Surrounded only by empty chairs and a big-screen television that still had the NBA players' motto of "STAND" across the screen, union president Derek Fisher sat back in his seat inside this swank hotel space on Thursday afternoon. Colleagues who had asked the hard questions and shared their frustration were gone, having left with buoyed spirits and much-needed resolve in this lockout. NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith had left, too, his message of unity successfully shared after Fisher so brilliantly invited the man who knows these types of struggles to share his wisdom.
Fisher looked like a statesman, of course, his tie still tight and shirt still tucked. Union head Billy Hunter had even used that word in the news conference to discuss the day's events not long before.
But the 37-year-old Lakers guard, who is so known for his poise and polish, had to do much more than look the part this time around. He had to lead.
The room was theirs at first, those 40-something players on hand who had so much angst and doubt. Some spoke louder and more passionately than others, among them Celtics center Jermaine O'Neal, Warriors forward David Lee and Clippers guard Mo Williams, according to player sources.
The veterans had questions about the strategy, concerns about urgency and strong opinions about the importance of protecting the players who will make up the league when they're gone. There was even a moment of panic from Cavaliers forward Samardo Samuels, a 22-year-old, second-year player from Jamaica who wanted help deciding whether he should stick with the union stateside or head for Greece or Spain until the lockout smoke clears. Golden State forward Louis Amundson wanted answers, too.
Eventually, with the likes of Fisher and Hunter and NBPA vice president Maurice Evans calming the constituents, faith was restored.
Of the 10 players who spoke with SI.com, all of them insisted that this was not a public relations stunt, that perception met reality when it came to this unification. What's more, Fisher and the players are now convinced that there is a divide among the owners that they hope helps with a resolution. And then there are the agents.
Fisher took that challenge head on earlier Thursday, when his email to players, which was obtained by SI.com, accused some agents of acting on their own agendas and implored the players to support the union's efforts. There is a small but influential group -- Jeff Schwartz, Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Dan Fegan and Mark Bartelstein -- who are known to be pushing for decertification of the union.
So Fisher countered with a subtle but strong message in his letter, vowing to fight for the players he represents while naming a seemingly random group of 10 players: Blake Griffin, Tyler Hansbrough, Pau Gasol, DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Jrue Holiday, Taj Gibson, Danny Granger, Steve Nash and Luke Babbit. Upon further review, though, it appeared there was a meaning to be decoded: Each agent from the dissenting group represents two of the players cited.
It was all old news by the time Fisher sat down for an interview with SI.com. The room, and this microphone, were his.
SI.com: So are you fatigued at all through this whole process?
Fisher: Not really. The travel has been tough. But in terms of just energy and resolve, I'm good.
SI.com: This is an every-day, every-hour thing for you and the players committee. Do meetings like this give you a chance to make it clear to the guys how hard you're going at this?
Fisher: We talked about that a little bit earlier. It's one thing to keep our players informed via email or podcast and different vehicles. But there's a personal connection that evolves. We got the opportunity to sit down with our guys and talk to them directly. It's tough, obviously, during the season to have larger group meetings where 40 guys can show up and get information, but it's been valuable for us. Our summer meetings, our regional meetings, our All-Star meetings, they're key to us being able to evolve and do the job we need to do.
SI.com: With this meeting, I was curious to know when you decided to add a few wrinkles here with the invitation of DeMaurice Smith and the letter to the players? And what was the mentality too?
Fisher: I think the mentality was similar to what I just mentioned a second ago, is that I needed to personalize it even more than it is. I'm in constant communication with hundreds of players, so it's not that they don't have information and updates or get email responses or information from the NBPA website, etc., etc., but I sensed it was important to step up and take an even stronger leadership position and be willing to take the responsibility and the accountability that comes with the position. Not to sit back and allow influences from outside of the room to dictate the way my job and my tenure and how the job that I do will be viewed without taking proactive steps.
I felt like the letter was important recognizing that all 400 guys weren't going to meet every day, to let them know exactly how I felt, full force, without censor. And I felt like DeMaurice would do exactly what he did -- and that's to give a different perspective on the same issue, and I think he did a fantastic job of enlightening our guys and giving them a glimpse into where he was just months ago in terms of all the decisions that he had to face and how they were able to navigate the waters.
SI.com: Was the bottom line of his message "unity"?
Fisher: Yeah, that was Point One, Two and Three. He was very frank and open and honest with the guys, but it always came back to that No. 1 issue. That's really what got the deal done for the NFLPA, was the players staying solid and staying together. At the end of the day, that's the only leverage that you truly have. There are things that can truly happen for you good or bad through other avenues, but it all requires the same one principle and that's that all players have to remain together.
SI.com: Looking back at last week, when the two sides met on back-to-back days and were believed to be progressing, how confident or optimistic did you allow yourself to be in terms of feeling like you had the structure of a deal in place or at least a certain understanding? Why do you think it went south on Thursday, when the sides met again and reported a serious setback?
Fisher: Well, I think to be honest, I don't know that we walked in believing -- well, I know we didn't walk in believing -- we had an understanding and that we were in an agreement that we're close to getting a deal done and so when we show up here today we're going to finalize it and get it done. But I do think we were clear going into Tuesday that any proposal or idea that we discussed relating to economics, that whatever place we ended up, the system would largely remain the same. If we were, and had been, willing to make significant concessions economically, that we need our system to remain the same. If we were able to provide economic relief, then there's no need to change the system.
So coming out of Tuesday, what I gained and gleaned from the meeting was that there is still a very strong divide among the ownership group in the league itself and that they haven't found a way to solve some of their issues related to revenue sharing and other items that have to be tackled among their group -- small-market team, big-market team, those things. So regardless of what proposal, ideas, concepts we put out, other than just totally capitulating and getting into the agreement that they want us to sign presently, there isn't anything else that we can do until they figure that out. That's what I would hope can happen obviously for the season to start on time but even for us to play basketball again in the near future.
SI.com: Billy Hunter called the hard cap a "blood issue," but they're acting like it's a blood issue on their end as well. Why?
Fisher: However we view the numbers, we still don't agree that the [league's] losses are at the magnitude that they are, but let's say for conversation purposes we agree that there is a certain level of loss being incurred by the teams -- regardless of what the system is. Let's just say the system is to the side for now. If you're able to reach an agreement that provides you with a certain level of economic relief that helps you resolve the economic issues, then why does the system need to change?
Secondly, no matter what level of salary cap or compensation that will be paid out on an individual team, with a hard salary cap, you essentially wipe out the ability for a team to be able to guarantee a certain number of contracts. It's inevitable, and that's something that in basketball that we don't view as a positive thing. We're not advocates for guys gaining contracts and long-term security and not doing their jobs; we're advocates for guys earning and being paid for performance, etc. But we don't believe that in basketball, that guys consistently facing non-guaranteed contracts, then having to literally go to battle with each other.
SI.com: Doesn't the game itself come into play there? In football, an offensive lineman in a contract year can't do a whole lot on his own to take away from the team and will still do his assignment.
Fisher: That's our opinion and that's what we've expressed. And because we play the game, we obviously feel we have a better viewpoint on that perspective that it really would negatively impact the way the game of basketball is played.
SI.com: There was a time when you guys seemed to think that A) the owners were determined to lose games, that B) they want a hard cap and C) it seemed like the commissioner might have told the new owners and his constituents that I will get these things for you in negotiations. How do you see that now?
Fisher: I can't really begin to speculate on what conversations he has had, where the commissioner and the ownership stands on their key principles and their priorities and what exactly they're looking for. In my opinion, they should be looking for a fair deal that doesn't necessarily give us or them everything that they want, but it's a reasonable, fair place to be considering where the game is right now. And let's get back to work and grow the game. Outside of that, I think that's where you run into problems.
SI.com: Is a desire for more parity the end-all, be-all of why they want the hard cap?
Fisher: I guess for them it is, but we've been clear that that assumption is false. From guys who actually played the game, there isn't an economic system that will set in place how competitive the games are going to be. That comes down to coaching and training and strategy and focus and commitment to being a champion. Whether you're making one million or one dollar, if you want to be the best and you want to compete at the highest level, you will. So that's what we firmly believe and that's why the conversation becomes a little bit muddled when we're trying to be sold on that fact that if we put this system in place there will be more parity in the game.
By default, we have over half of the teams in the NBA that have a chance to compete for a championship every year, and then another seven or eight teams are within three to five wins each season of making the playoffs. So you're talking about maybe five or six teams that are maybe on the outside looking in. But generally, 22 or 23 teams per year have legitimate chances of making the playoffs and winning a championship.
SI.com: And you're coming off a postseason in which the Memphis types and Oklahoma Citys are taking part ...
Fisher: We've seen it before. And having played against those teams myself and obviously a lot of our players compete against those teams, we're not thinking about what level of salaries are being split between the two teams when we're out there on the floor. We're competing to win, and so we just don't buy into that theory that somehow setting up a hard salary-cap system or some system element producing the action on the court.
SI.com: What's the experience like for you? Are you enjoying any part of it and how does it fit into where you might end up seeing yourself career-wise down the road?
Fisher: I am enjoying the opportunity to lead our contingent, to lead the players into what will be the next generation of NBA basketball, so to speak. This agreement will set the bar and the foundation for the way the game is produced and played from this day forward. So I'm enjoying being in a position where not just my experiences or my voice, but the voices of everybody are coming together to seek the most reasonable and fair resolution. It's challenging. It's hard work. But I appreciate that part of it. I feel like I'm growing from it. I'm learning from it. I'm surrounded by great people and great guys. We have great guys in this league. I know people appreciate the athleticism, but we have great young men.
So from there, I don't know. I wouldn't venture to guess how this impacts the post [playing] career of Derek Fisher, so to speak. But I do know that I'll be better from the experience. Whatever walk of life I choose to go into, I'll be better for having walked this walk and taken this stand with these guys.
SI.com: When you looked at this meeting, and you might feel the pressure building in the room, and you have some ideas and you put them in place and then guys respond and it seems to work, is that gratifying?
Fisher: I appreciate what you're saying, but I think the gratification in this process just comes from taking an active role in this process and knowing that these guys appreciate what I'm attempting to do and what we're attempting to do as an executive committee. I recognize the ebbs and flows when you're facing difficult issues, but I'm not looking at today in a vacuum, so to speak. The true gratification will maybe not even realize itself until I'm long gone from here. That's the place that I'm in today and the days before now, but I'm still focused and ready for the challenges that will arise as we go forward, because this won't be the last day that we have to put this type of effort in to make sure we're staying together as a group.
SI.com: I wanted to touch on the Billy situation for a minute. There's so much scrutiny about him from the agent ranks recently. Where is his role right now, and how do you handle it in terms of deciding when the time is right to defend him?
Fisher: I think Maurice Evans said it best in the article that he participated in last week or several days ago. He touched on how far the players' association has come since Billy has been the executive director, the job he has done to serve and to protect the rights and the ability to earn the income that's been earned by NBA players since he came on board. You know, the value that people believe that commissioner [David] Stern has provided to NBA owners over the last 25 years or so, Billy has done work in a similar fashion that has provided that type of value to NBA players over the last 16 years. And in my opinion, that value for him has not changed.
I personally believe that Billy has seen a lot, and he has been through a lot. I think sometimes how frank he is and how direct he is -- to me it's a passion and at times I think there's frustration in his voice and his approach because he wants to make sure that all players truly recognize their full value in this place and in this sport. He comes from a time when professional athletes didn't have these windows of opportunity, and so I think that's where the passion and the frustration sometimes comes from. He just wants these young men to be everything that they possibly can be and take full advantage of what this world is presenting to them right now because when he was 37 years old or 27 years old or 19 years old like our guys are now, this would not have been possible.
SI.com: That's a very different picture than the one that sometimes gets painted of him by his critics.
Fisher: Yeah, sometimes people just like change and don't like things to remain the same too long. I face it at work. Regardless of how much success teams that I've been on have had, people still find a way to say, "He needs to go." That's just the reality of life sometimes.