The president of the NBA players' union, who happens to have been the point guard on five Lakers championship teams, might be the key player in ending the lockout and saving the 2011--12 season
This is an article from the July 25, 2011 issue
Where am I going?" Derek Fisher asks himself, understandably distracted. Then he remembers. "I'm going to Newark," he tells the driver. "Newark Airport."
The Lakers guard had arrived in New York City on the red-eye early on this final day of June to participate in a last-ditch negotiating session between NBA management and the National Basketball Players Association, of which Fisher is president, and now in the late afternoon he is headed back to Los Angeles, where under normal circumstances he would be focused on winning his sixth NBA championship. But the normal NBA cycles have been eclipsed today: Only minutes earlier, after a three-hour meeting, he was informed by Spurs owner and chairman of the owners' labor relations committee Peter Holt that the owners would lock out the players at midnight.
"So here we are," says Fisher, now leaning into the limo's backseat in his navy suit and red tie, his legs sprawled out before him. He finds himself musing over the body language of Holt, NBA commissioner David Stern and deputy commissioner Adam Silver as they dropped the hammer on the players. "It was a very efficient, to-the-point sit-down—not as if they just arrived at their thinking. You wouldn't [show] a change in mood if this is where you thought you'd be anyway."
Where they are now is at the beginning of a lockout that threatens to be far longer and more contentious than what has paralyzed the NFL this year and at the very least equal to the disagreement that cost the NHL its entire 2004--05 season. The owners simply want to pay less money to the players, and the argument is especially complicated because each side has reason to believe it occupies the high ground and that its opponent simply is wrong. The prospects for a new collective bargaining agreement may hinge on the respect commanded on both sides of the table by Fisher, who sounds both sober and upbeat as his car pushes through the rush-hour clog of the Holland Tunnel. He looks as if he has lost Game 1 of a playoff series he remains confident of winning.
The NBPA is led by Fisher, the active player who has been union chief since 2006, and Billy Hunter, now in his 15th year—and second lockout—as executive director. "I don't think there's much difference between his demeanor as a player and as the person we've worked with here at the union," says Hunter, who communicates with Fisher almost daily. Traditionally Hunter has served as the point man in negotiations with Stern, while the president has been a liaison to the players. But Fisher has worked hard to extend the reach of his office, and union insiders say that no player leader has had a better, more nuanced grasp of the CBA or been better able to articulate a vision for the union.
When the union officials met with the NBA on the eve of the lockout at the Omni Berkshire Place in Manhattan, Fisher made his latest try at persuading the owners that a money-grab wouldn't solve their problems. He began his presentation by detailing the variety of roles he had embraced on behalf of the Lakers' consecutive championship teams of 1999--2000 through '01--02.
When Fisher mentioned that he had come off the bench during L.A.'s 2004 run to the Finals, he was interrupted by Holt. "Zero-point-four," the Spurs' owner said with a grin. The reference, of course, was to Fisher's turnaround jumper on an inbounds play with 0.4 of a second remaining to steal Game 5 of the '04 conference semifinals from San Antonio.
The dialogue, however, became less agreeable when Fisher raised his objection to one of the owners' key positions: the right to waive underperforming players with long-term guaranteed deals without having to pay the outstanding balance of their contracts. Holt responded that not every NBA player possesses Fisher's competitive spirit and work ethic.
"They talk about the money they have locked up on the Eddy Currys and the Stephon Marburys, and that it would free up money for everybody else," Fisher is saying now. "I don't follow that type of thinking, and it's going to be hard for me as president of the players' association to ever sign off on any agreement that would put us in that position."
The league contends that owners and players together will grow financially and thrive in competitive balance as long as the richest teams aren't permitted to overspend and the smallest markets are assured of profitability. The players respond that management is fooling itself to think that reclaiming money from the union will set the NBA on the road to growth. Fisher says he doubts dysfunctional franchises will be incentivized to become more efficient if they're guaranteed a windfall of new cash. "Decision-making on which players to draft and how best to develop them and which front-office personnel to hire and which community-relations programs to run—all of these go into running a successful business," says Fisher. "But it doesn't seem like those things are fully valued [by the owners]."
Fisher's union will face its harshest struggles while navigating these areas of conflict:
• The split of revenues. The last collective bargaining agreement between the two sides, signed in 2005, assured players of 57% of all basketball-related income. When factoring in the additional non-basketball-related revenue the owners receive, both sides acknowledge, the players now receive 50% of the league's $4.3 billion in total revenues. Fisher contends that the owners' current proposal would drop the players' annual take below 40% over the length of a 10-year deal, a reduction he calls "astronomical."
The players' latest offer, to surrender $530 million over a five-year period, has been dismissed as "modest" by Stern, whose owners have reported losses totalling $1.1 billion over the last three years, including a projected $300 million for the 2010--11 season. (The NBA declined to speak on the record about the CBA.) "Even if we said today that we had agreed to wipe out all your losses at $300 million a year [in player givebacks], we've been instructed that still wouldn't do it," says Fisher. "That's why it's been so hard for us to continue to make major economic proposals, because you're telling us that no matter what we offer, unless it's much, much closer to where you are, there's really no chance of us getting a deal done." The owners insist that none of the other issues can be discussed until a revenue split has been negotiated.
• The actual losses. The NBA projects that 22 teams lost a combined $450 million this year while eight franchises reported profits totaling $150 million, thus creating an aggregate loss of $300 million for the league. While the players tacitly concede that the league is losing money, they dispute the owners' accounting in part because, according to Fisher, it includes about $130 million in debt taken on by owners who borrowed money to purchase their teams. The owners insist that interest and amortization payments are a legitimate cost in any business, but so far the players reject that position largely because they get no revenue-sharing benefit if an owner later sells his franchise at a profit.
• Hard cap. The owners maintain that a hard ceiling on team salaries is crucial, citing the failure of even the luxury tax to curb teams' overspending. Fisher says that a hard cap would encourage each team to budget the majority of its payroll for two or three stars, leaving other players to not only compete for the remaining money but also to do so largely on nonguaranteed contracts. "What we envision is a cannibalist-type system, where you would constantly be in competition with your teammates over shots and points and minutes," says Fisher. "We've had a problem over the years convincing fans that guys really do care about playing as a team and wanting to make a sacrifice to win a championship and not just thinking about themselves."
But a hard cap itself is not a deal breaker. Hunter has indicated the union could accept one if the ceiling was high enough to prevent huge salary cuts for most players. And a source from the owners' side tells SI the owners are willing to discuss alternatives to a conventional hard cap, including an entirely new system in which salaries would be slotted to preexisting tiers, representing a variety of income levels.
Based on the owners' proposals to not only reduce salaries but also implement a hard cap on them, it becomes likely that this lockout will wipe out the season. After all, why would the majority of players vote for a system that slashes their salaries and job security? The last NBA lockout ended only after a ceiling was applied to the biggest stars' salaries that funneled more money to the middle class.
Fisher hopes to convince both sides to pursue the middle ground. There is little question that the NBA veteran, who will turn 37 in August, commands respect on both sides of the table. "It definitely matters," says Silver of Fisher's standing in the league. "There's a reason he has won five championships. He's a strong advocate for all of the players in the league and he's well-versed in all of the issues. He has set the tone for a very professional atmosphere."
Since the Lakers picked him No. 24 in the famed 1996 draft, Fisher has worked hard to become the NBA's most prized everyman. He has never been an All-Star, and last season he made about 15% of Kobe Bryant's $24.8 million salary, yet Fisher is celebrated as one of the great clutch shooters in playoff history. In 2007, during the final season of a three-year hiatus from the Lakers, Fisher rushed back from New York—where his 10-month old daughter Tatum had undergone emergency surgery and chemotheraphy that would save her left eye from retinoblasta, a cancerous tumor (now in remission)—to arrive in Salt Lake City for the third quarter of Game 2 of a second-round playoff series. That night, he would make the momentous three-pointer in OT that would lead the Jazz to victory and set the tenor in a 4--1 Utah series win.
Fisher entered union politics with an ambitious agenda. "So many athletes are riding along with our agents and our general managers and our coaches and our advisers, when we should be driving the ship," he says. Since succeeding Antonio Davis as president, Fisher has immersed himself in the fine print of the deal while seeking to increase the role of player president. He launched a negotiating session at All-Star weekend in Los Angeles with a presentation about the players' role in growing the league. "Fish has a stabilizing presence in terms of the way he carries himself," says Bryant, who has nicknamed his teammate Derek Obama in reference to his regal bearing. "He always stays in control, and he has a unique way to communicate and inspire."
But the job isn't all about speechmaking: During the past season Fisher invested hours each day in reading reports, studying numbers and participating in conference calls, sometimes while on board the team bus. He routinely communicates with players around the league on subjects ranging from the CBA negotiations to the outcome of fines and suspensions. "Guys want to know everything—everything," says Fisher.
By the end of the month Hunter is hoping to receive a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board that could result in an injunction against the lockout. If that complaint should fail and no headway can be made in negotiations, the executive director says the union will strongly consider decertification. He says the union may reach that decision before January—when the 1998--99 lockout was solved in time to allow a 50-game season—and that it may also encourage a group of players to file a lawsuit against the NBA, even though such a move could take time to be resolved in the courts.
At this stage the best hope of saving the season depends on continuing a dialogue that leads to a shared understanding. This is where Fisher's strengths come into play. Can a single player make the difference in time to launch a full season in late October? For Derek Fisher the next three months may feel like less time than 0.4 of a second. But at least the ball is in the right hands.
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