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Hugging it Out

From Patty Hearst to David Stern

Billy Hunter's long, strange career

Billy Hunter
For Billy Hunter, there is not much physical distance between then and now. He only has to hop across the Hudson River, navigate the turnpike and stop at the outskirts of Philadelphia to arrive back in his hometown of Cherry Hill, N.J.

In a winding career, however, Hunter has traveled to all sorts of far-flung stops to get to where he is now, in his office in the heart of Harlem, on top of Marcus Samuelsson’s new eatery, just a few buildings down past Sylvia’s.

This is where Hunter, the longtime executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, stages his second stare down with the NBA and commissioner David Stern. Four years ago, when Hunter and Gary Hall, working on behalf of the union, met with Stern and Adam Silver, Stern suggested phasing in a new labor deal that would help all of the league’s owners turn a profit on their investment. Hunter said he left with the impression that the league would lock the players out if the requests were not fully met.1

Since that meeting, neither side has blinked. There is no end in sight to a lockout that is nearing a month in duration. Despite an uptick in basketball-related income from $3.64 billion to $3.82 billion, league-wide losses were expected to exceed $300 million, a figure the union disputes.

After the 2007 meeting, Hunter said he started prepping players for the inevitability of a lockout. “[Stern has] pretty much followed [his original] road map,” Hunter said, as he leaned back in his chair. On a whiteboard behind his head, figures and proposals from both sides had been written up in black marker. “I was convinced when he told me then that he would do it, so I started to prepare the players.”

If each side maintains their current stance, Hunter said he believes the league’s owners will lock out players for at least an entire season.

Some originally applauded the civility of both sides for agreeing to meet long before the labor agreement expired. In retrospect, the meetings only hinted at the deep fracture that existed back then.

The weight of 450 players rests on Hunter’s shoulders. So is the external pressure — those from the players’ families, their friends and agents, some who covet Hunter’s job or think they can do it better and will be economically impacted once checks are missed.

The 68-year-old Hunter is keenly aware of this gravity of the situation and feels better prepared after having already worked through one protracted lockout. He has readied the players, but to understand how this man readied himself for his high-stakes showdown with the NBA, it’s important to know a little more about Hunter and how sports have helped shape his life.

Billy Hunter’s e-mails are signed off with the name G. William Hunter, but in Cherry Hill, he will always be known as Billy, the baseball player. The area was a manufacturing magnate — the Campbell’s Soup headquarters was located nearby. Hunter grew up on Main Street in a bustling four-bedroom house often shared with as many as 15 relatives.

All of Hunter’s uncles played baseball. Hunter followed suit. In 1955, he was on the roster of one of the first integrated teams to play in the Little League World Series. Before traveling to Williamsport, Penn., Hunter’s team first played a regional in Front Royal, Va. Hunter and the team’s two other black players — Bob Cook, a cousin, and his best friend, Wilber Robinson — stayed with a local black family. The rest of the team stayed in a motel.

Hunter recalls that he did not know if the three would get to play in the game. It was the summer of Emmett Till’s murder and racial tensions ran high, especially in an area not used to the spectacle of integrated sports. Before the game, Hunter said authorities informed his coaches of death threats made against him. The team took a vote on whether or not to participate in the tournament.

“We were kids and all we wanted to do was play baseball,” Hunter explained. “Maybe we didn’t understand it all then. They asked us if we wanted to play. We were 11 years of age, so we said ‘Yeah definitely, we’re playing.’”

In Williamsport, Hunter’s team faced a squad from Morrisville, Penn. New Jersey’s Merchantville lost in the championship in extra innings by the score of 4-3.

“We were winning until the sixth inning,” Hunter said. “They scored two runs and tied us. I had pitched, but in Little League, you could only pitch six innings. So, I was taken out and made the catcher. The guy that was the catcher, they made him the pitcher and I don’t know why. He got in and the first or second pitch he, threw, bam. The kid hit a home run.”

Hunter returned home as a minor celebrity, but the experience at the Little League World Series had taught him a vital lesson — before, he had been aware of segregation but not completely conscious of its pervasiveness.

“It exposed you as a young kid to the realities of life at that time in America,” Hunter said. “It kind of hardened you a little bit, so you were able to take some knocks, and you needed that. You had to get up.

“But hell, when you look at my background as a kid, we were dirt poor. So in terms of knocks, all I knew was I wanted to play baseball and I knew I was as good or better than most of the guys I was playing against. That’s what it meant to me. But the key was the exposure that it gave. That you got to see other people, that you got to go other places, that you got some idea of what was happening in the world. So here, was a chance to go out and see the world and dream of what you can become.”

“That’s where my life took off, as a result of that experience.”

In high school, Hunter starred in four sports, but ultimately chose to play football at Syracuse. As a running back, Hunter followed Ernie Davis, the 1961 Heisman Trophy winner, and preceded Floyd Little, a future Hall of Famer. But Hunter was also making moves that would chart his path. With the memories of his Little League days as an impetus, Hunter led a petition signed by every black athlete at Syracuse stating that they would boycott playing colleges in the South that engaged in segregated seating in stadiums or arenas.

Dave Bing, the future basketball Hall of Famer, signed the letter. So did John Mackey, Hunter’s roommate, a skilled tight end who would become the first president of the NFL Players Association.

“Oh yeah [the petition] worked,” Hunter said. “There was no question about it. It definitely worked. They were scrambling, man. They didn’t know what to do.” Ben Schwartzwalder, Syracuse’s coach, noted how the team rallied around Hunter and named him one of its captains.

After Syracuse, Hunter went on to a brief but eventful NFL career, in which he mostly served as a kick returner. He played with the Washington Redskins in 1965 and the expansion Miami Dolphins in his next and, ultimately last, season.

“What I learned in the NFL was just that it was very political, that you thought once you arrived at the pro level, it would be all about skill and ability, but the politics at the pro level, once you’re involved with the teams back then, was just kind of endemic,” Hunter said. “I don’t want to get vulgar, but you had to genuflect and all that. You had to kiss ass and also perform. What they did back then was, there were limited positions that brothers could play.”

In Miami, Hunter found an expansion team that shuffled players in and out. “[It was] like Grand Central station,” he said. When a few of the team’s veterans spoke out against racial epithets thrown around by team management, Hunter, a second-year player, stood up with them. Near the end of that season, Hunter broke three fingers in a cold game in Buffalo. The Dolphins, in turn, attempted to cut him without paying out the entirety his contract.

“They didn’t have players associations back in those days,” Hunter explained. That ended his NFL career, though he made a pit stop to play in Canada with the Montreal Alouettes. He left late one night without telling the team to return to the United States to marry his wife. “I later heard from them that I was never welcomed back to Canada.”

Encouraged by the prominent lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, Hunter enrolled in Howard University School of Law. He later attended UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School, where he received his Master of Laws degree. He rose to prominence in California, ascending from a prosecutor’s position in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to the chief assistant in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

President Jimmy Carter appointed Hunter as the U.S. Attorney for Northern California in 1977. He was one of the youngest lawyers to ever hold the position and became entangled in several historic moments. He brought the first major federal cases against the Hells Angels and Black Panther Party.

Hunter also prosecuted the surviving members who aided Jim Jones’ cult after the mass suicide of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978. Hunter visited Jonestown following the assassination of U.S. Rep. Leo Ryan.

“We got there just on the eve of the Guyanese Army evacuating all the bodies,” Hunter said. “The bodies had blown up because of the heat and all the bodies up there. It’s hot as hell there.”

Hunter also recommended Patty Hearst’s sentence be commuted and visited Hearst while she was imprisoned. At first, Hunter perceived that his bosses simply wanted him to sign off on the decision. Hunter insisted on meeting an imprisoned Hearst, the granddaughter of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was first kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army and later sympathized with the militant group.

They talked about life, and Hunter noted the irony of how he, a poor kid from New Jersey, was holding the key to the freedom of one of the country’s most wealthy heiresses. At the end of the three-hour conversation, Hearst plainly asked Hunter of his intentions. “I told her that I would recommend getting her out of here.”

In 1984, Hunter started his own firm, specializing in municipal finance and entertainment law. He represented MC Hammer at the height of the singer’s fame and later brought a case against the entertainer Bobby Brown. At the end of the trial, Hunter’s daughters wanted him to get Brown’s autograph for them. “He told me where to go,” Hunter said with a chuckle.

This is Hunter’s 15th year as head of the players’ union. Given the length of his tenure, it is hard to picture him as a basketball outsider. But when he was first appointed back in 1996, that was exactly what Billy Hunter was. In the mid-1990s, the union had fractionalized. Then-head Simon Gourdine faced open opposition. A vote to dissolve the union failed in a vote of 226-134. Player representatives voted unanimously to oust Gourdine.

Bing, now the mayor of Detroit, connected with Hunter at a reunion party and mentioned that the union could use someone of his reputation. Hunter beat out the agent Bill Strickland and Charles Bennett, once a financial advisor to the union.

Hunter is the union’s fourth executive director. None of his predecessors missed games because of a lockout. This could be Hunter’s second time.

The sober reality is that both sides will state that they reaped benefits from the 191 days lost in the 1998-99 standoff. Owners wanted a hard cap and eventually settled for a ceiling on individual player salaries. When Stern presented what he described as his last offer, Hunter faced a possible mutiny from players, including Shaquille O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon, who grew more and more agitated by the wait. “Did we blink?” Hunter asked in the New York Times after the sides located the long-awaited middle ground. “I guess we both blinked.”

Hunter says the owners are asking for the same concessions they asked for 13 years ago: a hard salary cap, shorter and reduced salaries, and a better split on basketball related income. “They are trying to do the same thing here that they did in the case of the NHL and they’re following the same blueprint. I know it, and I preached it time and again to our players from the inception.

“I’ve said the same thing: They’re not negotiating in good faith; they have no desire or intentions of getting a deal without a lockout because if they think they can threaten us or lock us out for a year or whatever, that the players will cave and they’ll get everything they want.”

After years of deadlocked negotiations, Stern announced the start of 2011 lockout when the agreement expired on June 30.

“We’ve come to a place where when you add it all up and look at the investment the owners are making, the arenas that the owners are providing for the stage, the thousands of people that are hired to create revenue without in any way diminishing the contribution that the players make, it’s time for there to be a return on the investment that’s being made, and while we’re at it, making sure that where we are now, that 30 teams, if well managed, have an opportunity both to compete and to make a profit,” Stern said. “And we’ve tried unsuccessfully to persuade the players and the union that that’s a working proposition.”

Hunter talks in hyperbole that underscores the divide between the sides. He uses phrases like “the struggle,” “no surrender,” and “blood issue.” The outcome of these negotiations will not only write a defining chapter in both the legacies of Stern and Hunter, but mold the game’s financial landscape for the next couple of decades. Hunter believes the outcome will affect the future of all of professional sports’ labor deals. Few have a more diverse sports background from which to cull their opinions. “In this instance, as far as I’m concerned, it’s calculated. It’s all about greed,” Hunter said. “It ain’t about nothing else.”

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. Follow him on Twitter at @Jpdabrams.


Previously from Jonathan Abrams:
NBA players possibly fleeing overseas
The legacy of Yao Ming
Donnie Walsh’s exit from the Knicks

Filed Under: David Stern, Jonathan Abrams, NBA, People, Sports

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Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. He is working on a book about the NBA's prep-to-pro generation of players.

Archive @ JPdabrams