a lockout. They can benefit from our experience. For whatever reason, I tend to
think that basketball and football are kind of leading the way in professional sports in terms of where it’s going to go, what things are going to be like in the future for professional athletes, what they can expect in terms of rights and privileges, what they can expect in terms of compensation….I think basketball players, the people I represent, are pretty sophisticated, and in 1998 I think we shocked everybody because we stayed together. We were unified. We withstood the 7-month lockout and we ended up then striking a compromise which was very fulfilling, and it benefited our players greatly. Our players are prepared to fight. So, they are just not going to take a bad deal. I think that in a way what it does is – I think our stance, and I think what
[DeMaurice Smith] feels is that the stance taken by basketball players will help to strengthen his position with his own players, and
probably it’ll give them the support that they need to take a similar stance.
DZ: Could you ever see yourself in a situation where you and the NFL Players maybe do something like a joint press conferences or joint public meetings where you actually have players from both sports come together and speak about a kind of cross-sport solidarity open and to the public?
BH: Dave, that was the kind of relationship that Gene Upshaw and I had. As a matter of fact, Gene Upshaw stood with me when I went through the lockout in 1998.. As a matter of fact, we had few dollars and Gene came to me and said that the NFLPA would loan us as much as we needed to get through the lockout. That was the kind of commitment we had. So, I’m all for it, and I’m going to have that discussion with DeMaurice, and I’m going to look for Etan to remind me and to help push the matter.
ET: I will remind you.