NEW YORK – Across the Staples centre locker room, the NBA’s All-Stars waited for commissioner David Stern and Players Association executive director Billy Hunter to deliver the perfunctory rah-rah remarks they regurgitate every year on the eve of the game. Only, Hunter had a different plan, unleashing an inspired soliloquy to frame the gathering storm of labour strife. And it may have just transformed the way the biggest stars in the sport see him.The room was thick with league executives, coaches and players on the afternoon of Feb. 19, and they listened to Hunter insist he couldn’t come in good faith and tell them everything was well within the NBA. Hunter said the owners had made a crippling proposal, a long lockout loomed and these players in the room would bear the biggest financial and public relations burden of a work stoppage. And then he started to tell them he had thought long and hard about the way Oscar Robertson and Jerry West staged a protest at the 1964 All-Star Game, threatening a boycott until they had leveraged the league into the most rudimentary of medical benefits and pension contributions.
Yes, Hunter had been thinking long and hard, losing sleep over the possibility of declaring an uprising of his own. He dropped dramatic, long pauses and left everyone – including Stern, who had started barking into the ear of his deputy, Adam Silver – thinking that Hunter had come to advocate the players make some kind of bold stand themselves in Los Angeles. In the end, Hunter stopped short, insisting the All-Stars had an obligation to play the game, but the message to the players was unmistakable: Hunter wouldn’t back down to Stern, and maybe even had the ability to rattle him, the way the commissioner and owners had been trying to unnerve the players.
So livid, Stern would barely even look at Hunter when Hunter handed him the microphone. And soon, Stern started reciting his résumé, his decades of labour fights and legal battles in the NBA. Here’s how much the NBA was worth and here’s where I’ve brought it, he said. Everyone could see the anger rising within him, but no one expected the words that tumbled out of his mouth.
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