SBJ/February 4-10, 2013/Labor and Agents

Hunter on hot seat; candidates emerge

Editor’s note: This story is updated from the print edition.

Even before the National Basketball Players Association placed Executive Director Billy Hunter on an indefinite leave of absence last week, industry insiders had begun coming up with a list of potential successors.

Former Madison Square Garden Sports CEO Steve Mills and two attorneys who have run for the top job at sports unions before, David Cornwell and Len Elmore, are among the names of potential replacements, if Hunter leaves the position of executive director. Other names that have been mentioned include former NBPA player presidents Isiah Thomas and Antonio Davis, as well as the sitting president, Derek Fisher.

Agents, players and the media have called for Hunter to step down or be fired after a union-commissioned report found that he acted in his own interests and against those of the union, where he has held the top job since 1996.

The NBPA’s Billy Hunter has held the executive director position since 1996.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
“We believe that the Board of Player Representatives and the Executive Committee should decide, going forward, whether or not Mr. Hunter should continue to occupy the position of Executive Director, and they should focus on that decision” at meetings set for this month’s All-Star Weekend, said the report, issued by law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

Hunter has said publicly that he intends to stay on, though that was before the union announced Friday that he had been put on indefinite leave. Ron Klempner, the NBPA's deputy general counsel, was named acting executive director.

The report also found that Hunter’s current employment contract was never properly approved by the board of player representatives, as is required by the union’s bylaws. Paul, Weiss recommended that the players decide to either properly approve Hunter’s contract or decline to ratify his contract retroactively and search for a new executive director.

Names that have emerged as potential successors to Hunter are people who may “throw their hat into the ring” or be tapped by players because of their experience, accomplishments and relationships in sports in general and in the NBA in particular, some basketball agents, players and labor sources say.

But other sources, including one prominent NBA agent, say that a search firm will be hired, and that the next executive director may be someone “you have never heard of,” a sports outsider, who may not have a lot of friends in basketball, but will win because he doesn’t have any enemies, either. In 2009, NFL players elected DeMaurice Smith, who at that time had no sports experience, to run their union.

“Anybody and everybody is going to want this job,” said one basketball source, noting the salary — Hunter makes $3 million a year — and the high profile that go with the position. Many sources interviewed asked for anonymity, saying they didn’t want to speak publicly about who might fill a position that is still occupied.

Public speculation about the next NBPA executive director began the day the report was released last month, with CBSSports.com reporting that powerful agents seeking a replacement for Hunter had contacted Mills, who is also a former NBA employee. Mills, CEO of Athletes & Entertainers Wealth Management, declined comment.

Elmore
Thomas, now an analyst for NBA TV, declined to comment. Attempts to reach Fisher for comment were unsuccessful.

Cornwell, who is executive director of the NFL Coaches Association and who ran for NFL Players Association executive director in 2009, said, “I think it is a bad practice and inappropriate to talk about potential candidates when Billy is still in the position of executive director.”

Elmore, a basketball analyst for CBS Sports who ran against Hunter for the position in the mid-1990s, said he might consider it if “there was a desire for me to throw my hat in the ring and if I had a fair hearing.” But he added that he did
Cornwell
not think that would happen for many reasons, including that he is a member of the NCAA’s Knight Commission and that he has said he thinks that basketball players should stay in college for three years. That view is not popular with prominent NBA agents who may be powerful in influencing players who would vote on a new executive director, Elmore said.

There has been speculation that the seven so-called power agents in the NBA — Arn Tellem, Bill Duffy, Mark Bartelstein, Jeff Schwartz, Dan Fegan, Leon Rose and Henry Thomas — who held meetings about decertifying the union
Fisher
during the NBA lockout in 2011, may reconvene to find a successor to Hunter. Last week, in an email to player clients, Tellem, the vice chairman of Wasserman Media Group, called on his players to fire Hunter. But Tellem and the six other agents had not formally discussed the NPBA as of early last week, agents said.

Agents and other sources said they were not sure whether Fisher, who was at odds with Hunter, would run for the position.

Davis, an ESPN NBA analyst whom Fisher succeeded as player president, said that some players have approached him about considering the job if it were to become available. “I wouldn’t definitely say, ‘No,’” he said. “I would have some interest under the right circumstances.”

But Davis said that if Hunter were replaced, it might be by someone new to basketball. “Our players today are a little bit more sophisticated and they are really going to want a fresh, bright mind to grow this union,” he said. “I don’t think they are going to just take someone who played basketball.”
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