Hard Choices

Billy Hunter on Dissolving the NBA Players' Union


The dissolution [of the players’ union] happened when we got the last ultimatum, on Nov. 10. We were at the Helmsley Hotel [in New York], where we’d been locked up in a room for 14 to 15 hours. [NBA Commissioner] David Stern said, “The negotiations are over. You either take it, or you suffer the consequences.” If we didn’t take the last proposal, the owner group had decided they’d go from the 50/50 [revenue share] deal they were offering to 47 percent [for the players]. And if we didn’t take it at 47, it would go back to 43. So you’re talking about going from a $350 million-a-year giveback to $700 million, almost a billion-dollar-a-year giveback. The players as a group decided, we can’t accept this.

Until then we had no intent to dissolve the union. The primary hurdle you have to get over is that the dissolution of the union is not a sham, or being perpetrated solely to obtain leverage. We didn’t even consider it in July. The agents were insisting that we do it, and we said no. It’s not something that you take lightly. I still agonize over it. In July it would not have been appropriate. Everybody would have seen through it. We were still negotiating with the NBA. I did not think we were close to a deal, but I didn’t want to give up.

I met David Stern back in 1996. Our relationship is a professional one. We’ve never been where the two of us have decided, with our wives, to go out to dinner. We have an idea what each of us is willing to do, within reason, to keep everything together. In retrospect, I don’t think David had the same level and degree of control that he had in prior negotiations. A new crop of owners came in about six or seven years ago. When the economy imploded, their expectation was that someone had to give them money, either from revenue-sharing from the big markets or it had to come off the backs of the players.

I know how much this means to the players. The lockout was extremely painful in 1998. One difference was that the players collectively were not earning as much then as they do today. When players come into the league today, they come with a different mindset. It’s important for them to understand the business aspect of it. If a player gets injured, his career could be over, and everything goes up in smoke. — As told to Diane Brady   


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