The NBA was never more popular than during the 1998 NBA Finals. A rematch from 1997, the series pitted the pick-and-roll brilliance of Stockton and Malone’s Utah Jazz against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the league’s most successful dynasty since Bill Russell’s Celtics. An air of finality shrouded the series, and not just because Bulls head coach Phil Jackson had dubbed the 1997-98 season “The Last Dance”; Jackson, Jordan (who was once again contemplating retirement), Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman were all impending free agents. But it wasn’t just the Bulls who were about to face a murky future.
On March 23, 1998, team owners voted to reopen the 1995 collective bargaining agreement. A provision in the deal allowing second-year players to sign massive contract extensions, such as a then-record six-year, $126 million deal for Kevin Garnett, had become a poison pill for owners. In response, the owners sought substantial cost-control measures that would reshape the NBA. Everything from guaranteed contracts to a hard salary cap was on the table. A lockout was inevitable.
“There is nobody in the NBA who thought it would be business as usual coming out of that season,” says Bob Whitsitt, then the Portland Trail Blazers’ president and general manager. “If someone didn’t expect a lockout for at least the summer, they didn’t really know what they were doing.”
Game 6 of the 1998 Finals, the last NBA game that would be played for more than six months, was a satisfying end to an era. In the highest-rated game in league history, 35.89 million viewers watched Jordan hit a game-winning pull-up from the top of the key, clinching the Bulls’ third consecutive championship, and their sixth in eight seasons. Seventeen days later, the owners locked out the players.
The work stoppage was a disaster. With volatile personalities at the forefront and backbiting among players, owners, and agents, the 1998-99 NBA lockout spanned 204 days and resulted in the loss of about $500 million in total player salaries and more than $1 billion overall. Fan interest crumbled. Reputations were damaged. The NBA would never be the same. This is the story behind one of the most bitter and bizarre labor disputes in sports history.
Founded in 1954, the National Basketball Players Association didn’t accomplish much until the 1964 NBA All-Star Game, which the players threatened to boycott unless certain demands were met: a pension plan, a formal recognition that the NBPA was the exclusive bargaining agent of the players, and a per diem of $8 per day. The stakes were high—this was the league’s first nationally televised All-Star Game. NBA president Walter Kennedy caved a few minutes before tipoff, acquiescing to the players association’s demands.
The NBPA had strong leadership. Early union presidents were titans of the sport, future Hall of Famers who went by nicknames like Cooz, Tommy, and the Big O, while Bronx lawyer Larry Fleischer, another future Hall of Famer, served as general counsel for more than 25 years. But in 1983, with the league in financial peril, the players negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that included a revenue-sharing, soft-salary-cap model, the first of its kind in the four major professional sports leagues. The plan worked and the NBA thrived throughout the 1980s and early 1990s with both revenue and player salaries growing at a rate that made a clash inevitable.
Ron Klempner (NBPA lawyer): Oh, there was no doubt a lockout was coming. This was in the making for 15 years.
Vince Carter (Toronto Raptors guard): There was all this talk about “Lockout, lockout, lockout.”
David Falk (agent): From the day the cap was instituted, it placed the players and the league in a fixed economic relationship. And once you fix the relationship, the only variable is how big is the pie that you’re splitting. You can say categorically that since 1983 the principal job of the union is to grow revenue with the league and to act as partners with the league.
Charles Grantham (NBPA executive director, 1988-95): There was a time when there was a balance. In the 1980s, when we were both suffering, we had to get together collectively to make this work. Then, at a certain point, once the revenue reached into the billions, where it’s at now, greed seeps in. And once the greed comes in it’s, “Wait a minute. You guys were getting, say, 53 percent, maybe you should get 47.”
Klempner: They put in place the salary cap, but didn’t really know what they were doing. It was very soft; there were lots of ways you could exceed the cap. As soon as they signed it, the owners realized that they needed to fix it and they did that in 1988.
Grantham: Part of me leaving in 1995 was that I really pressed to maintain what we had at the time. Remember what that deal did in ’88. It reduced the draft to two rounds. There was no rookie wage scale. There was no age limitation. … The reality is that I wanted more for the players than they wanted for themselves. But once you don’t have support from leadership then you have to make a decision. … [Former NBA deputy commissioner] Simon Gourdine followed me. He was fired after a year because of the deal he negotiated.
Dan Wasserman (NBPA spokesman): Simon was perceived as having done a deal in secret with David Stern. [The NBA did not respond to an interview request for David Stern.]
Klempner: Simon had a background working in the league office; he had been deputy commissioner. … There was a handshake deal in June of 1995, but the players revolted. They tried to decertify the union because based on the Supreme Court case [Brown v. Pro Football Inc.], the only way to sue was to decertify. [Under labor law, a lockout becomes an illegal conspiracy if there is no union.] So an effort was made to decertify the union. We were locked out in the summer of 1995 and the players voted on decertification after the summer.
Jeffrey Kessler (chief outside counsel for the union): I ended up representing the dissident players led by Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan. [The Georgetown media relations department did not respond to an interview request for Patrick Ewing.]
Klempner: The owners saw that decertification would not be in their best interests, so they eventually gave concessions that made the deal palatable. The players voted not to decertify and there was a deal that was put in place. [The decertification vote failed 226-134.] We eliminated restricted free agency in ’95. If you were a second-round pick you could sign a one-year deal and then be completely unrestricted. There was a three-year rookie wage scale, but you were a complete free agent after three years.
Jim McIlvaine (Seattle SuperSonics center, NBPA secretary/treasurer, negotiating committee member): Both the players and owners thought it wasn’t a good deal. Obviously that’s why the owners wanted to reopen it, and the players saw some areas for improvement as well.
Klempner: As part of the deal, if player salaries grew past a certain point, the owners retained a right to opt out of the deal. You knew they weren’t happy. You knew they had this opt-out. And you knew that if salaries reached this certain level, forget it.
Following a prolonged search, Billy Hunter was hired to replace Simon Gourdine. A former kick returner in the NFL turned federal attorney, Hunter had prosecuted the Hells Angels, the Black Panther Party, and the surviving acolytes of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple. He then transitioned into defense work, opening his own firm in 1984; MC Hammer and the tobacco companies were among his more notorious clients. Hunter was boisterous and tough—which, in the wake of Gourdine, was exactly what the union was looking for in its leader.
Billy Hunter (NBPA executive director, 1996-2013): I had anticipated that one day I might become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, start out in district court, go become an appellate judge or become district attorney in San Francisco.
Klempner: A search firm called Spencer Stuart was hired and went out and identified candidates, none of which were Billy Hunter. Dave Bing thought that Billy, with his legal background, would be a good candidate and he called [then union VP] Charles Smith. Charles mentioned it to me and I passed the name along to the firm. The firm, I have to say, were more interested in the candidates they had found. Billy didn’t necessarily fit their profile, for whatever reason.
Hunter: I was interviewed by [then union president] Herb Williams, Buck Williams, Charles Smith and one or two others a couple of weeks before the All-Star break. Later, Buck told me they were going to hire a headhunter group. I told Buck, “Look, I don’t want to go through another interview with a third party.” Buck gave me the assurance I wouldn’t. As time grew near, I received a call from Ron Klempner telling me that the search committee was going to interview me. I said, “That’s not the deal I cut with Buck Williams.” The headhunters tried convincing me how important it was. I said, “No way. I’m a big boy. I know there’s a lot of politics involved in this thing. I’ll just take my chance. I won’t be interviewed. You can put that in your report.”
Klempner: [Billy] was included in the group of candidates that addressed the players.
Chris Dudley (New York Knicks center, NBPA negotiating committee member): Billy took a more aggressive stance, was willing to be a little more confrontational. A lot of the players were looking for that.
Hunter: I remember being in a room with 35 players and, for some reason, they seemed to focus on what kind of image I would present to David Stern. I think they felt as though they had been sold out in the past. I told them that they didn’t have to worry about that with me.
Will Perdue (San Antonio Spurs center): Hunter came in with guns blazing, kind of got guys fired up.
Klempner: He had a very strong personality. He actually brought his Bible into the meeting as I recall and was literally thumping the Bible and talking about what a force the players could be and how he would be able to lead them. He definitely expressed no fear of David Stern. He said he would kick his ass, if need be.
Hunter: I spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible. At one time I attended theology school and was torn as to whether or not I should be in the pulpit or practicing law. I may have taken a Bible with me. I’m not going to deny it. That sounds like something I would have done.
Kessler: Billy Hunter was now in there and determined to show he was not going to roll over.
Hunter: After I got the job, the headhunters asked for the bonus they were supposed to receive. I think their fee was $150,000 or something astronomical and they would get an extra $50-75,000 if they found the person selected. My response was under no circumstances can you get that bonus because you didn’t find me.
Klempner: The players felt like they needed a strong presence to counteract and stand up to David Stern and somebody who was going to fight really hard. [The Latrell Sprewell suspension] gave him his first opportunity to do it. The issues were disciplinary in nature, though, not economic. Yes, Sprewell lost his contract, which we gained back through Feerick.
In March 1998, arbitrator John D. Feerick, the dean of Fordham University Law School, reduced Sprewell’s suspension by five months and ordered that the Golden State Warriors reinstate the remainder of the All-Star swingman’s four-year, $32 million contract; the Warriors had terminated Sprewell’s pact after he choked and punched head coach P.J. Carlesimo during a December 1997 practice.
“On the day I decided the Sprewell case, I remember coming from church, St. Paul’s Apostle’s church, across the street from campus here,” Feerick says, sitting in his office on Fordham’s Manhattan campus. “When the decision came out, the commissioner issued a press release that had negative comments about the arbitration decision.”
“The answer is now well established,” NBA commissioner David Stern said following the decision, “you cannot choke your boss and hold your job unless you play in the NBA and you are subject to arbitrator Feerick’s jurisdiction.”
The battle between the league and the union over Sprewell’s guaranteed contract was the latest episode in a relationship that had turned adversarial. Escalating player contracts added to the tension, none more so than the six-year, $126 million extension Kevin Garnett signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves in October 1997, then the largest contract in team sports history.
Jim Thomas (Sacramento Kings owner): That was shocking. It was very upsetting. All of the players look at what the other players were making, so that set a precedent, meaning that all of the players were going to compare themselves to that. Most of them were going to believe they deserved more.
Antoine Walker (Boston Celtics forward): I had just finished my first two years and so I was up for a contract extension. My mind-set was that I was going to get the same type of contract [as Kevin Garnett]. I had just made my first All-Star team in ’98. I was top 10 in scoring and rebounding, so I knew I had the numbers to be granted a big, long-term deal. Kevin Garnett set the market for guys.
Damon Stoudamire (Portland Trail Blazers guard): The owners might have looked at KG’s contract, but me, I looked at Big Country’s contract. I think Big Country [Bryant Reeves] got like six years, $60 million at the time. I’m looking at that contract and I’m thinking, “I don’t know what I’m going to get, but I’m going to get something.”
Dudley: It showed the players that the league was successful and there was money out there.
Thomas: We were losing money and it wasn’t sustainable.
Dan Issel (Denver Nuggets general manager): There wasn’t the television revenue that you have today, so the small-market teams were getting beat up. I know the Nuggets weren’t making money in those days.
Kessler: We didn’t believe it. Their financials are more works of art than they are actual financial statements. These are privately held businesses for the most part, so you can do all sorts of stuff and bury things in the footnotes to say you’re not making money.
Dudley: There was a lack of trust. The owners would sometimes cry poverty and say they weren’t making money. Why are you buying your team for $10 million and selling it for $150 million, and then crying poverty?
Klempner: The owners came to this conclusion that they had to do something. They could not sustain this model. David Stern believed that with every inch of his being and he was going to do whatever it took to make it happen.
The six-year CBA signed in September 1995 included a three-year opt-out clause for owners if player salaries exceeded 51.8 percent of basketball-related income. With $100 million deals inked by Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, and Alonzo Mourning leading the way, player salaries exceeded 57 percent during the 1997-98 season. And so on March 23, 1998, the owners voted to reopen the CBA by a 27-2 margin.
Negotiations started on April 1, but ceased in late June after nine bargaining sessions concluded with both sides far apart. A May 27 proposal from the owners included a hard cap, the elimination of the Larry Bird exception, and a five-year rookie wage scale with right of first refusal. The offer also proposed that no player could earn over 30 percent of a team’s total salary cap, capping individual player salaries at around $10 million per season.
What would become the longest lockout in NBA history started at 12:01 a.m. ET on the morning of Wednesday, July 1, 1998.
With the exception of previously scheduled charity games, all league activities halted. No free-agent signings. No trades. No summer camps. Team workout facilities were shuttered. There was to be no contact between teams and players. For the rookie class of 1998, it was an inauspicious introduction to the league.
Carter: Once draft night happens, I remember going to Toronto and talking to [Raptors general manager] Glen Grunwald and it kind of was like, “Basically you have a couple of days here, try to find a place because after next week there is no more contact.” They told me some things they wanted me to work on and that was kind of really it. … It was like, “All right, have a good summer. I guess I’ll see you whenever.”
Glen Grunwald (Toronto Raptors general manager): I know [Raptors head coach] Butch [Carter] wanted him to become a one-foot jumper because he jumped off two feet. His jump shot was pretty good, but obviously he needed to work on that, too.
Carter: I went back to school. I did a semester at [Chapel Hill] and worked out at the gym with Antawn Jamison, Shammond Williams, and Makhtar N’Diaye. After the team finished practice we’d go to the gym and go through our own workouts, NBA workouts, with Coach [Dean] Smith. It was funny because he was showing us a jab jumper. There was no way in the world you would be allowed to do that in a game in his system. I remember looking at Antawn like, “Do you see this?” And Coach was like, “You’re going to need this move in the league.”
Shammond Williams (Atlanta Hawks guard): Coach Smith gave me that jab jumper during my junior year.
Carter: I had my Puma deal. I was living mostly off the advance and sneaker money.
Williams: I was one of the few second-round picks to have a shoe deal, maybe not as lucrative as Vince or Antawn. I was fortunate enough though to have a credit line and I had done an internship at Lincoln Financial Group. One thing that really helped, and it shows you the kind of individual Coach Smith was, was that once you had no more eligibility he would have us come back and work his basketball camp and give us a check for, I think, $10,000.
The NBPA’s nine-person executive committee was filled with heavy hitters. Elected union president in September 1997, New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing led an All-Star team that included Dikembe Mutombo and Juwan Howard. This was perceived as both an asset and a deficiency. Even the most hawkish of hardline owners listened more intently when a superstar opined. But, in this case, these superstars shared an agent: David Falk, the dealmaker who led the decertification movement in 1995, and was the most powerful man in the NBA not named David Stern or Michael Jordan—who, by the way, was a Falk client.
Keith Glass (agent): Where David was smart was he got his players involved in the union. It could have been very easy for him to just take his percentage, which was sizable, and not educate guys on how important it was going to be.
Falk: From the very beginning Billy Hunter was very, very opaque. He did not provide much information. He didn’t communicate much. I told my clients, “Listen, this is your livelihood and if I can’t access Billy, then you have to get involved and know what’s going on and sit down and plan out strategies on how to protect your interests.” They’re intelligent people. Patrick is a very intelligent man. Juwan Howard is a very intelligent man. Alonzo is a very intelligent man. Dikembe Mutombo is a very intelligent man. People accused me of trying to hijack the union—you couldn’t pay me a billion dollars a year to run the union. I have zero interest in doing that. But I think if I’m going to do my job for my clients, it’s important that I understand the dynamics of what’s going on. And so that’s why I had to get involved.
McIlvaine: There were concerns and reservations that there was too much influence from David Falk.
Kevin Willis (Houston Rockets center): Falk had his guys there and they made all the money and they basically called the shots.
Jayson Williams (New Jersey Nets center): I like David Falk. I love Michael Jordan. But I saw David Falk and those guys and they thought they were running the league at that time. And then understand something right from the top: Georgetown vs. St. John’s. As soon as I saw there were three or four Georgetown guys on the committee, I said, “Aww, hell no.”
Danny Schayes (Orlando Magic center; NBPA negotiating committee member): David Falk’s theory about the NBA was that it was star-driven and that the labor agreement should reflect that: there should be unlimited contracts for the superstars; most of the other players were interchangeable parts; the bulk of the money should go to the players he represents; and the rest of the players would divide up what’s left.
Falk: This is really the overarching theme and I’ve been saying this since I was in my 20s: No matter what system you have—a hard cap, soft cap, no cap—you’re always going to pay more money for the LeBrons and Jordans and Kobes and Ewings and Olajuwons and Birds and Magics. Always. Those are the stars of the movie. To me, the biggest crime is that people like LeBron or Anthony Davis or Kobe, they should be making $80 million, maybe $100 million, because their contributions are so unique on and off the court.
Schayes: The other 90 percent of the players didn’t feel that way, but Falk was the biggest power broker in the league at the time. Billy Hunter needed a way to balance that. So instead of having the executive committee be the negotiators, he created a separate negotiating committee and conversely filled it with guys like Tyrone Corbin and Mark West and me, veterans who were not Falk guys. It was specifically designed to balance the David Falk factor.
Hunter: I really didn’t think of it that way. Ewing was on the negotiating committee. Juwan Howard was on it. Zo was on it.
Klempner: All the negotiating committee could do was recommend a deal because by our constitution, a collective bargaining agreement has to be ratified by a majority of the entire membership.
Wasserman: The policy always was if you wanted to come to a union meeting, if you wanted to come to a negotiating session, you were welcome. Billy did a good job keeping people informed of what was going on.
Hunter: To alleviate the players’ fear that someone might try to cut a deal that was not beneficial to them, any player at any time was welcome to sit in when we were negotiating. I opened up the process.
At first, the negotiating committee did not do much negotiating. Stern and Hunter did not meet until three weeks into the lockout, a 90-minute breakfast meeting on July 21.
Both sides postured. On July 23, the union filed an unfair labor complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, contending that the lockout was unlawful. Then, at the August 6 negotiations, during the first formal dialogue since June 22, the owners abruptly, and theatrically, ended the session 15 minutes after returning from lunch. “The owners just got up and walked out,” B.J. Armstrong remembers.
Though the NLRB helped resolve the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike, it would sit this labor dispute out. On August 13, the union dropped its charge once it became apparent that the board deemed their complaint meritless. “The union had alleged that the lockout had been imposed before it reached impasse, but the law was clear, as I recall, that you don’t have to reach impasse before you strike or lock out,” Daniel Silverman, the board’s regional director, says today. “Those are economic weapons and each party is free to do it. The lockout wasn’t unlawful for that reason.”
The union had already turned to another gambit, having filed a grievance in federal court on behalf of the 200 or so players with guaranteed contracts who were not being paid during the lockout. Their argument was that a guaranteed contract is guaranteed even in a work stoppage. The union then took the case to arbitration.
A decision in the players’ favor would have essentially ended the lockout, and so negotiations stalled until arbitrator John Feerick’s ruling, which had an October 19 deadline. In the meantime, perfunctory talks ensued, players attempted to stay in shape, and team employees found ways to keep busy.
Issel: We kept preparing as if we were going to have a season the next day. We would get together in the morning with the coaching staff and go over personnel and talk about training camp and talk about what our practices would look like. But as the lockout went on, we’d get together for a couple of hours in the morning, talk about the team, and then play cards the rest of the day.
Mike Dunleavy (Portland Trail Blazers coach): The lockout probably helped my golf game.
Wally Blase (Chicago Bulls assistant athletic trainer): It got to the point where people were getting laid off, so me and the equipment guy started painting the entire practice facility just to justify why we were coming into work every day.
Williams: Me and Anthony Mason were supposed to wrestle Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman.
McIlvaine: Now guys seem to live in L.A. But when I was in the league, a lot of guys spent their summers in Houston and Chicago.
Mario Elie (Houston Rockets guard): There was a place here in Houston called the Westside Tennis Club and a lot of NBA players would get together and play pickup.
Juwan Howard (Washington Wizards forward, NBPA negotiating committee member): Back then, Chicago was one of those gateways where guys would come and work out in the offseason and play pickup ball. I was always able to find a good run in the offseason. Guys would fly in from all parts of the country to work out in Chicago. Antoine Walker was there. Michael Finley. Ray Allen would come.
Aaron McKie (Philadelphia 76ers guard): Being in Philadelphia, which is close to New York, close to New Jersey, guys were calling like, “Hey, are you guys playing pickup this weekend?”
Michael Finley (Dallas Mavericks guard): There was so much uncertainty, I was afraid to go on vacation. I didn’t want to be on the beach, and then hear that the season was starting tomorrow and not be prepared. I just worked out every day.
Adam Keefe (Utah Jazz center): I don’t think both sides negotiated in earnest until they had to. In a certain sense, that’s silly, but we see it today with the government shutdown. We know what the issues are. We don’t need to get to that point where people are missing paychecks.
Klempner: I think there was a sense of urgency, but everyone was resolved to the fact that it would be a long lockout. Nothing was going to happen until both sides felt pain.
Kessler: A lockout in July and August doesn’t really impact anyone. It starts having teeth when you start missing games.
For the first time in its history, the NBA lost a game due to a labor dispute when, on September 10, the October exhibition between the Miami Heat and Maccabi Elite was canceled. Training camp for referees and rookie orientation was next to go. Then the first week of preseason. Then all 114 preseason games. And on October 13, the league canceled the first two weeks of the regular season.
“I’m very sad and disappointed,” David Stern said at the time. “I consider it to be a collective failure, but I honestly don’t know what else we could have done. I do things that I like to think are in the best interests of the game and I believe this is.”
Throughout this time, Feerick deliberated. “I wouldn’t be influenced by what was happening in the sport,” he says. “It was an issue that was unsettled between the players’ contracts and the collective bargaining agreement. I do recall spending a lot of time on negotiating history. I put in an enormous amount of time studying that issue. I was young then. I’m now 82. I always put in long days, even do it now though it’s a little harder.”
On October 19, in an 85-page decision, Feerick ruled against the union. The lockout would go on. Agents were now openly discussing decertifying the union.
Kessler: What Feerick ruled was that it was so well established in labor law that workers do not get paid during a lockout that if they were going to get paid, the language of the contracts would have to specifically say that. Had we won that, that would have dramatically changed the leverage.
Grantham: I told them, “Guys, don’t take that to arbitration.” The question was, “If you had a guaranteed contract as a player does that guaranteed contract supersede a lockout, and if you are locked out should you be paid a guaranteed contract?” Nobody knew the answer to that. We were always able to use that as a threat. We never submitted that to arbitration because nobody knew the answer. I didn’t want to know the answer. In 1998, the union submitted that to arbitration and the arbitrator came back and said, “No, that money is not guaranteed.” Now you’re stuck. You got no argument on that end. In the past, we would tell management, “Hey, there is a chance that the guaranteed contracts will get paid.” It was a legitimate argument. Once they submitted it to arbitration, instead of allowing it to go through the court system, which would have taken years, you lost that piece that could potentially hang over management’s head. That was an important decision. It smoked the players.
Wasserman: Why didn’t we not file the case and use it as a threat? ‘Cause the threat wasn’t enough. This was not a posturing negotiation. The gloves were off.
Kessler: The players had two choices at that point: They could’ve decided to decertify their union and challenge the lockout as an antitrust violation or keep fighting and try to wait the owners out and see who was going to blink.
Falk: People said [decertifying] was anti-union. It’s the most pro-union thing in the world. If you can’t get the job done you have to have an alternative. If you can’t win playing man-to-man, you go to zone, right? You don’t just get your head bashed in playing man-to-man. I knew after  that everyone was afraid to decertify.
McIlvaine: I was supportive of it, but I felt like there were guys in leadership positions inside the union who weren’t as educated about it as they should have been or were misinformed by some people.
Wasserman: The anti-trust option was on some people’s minds. Billy felt it wasn’t the way to go.
Hunter: I just didn’t think that we were there. It wasn’t something we spent a lot of time discussing.
Even with the considerable structural advantages that management retains in most labor disputes, the Feerick decision gave owners tremendous leverage. Owners could play the long game. Unions are more transactional, especially in sports where athletes have a shorter earning period. A few of the players were living check to check—and the owners knew it.
McKie: Anytime you’re not getting your checks—I don’t care who you are or what you’re doing—you’re going to feel the pain because that money is allocated to go to something. Fortunately for me, I did some things the right way. I guess I can also say I was a frugal kind of guy. I wasn’t throwing money around or buying expensive cars. But some guys stretched themselves out pretty far and ran into some trouble.
Falk: The players are millionaires and the owners are billionaires. It doesn’t take a person with a strong background in economics to understand there is a gross disparity in bargaining power.
Schayes: You had 29 sophisticated billionaires against 400 college dropouts. From that standpoint it’s always an uneven negotiation.
Perdue: I find myself fairly educated but I didn’t understand a lot about what was going on. I would go back and call my lawyer and ask him to explain it to me.
Wasserman: We had the feeling that David entered those meetings with everything carefully orchestrated. There were good-cop owners and bad-cop owners and everyone knew their role and if they didn’t, they weren’t going to be back at a bargaining session.
Klempner: Micky Arison was good cop. Colangelo was always a hard-liner. Abe Pollin was a hard-liner.
Schayes: The owners were not as unified as you’d think. You had your small markets vs. large markets.
McIlvaine: We had meetings where we felt a certain kind of owner wasn’t being represented; they brought in a lot of hawks and none of the doves. We got them to bring in Dr. Jerry Buss, who was viewed by a lot of guys as a dove. He looked miserable the entire time at the meeting. He looked like he didn’t want to be there.
Falk: Stern ruled those guys with an iron fist. You have to or they’d be doing the same thing as the players, saying all different things during that time.
Wasserman: Stern had the advantage of being able to impose a $5 million fine on any of his owners who spoke out. We were a union serving players and were probably never going to discipline our players for what they said. We were at a natural disadvantage with that. We are a democracy. We are a union. Players have the right to speak their mind.
Dudley: You heard stories of guys struggling and it was a huge disadvantage.
Steve Kauffman (agent): You had people like Kenny Anderson saying he has to make payments on his car notes.
In late October, The New York Times profiled Boston Celtics point guard Kenny Anderson. “When Millionaires are Laid Off” read the headline next to a photo of the Queens, New York, native posing next to a luxury car. In the piece, Anderson, who was due his $5.8 million salary for the 1998-99 season on July 1, mused about possibly selling one of the eight vehicles registered in his or his wife’s names. “I don’t need all of them,” he cracked. “You know, just get rid of the Mercedes.”
Now 48 years old, Anderson is the head coach at Fisk University, a historically black school in Nashville. He admits that he didn’t prepare for the lockout. “I should have been more aware,” he says, sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown Manhattan. “I really didn’t think it through.”
The deep dive into Anderson’s spending habits—$75,000 a year for insurance and maintenance on the cars alone!—became a public relations nightmare for the union.
Hunter: I don’t know what to say about Kenny Anderson. It was pathetic.
McIlvaine: Fortunately, Twitter didn’t exist.
Kenny Anderson (Boston Celtics guard): Those were very immature statements. When you’re young, you talk like that and don’t really understand what the average person is making. It was really childish of me to say things like that.
Perdue: Patrick Ewing also made a stupid statement. [At a press conference Ewing said, “We make a lot of money, but we spend a lot, too.”] You know what? You guys aren’t helping the cause. Just don’t say anything.
Terry Porter (Minnesota Timberwolves guard): There was pushback. We talked about guys not talking to reporters about multiple car payments and house payments, because that wouldn’t be received well by our fan base.
Thomas: It was hard to have sympathy for the players because of the amount of money they were making, relatively speaking. I think the typical fan, if you want to call them blue-collar, would say these guys are playing a game they love, which they would play for nothing.
Nick Van Exel (Denver Nuggets guard): People always go against people with money, period. They don’t understand it, but it was no different than someone with a regular job wanting to get a raise or move up in the company. A lot of people look at it like, “Athletes are spoiled brats, and they get this and that,” and they probably do get this and get that, but they entertain people for a living. It’s their job.
Dudley: It’s hard to win any PR battle when you’re talking about a fight between millionaires and billionaires. Neither side is super sympathetic.
Kauffman: I got some negative feedback in my regular life. I was at a party once, and this guy found out what I did for a living, and he started jumping all over me, screaming at me, saying I was a greedy MF’er like the players.
Kessler: People get like that about sports, but they never get like that about movie stars. You never hear people say, “How come George Clooney can make all that money?”
Williams: You should be able to make as much money as somebody wants to pay you, right? But people didn’t see it that way. No one ever said, “Tom Cruise shouldn’t make $35 million a picture.” But as soon as you see a basketball player …
Kessler: I’m sure there was some amount of racial animus that made people react differently to this.
Glass: I’d like to think racism wasn’t involved. Although in the last three years, who knows, my opinion of the country has changed. I mean that. It’s been very disturbing to see the underbelly of what’s been unleashed here. In retrospect, who knows. I just think that the color the public resents is green more than black or white. I’ve always felt that way though I may be wrong. Do people resent the fact that black people are making a lot of money? I think that’s true. At that time, I was naive to that. Looking at the Kaepernick situation, I think that’s a big part of that.
Though he collected a league-high $33 million salary during the 1997-98 season, Michael Jordan was the one player to escape the public’s ire. He was MJ. Air Jordan. A six-time NBA champion. Six-time Finals MVP. The GOAT. He did not, however, seek a leadership position in the union.
Upon becoming executive director of the players association, Hunter says that he asked Jordan to run for union president. Jordan declined, but he was a productive presence at the negotiating table. “I think nobody went out of their way to help the league more than Michael Jordan,” Jim McIlvaine says. “He was such a meal ticket for everybody that all the owners perked up when he showed up. Suddenly, they were ready to talk and negotiate.”
But during an October meeting in a midtown Manhattan hotel, Jordan got into an altercation with Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, one that Billy Hunter says could have killed the NBA.
Antonio Davis (Indiana Pacers forward; NBPA negotiating committee member): I felt at the time the owners belittled us and talked down to us. You would start to understand which owners felt we were truly partners and which owners felt like we worked for them.
Kessler: This was at a really big meeting.
McIlvaine: Stern was doing a good cop–bad cop thing with [NBA deputy commissioner] Russ Granik. Russ was like, “I guess we’ll blow up the season. That’s it.” David was trying to be the good cop. At that point, a small-market owner had a very emotional response to what was transpiring. He started crying. It elicited a response from the players. Some guys started chuckling. That’s when Abe got up. “You know, it’s not funny. We can’t make money.” He was yelling. [Russ Granik declined an interview request.]
Hunter: Michael then suggested to him that if he was having cash flow problems, maybe what he should do is sell his team.
McIlvaine: “If you can’t make money, sell your team.”
Kessler: Pollin was taken aback.
Falk: Then he said something he shouldn’t have said.
Hunter: Abe said something like, “Who do you think you are to be telling me boomp-boomp-boomp how to run my team bump-bump-bump.” Then David Stern jumped up. He was yelling, “No Abe! No Abe!” and he grabbed him. I think he was afraid that Abe was going to say something that would have destroyed the league. If he said something, we didn’t hear it. We then all separated. Our guys were like, “Oh man, that was some real shit that went down out there. I think the man was ready to drop a bomb.” Guys said if he dropped the bomb, that would have been the end of this for everybody.
Kessler: The irony, of course, was that Michael ended up playing for him.
Tensions were heightening every day. On October 22, 240 players attended a meeting in a Caesars Palace ballroom in Las Vegas that devolved into an argument between union hawks and doves. The agents weren’t exempt from squabbling, either. A day earlier, fireworks had ensued when the agents’ advisory council met for nearly four hours.
Leonard Armato (agent): I was vocal in saying we should try to get a deal as opposed to, you know, Armageddon. They said I was selling out.
Falk: We go this meeting in Vegas with all the agents. We get there a couple of minutes late; the plane was delayed. And Dan [Fegan, longtime agent] was up. Dan was a very smart guy. He was spouting off like he was a radical political leader in the ’60s: “Shut it down! Shut it down! If Stern wants a hard cap—fuck Stern! If Stern wants this—fuck Stern!” This goes on for like, 10 minutes. I stand up and I say, “Great speech. Great speech.” Here’s the deal: David Stern is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. If you go up to him and rub his nose, he’ll say, “OK, asshole, let’s get in the ring and go 15.” After six rounds, when every bone in your body is broken and you’re bleeding from every known and unknown orifice in your body and say, “Uncle, I’ve had enough.” He’ll say, “We’ve only gone six rounds. Get your ass back in the ring. We have nine more rounds to go.” And Dan says, “What does that have to do with collective bargaining?” I said, “What that means, Dan: Unless you are prepared to sit the entire year out, don’t fuck with David Stern. This is not a game. This is a billion-dollar business.” He says, “Are you prepared to sit the year out?” And I said to him, quote, “Asshole, as a matter of fact, I am. I have a hundred million dollars in the bank. How about you?” He got mad. He said, “Why are you being so arrogant?’ I said, “Why are you being so stupid?”
Kauffman: If you met David, he would tell anybody off the street, “I have $90 million.”
Falk: This is how Billy ran the union. The agents had a meeting. The players then had a meeting. But the union didn’t allow the agents to sit in the players meeting even though they were representing them in their business.
Hunter: They shouldn’t be in the players meeting. Then they get to take over the damn meeting. It’s not the agents union. It’s the players union.
Elie: A lot of the stars wanted to get back and play. I remember John Stockton in Vegas trying to speak out, and a lot of the guys just shot him down. It got a little ugly at times.
Hunter: It was Stockton, Jeff Hornacek, and Adam Keefe. They got up and said we were making enough money and we should be happy with the 53 percent and take the 53 percent and this, that, and the other.
McIlvaine: I remember that not being a popular sentiment. It seemed popular amongst guys with one particular owner.
Keefe: I was there. It wasn’t like I was there with [Stockton and Hornacek]. I didn’t travel with them there. I don’t think we were sitting together. I was someone who definitely wanted to get back to work. I understood the dynamics. For me, I don’t think it was a black-and-white issue, in terms of either work or lockout. I was definitely of the opinion that I didn’t think we were helping ourselves and that the longer this lockout went on, the players were going to end up coming out with the short end of the stick.
Hunter: David Robinson then got up and gave a blistering speech about having gone with his mother to the [National] Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and how she explained to him things he never knew. He said that what he saw there was overpowering, how he saw what they had to overcome and where we were at a time when we should be taking a stand. … That was like a Mack truck ran over John and Hornacek and Adam Keefe. They were the three. They came together. Somebody said they had been sent there by the owners, representing the owners. That was the first time they ever showed up. They kind of got shouted out of the room.
McIlvaine: We once kicked Jack Haley out of a meeting because he had recently retired. He was there as a mole. Years later he told me that ownership had somebody listening on every call and knew exactly what we were strategizing. I don’t know whether this was Jack blowing smoke, but there were certain players that were sympathetic to owners.
Hunter: Stern would always tell me, “I got my people everywhere. I know as much about what you’re doing as you know. I got my eyes and ears.” Clearly, I think there was someone amongst the players, but there also may have been people within my office and on staff. I have my suspicions, but I’m not going to disclose that.
McIlvaine: For Billy to have some paranoia was probably a good thing. I think there was good reason to be paranoid.
No player was more vocal about ending the lockout than New Jersey Nets big man Jayson Williams, and he loved the attention that came along with it. In addition to his monthly column for Details magazine and regular cameos on MTV, Williams appeared on Spin City, The Late Show With David Letterman, The Chris Rock Show, and CBS Evening News With Dan Rather during the lockout. He reportedly conducted 70 radio interviews and 30 newspaper and magazine interviews over that time. Funny and outgoing, Williams was willing to poke fun at his, and his colleagues’, predicament.
“Keith Van Horn and I did a skit on The Chris Rock Show like we were homeless and washing windows on the street,” Williams said recently. “We were stopping people at the Apollo like, ‘Hey, can we have $5?’ It was something we did to have fun with the lockout to ease the tension.”
Williams had personal financial motives for pursuing an end to the lockout. He wanted to get paid. As an impending free agent coming off an All-Star season during which he averaged 12.9 points and 13.6 rebounds per game (and made just $2.5 million), the 30-year-old eight-year NBA veteran was in line for a big raise.
Hunter: We found out he was talking to the league after his name began to appear in articles. He had gotten so blatant about it.
Williams: I remember speaking with both Billy and David and asking them when the hell this lockout was going to end. Billy would say, “It ain’t up to me. Call David.” David would say, “It ain’t up to me, call Billy.” Both had big egos at the time and weren’t getting it done. My problem was with the stalemate—that was what was pissing me off more than anything.
Kendall Gill (New Jersey Nets guard): I disagreed with him, and Jayson is my friend. Brothers can disagree.
Williams: I remember picking up the [New York] Post one day, and Patrick Ewing is on the back of the paper telling me to “Shut the F Up.” Spike Lee too. I called both of them. I don’t play that. Not saying that I’m a tough guy, but it shouldn’t have been taken to the press.
Davis: It hurt that Jayson would get out there and say, “Take a deal,” when he didn’t even know what the deal was. He never was talking specifically about any deal that was proposed at the time. We were constantly sending out memos saying, “Here … is … where … we … are … today.” I don’t remember Jayson ever being on one call or ever calling up to the office. Yeah, he never did that. That was disturbing. That was very disturbing.
Theo Ratliff (Philadelphia 76ers center, NBPA negotiating committee member): Jayson had a big payday coming.
Wasserman: He got a maximum salary deal a week after the lockout ended.
Williams: I was selfish in a lot of ways. I had a contract coming up. I also need structure in my life. I needed a job to go to. As soon as I lost that structure, you see all the shit I went through. [In 2010, Williams was sentenced to 18 months in prison after he fatally shot limo driver Costas Christofi in 2002.]
The union had more issues than just leaks and moles. Schisms developed between All-Stars and the middle class and journeymen; the committees and the rank-and-file; Falk’s guys and the anti-Falk contingent. The most glaring issue, however, was that of the players’ finances. Kenny Anderson wasn’t the only NBA player with a spending problem. In mid-November, players received $25,000 checks as part of the league’s group licensing agreement. But, in some cases, it wasn’t enough. Soon, more players were echoing Jayson Williams, and urging the union to cut a deal.
Wasserman: One of the issues during the lockout was that there was disparity in the salary between the high-end guys and the minimum. One of the mantras was to restore the middle class.
Elie: You knew the top guys would get paid and the lesser guys would get what they’d get. There were a lot of players in the league who were not superstars and were not scrubs. I thought we should have gotten paid accordingly.
Schayes: Patrick and I had a discussion about this. He, of course, was on the David-Falk-no-max-salary side. I said, “Look there’s only so many dollars; even though it’s a big pie, it’s still a finite pie.” I went to Patrick and I said, “Look, I’ll make another deal for you: The cap is $36 million. There are 12 players on the team; anyone who gets a roster gets $3 million across the board, and you make the rest of your money from endorsements. I’ll get 80 percent to vote for that. You’ll get 5 percent to vote yes for yours.” … He was like, “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.”
Falk: I think the star players understood the importance of protecting the rank-and-file.
Davis: As we went deeper into the lockout, guys were losing money. Everybody was hurting but we can’t sacrifice right now because we knew that if you put another bad deal in place then we all look crazy. If we’re going to fight, let’s fight.
McKie: We would get on those conference calls and oh my God, guys would complain about this, that, and the other. It was crazy. You had some guys, obviously the guys who were making a lot of money, that wanted to hold the line and then you had other guys like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, I got to get back to work. I got a wife. I got kids. I got family members that I have to help.”
Kauffman: A lot of players were scared. Let’s be blunt: They were scared.
Ratliff: You had a lot of guys who had their own agenda and that agenda was getting that check.
Glass: I had some of those guys [making the minimum]. They could not afford to miss checks. It’s a real misconception. People were criticizing because they were saying, “He can afford to miss checks because he was making so much money.” … Some of my guys if you missed a paycheck … it could throw them off and be a problem at home. … I would say, “We have to put our foot down. It might not affect you, but it will affect the guys in five years.” I had a guy say, “I don’t give a crap about the guys in five years.” It wasn’t all altruism and principle from either side. It was money. It was all about money.
During the lockout David Stern recycled his attack line from the 1995 lockout, accusing agents of sabotaging negotiations. “We stopped that deal in ’95. I’m proud to say that,” Keith Glass says. “Did I have anything to do with my players not going along with a bad deal? Yeah, I did. If David Stern would call that sabotage, I would call that advising. If you want to call it sabotage, OK, guilty.”
But Stern’s comments revealed another division within the union, that between Billy Hunter and the agents, specifically David Falk.
David Stern (NBA commissioner): We believe with good reason that the agents of players who would be most affected by the high-end limitation have begun a campaign to defeat any fair deal. … And their view is that no matter how good the deal may be for 400 players, it won’t be allowed to fly if the top 30 can’t have the ability to receive unlimited amounts. And we’re concerned that this entire arrangement and deal is going to be held hostage by that attitude. [From a November 4, 1998, conference call.]
Wasserman: Stern made it a point to make the agents the bad guy because he didn’t want to blame the players. That was part of his thing of protecting the players.
Glass: Agents are easy [targets]. Nobody likes agents.
Klempner: They were clearly arguing that if it was just the union leaders we’d make a deal.
Thomas: I think the agents were behind it all. I think most of the players followed the lead of their agents. I don’t think there was a lot of independent thinking. Maybe someone like Michael Jordan, but I think the overwhelming majority of the players were doing just whatever their agents were telling them.
Kessler: The agents had some advisory role in the negotiations as they should because they are very knowledgeable, but the idea that they were controlling or influencing Billy or the players on the executive committee was a false narrative created by David Stern and others.
Dudley: I think it’s silly criticism. … It’s like, you’re in a lawsuit and you’re relying on your attorneys. Well, yeah, that’s why I’m paying my attorney. I’m paying them for advice. Of course they should have been involved.
Falk: There was a schism between the agents and the union. That was fomented by Isiah [Thomas] when he was the president of the union. Isiah was an anti-agent person. I guess he had bad relationships with his own agents. Isiah was a great player and I don’t think they did a very good job negotiating deals that reflected his talent on the floor. And so he was extremely negative toward the agents. It almost developed like instead of being a two-front war between the league and the players, it was a three-front war between the league, the union, and the agents. And the league knew it. The league knew there was a complete divide with the agents. Amongst the agent group, let’s face it, it’s a cutthroat business. I was in a very strong position at that time. We represented the cream of the crop, so there was a tremendous level of jealousy. [Turner Sports did not respond to an interview request for Isiah Thomas.]
Kauffman: David, who I greatly respect for his intelligence and what he accomplished, was like a bull in a china shop at times. I think a big problem was at some point a breakdown between him and Hunter occurred.
Falk: Billy was a solo pilot in a political job that required consensus. I told him on his very first day that his job was to work with the top 10 or 12 most powerful agents that represented the top 80-90 percent of the players and if you could develop a consensus with those people you’d have a unified front. That’s one of David Stern’s geniuses, was taking 29 very wealthy, successful, egotistical owners and getting them to have a common front. Billy didn’t trust the agents. He didn’t like the agents, so he didn’t want to get them included.
Kessler: Billy and I would get phone calls at 2 in the morning from David with his latest views on what to do and what not to do. He was very engaged.
Hunter: Falk had greater access to David Stern than I did. You can’t call and say, “I talked to David Stern today and this that and the other and this is what I think you should do.” C’mon, man. Don’t tell me that you talked to David Stern. I don’t know what you said to David Stern. And so you have to be suspicious of all that. I had one agenda and one agenda only: I was committed to 400 ballplayers. I had to be concerned about the little guys, big guys, superstars, guys who were not yet in the league.
Falk: I’m not talking to David Stern because I’m a secret agent for the league. I’m talking to David Stern because Billy Hunter is not doing his job and got the players locked out twice. Ironically, I made the same suggestions to David Stern that I made to Billy Hunter to resolve some of the issues because I’m an experienced dealmaker. That’s what I do. I’m not a prosecutor. I’m an NBA dealmaker for 45 years and I have a pretty good track record. If he wants to say he can’t talk to me because I talk to David Stern, that’s absurd, but he’s certainly entitled to say that. I didn’t dislike Billy Hunter. He frustrated me. I think Billy is an intelligent guy. I just think his approach was 100 percent wrong.
Billy Hunter’s greatest adversary, however, was David Stern. Though he was an accomplished lawyer from a fancy New York firm, Stern brawled like a street fighter during negotiations. And yet he still walked around calling himself “Easy Dave.” Stern assigned the nicknames as well: Jeffrey Kessler was the “disgruntled antitrust lawyer”; Ron Klempner was “a zealot”; Billy Hunter was “an interloper.”
Stern was shrewd and knew when to get his hands dirty. In mid-December he sent the owners’ latest collective bargaining proposal to all 400-plus members of the union via overnight mail. “As the 1998-99 season slips away from us, it is critical that I communicate directly to you,” the letter read. The agent Norman Blass and Kevin Willis both then pushed for a secret ballot on the offer. “I just knew we had to get back to playing,” Willis says. “Guys were suffering.”
There would be no secret vote on the proposal, but the letter had its intended effect. “You gotta give David Stern a lot of credit,” Will Perdue says. “He did a good job of dividing players, dividing agents, and dividing players from agents. Players didn’t know who to believe.”
Falk: I’m probably David Stern’s biggest fan.
Hunter: David Stern knows what he’s doing, man. The man is competent, extremely competent. I always respected David. In any other situation we could have been real good friends.
Jim Quinn (former NBPA general counsel): Stern was in many ways, you could argue, the most successful commissioner in all of sports. Taking a largely moribund NBA in the early ’80s and making it into the powerhouse it is today. I fought with Stern for 40 years, but I still respect the guy.
Kessler: David is bombastic and volatile and could blow up in the meeting at any time against anybody including his own owners, own lawyers, players, the other side, me, Billy, Patrick Ewing, anybody. He had a very tempestuous negotiating style.
Quinn: His way of negotiating is more or less yelling.
Kessler: Players got to see that side of David that was digging and belittling and shouting and boisterous.
Kauffman: He wasn’t Easy Dave anymore.
Grantham: Nobody is easy in negotiations, in particular when you are talking about billions of dollars and putting together complicated agreements. There is no such thing as Easy Dave.
Wasserman: Stern had the beard, remember that?
Klempner: The lockout beard. Yes, that was crazy. Nobody could figure that out.
Quinn: Oh, we gave him a lot of shit for that.
Armato: It was better than his mustache. I didn’t think the David Stern mustache was so great.
As the lockout continued deep into December with no end in sight, both sides prepared for the unthinkable: a lost season. Rumors of the owners using replacement players were countered with threats of the players and agents forming a new league. “The Game on Showtime,” an exhibition held in Atlantic City broadcast on Showtime, with proceeds going to UNICEF and needy NBA players, was perceived as a test run of sorts; the money all went to charity following a public uproar.
On December 19, Patrick Ewing’s red team defeated Alonzo Mourning’s white team 125-119 before an announced crowd of 9,526 that was later revealed to be 5,603, with just 1,194 tickets sold through the box office. The exhibition proved two things: (1) Patrick Ewing and Shawn Kemp were not in game shape and (2) fan apathy was settling in.
Kessler: Basketball is a really hard sport to use replacement players because it’s such a star-driven sport.
Dunleavy: If that happened that would have been a really ugly situation.
Bob Whitsitt (Portland Trail Blazers general manager and team president): We heard the rhetoric. But I did not put together a scouting group to go find the best guys who aren’t good enough to be in the NBA.
Grunwald: We may have sent some scouts to the CBA to see what was going on.
Whitsitt: I didn’t spend energy on that because (a) I thought it was a negotiation ploy, (b) I really didn’t have any interest in winning the replacement championship, (c) I’m not sure how that would even play. You’re going to go to your 20,000 fans a night and drop their ticket prices down to whatever to watch guys who were playing in the YMCA.
Stern: It’s more likely that we won’t have a season than we will have a season. As strange as it sounds, we left on pleasant terms, agreeing that we couldn’t agree. Now I think we sit and watch and wait as the season slips away. [Said to reporters on December 4, 1998 following a 12 ½ hour negotiating session.]
Armato: It was actually a really dangerous period for the NBA. Stern thought that the whole thing had the potential of completely collapsing. Some of the agents were saying, “Why are we taking this lousy collective bargaining agreement when we can own our own league?”
Schayes: Someone was putting up a billion dollars to start a new NBA, or at least that was the rumor. It’s like, “Well, what does this look like? Who’s going to play? Who’s going to get paid? Where are we going to play these games?”
Mark Bartelstein (agent): That’s a huge undertaking. Obviously, there was talk of everything. All kinds of ideas are thrown across the table and all kinds of things are explored. The reality of that happening, probably not so great.
Armato: I thought Arn Tellem and Falk’s end game was forming this new league. Anytime you are a powerful agent like they were, you’re always looking for more power. That, obviously, would have been more power.
Falk: The purpose of the game was not because we wanted to start a new league, it was to show that the players could survive for a long period of time. … I met Billy and made a suggestion to him that because of different business contacts that we had, we had the ability to stage games so that the players could continue to play and make money and try to lessen the damage that the lockout was causing and put up a strong front on behalf of the players. … Billy’s response was, “That’s great, but I can reach out to Kofi Annan.” I never understood what that had to do with staging games.
McIlvaine: There were talks about putting together one-on-one matchups in Las Vegas.
Kauffman: The game came and went, almost like it didn’t happen.
Schayes: Some press members who I really respect told me people were starting not to care. Once you get to that point, you’ve lost. What’s the risk? The risk was that you sign a deal and nobody cares.
Klempner: Once you leave the preseason, then you lose opening day, then you lose Christmas, All-Star—we were up against the wall. The season was going to be canceled.
Schayes: We were getting to the point where face-to-face negotiation was not working. I pulled Billy aside and told him, “Look, I don’t think we’re going to get a deal with us on one side of the table.” Billy had to posture for the fellas, right? It almost got to the point where anything Billy agreed to would be viewed as a weakness and vice versa. Me and Billy sat down and I said, “Look, I don’t think we are at a point where we can get a face-to-face solution. I think you and David have to get a room and talk about some of these major issues. That’s the only way a deal gets done.” And that’s what instigated the famous Leonard Armato meeting.
A secret meeting between Billy Hunter and David Stern was scheduled for December 23 in the Los Angeles office of Shaquille O’Neal’s agent, Leonard Armato. How the meeting ensued is up for debate—Hunter says that Stern called him and suggested the meeting; Armato says he was the intermediary—but it opened a new phase of the negotiations.
Hunter: I thought Leonard Armato was in David Stern’s back pocket. But I thought about it and said, “Well, I was trying to get something done, so maybe I’ll go.”
Armato: [Hunter] flies in. Stern takes off from Aspen and apparently some reporter tracked that his plane took off, and some reporter on the ground made it known that Stern was on his way to L.A. Everybody was on high alert. Stern lands in L.A. and there are reporters following him and they see him pulling into my office. Then word gets out that Hunter is in my office as well. All of a sudden my office is surrounded by press.
Hunter: It turns out that Leonard Armato’s secretary or someone in his office telephoned either Arn Tellem’s or Falk’s office and informed them that I was at Armato’s office meeting with David Stern. Whoever it was had also called the media and they were lining the streets, man. It was like a carnival.
Armato: No, no, no. My employee? No way did my employee tip anyone off.
Wasserman: I remember being at my in-laws’ house and my beeper started going off from reporters.
Hunter: I then got a call from Patrick, who had been informed that I was meeting David Stern without him. He was exercising about the fact that I was meeting without him. I indicated that I tried to reach him beforehand but didn’t get him. I didn’t think there was any harm.
Falk: You can’t have a meeting without the president of the union. Do you think if the electrical union went on strike they’d have a settlement meeting without the union president there? It’s unconscionable to have a meeting anywhere without the president of the union. Patrick lost $6 million in salary because of the lockout and Billy didn’t even have the courtesy to invite him. Did Billy give up any salary during the lockout?
Hunter: John Thompson had actually gotten on the phone to mediate between me and Patrick. I was on the phone with them for 35-40 minutes trying to convince Patrick that nothing untoward had occurred. I had to report back. I couldn’t cut a deal without them. So anything we talked about I had to bring back. The reality is that I never got to meet with Stern. When I got through talking with them, I just said the hell with it. We got to reconvene in New York City.
Armato: When the meeting was finished, I agreed to drop off David Stern at his hotel. Billy says, “My car is parked two blocks away. Can I get a ride to my car?” I had one of my interns, Jeff Pressman, give Billy a ride. They get into the parking lot and Billy goes, “I don’t want anyone to see me.” Jeff says, “You can just lay down in the back seat and I’ll drive off.” Billy says, “No, no, that’s not good enough. Put me in the trunk.”
Jeff Pressman (intern in Leonard Armato’s office): It was his idea. He got in the trunk. I drove a few blocks until I was sure no one was following me, and then I let him out of the trunk. I was probably 22 or 23 at the time. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
Hunter: That’s correct. He drove me about two blocks, stopped, opened up the trunk, and I got out and went on.
More significant back-channel talks had already started by the time of the Armato meeting. In mid-December, Hunter called Jim Quinn, general counsel to the union under Larry Fleischer, and the man The New York Times later dubbed “the most prolific litigator of sports antitrust cases” in history. Aware of Quinn’s longtime friendship with Russ Granik, Hunter thought some new blood could jolt negotiations.
A series of phone calls led to a dinner or two, and soon Quinn and Granik were swapping ideas. “We talked certain issues and ways to resolve them,” Quinn says. “I would go back to Billy and say, ‘Can you live with X?’ Russ would presumably go back to David and say the same thing.”
With a January 7 deadline on canceling the season now set, both sides were still far apart. On January 4, the owners declined the players’ latest offer, while the union said it would put the league’s most recent proposal to a vote at a January 6 players meeting; the scheduled vote was on whether to support the negotiating committee’s recommendation to reject the offer. “We knew that they were not going to care what’s in the offer,” Antonio Davis remembers, “and they were going to sign that deal.”
With hundreds of NBA players congregating in New York City for the vote, one last night of negotiations would take place inside a 14th-floor conference room of the NBA’s offices on the night of Tuesday, January 5. Quinn and Granik met at 6 p.m., with Stern, the league’s general counsel Joel Litvin, Hunter, and Kessler soon joining them; Stern left for around an hour to appear on Larry King Live. Setting up the meeting, however, was a negotiation in itself. [Joel Litvin declined an interview request.]
Quinn: It was clear by then that both sides really wanted to make a deal.
Armato: I was then involved deeply in the final negotiating night when the settlement was reached. I was in constant contact with league representatives and union representatives, providing info on what could be a compromise. I was really pushing David. I was like, “David you got to give in a little bit here.” I had Stern primed to make the deal.
Kessler: Leonard Armato was not a productive force in the negotiations, and his role was greatly exaggerated. I don’t think he did anything positive in those negotiations.
Hunter: At one point I got as recalcitrant as Stern was. I was sitting in my office and said, “The hell with it. We are going to be locked out for the rest of the season.” I get a call from Armato and he says me, “Will you call David Stern?” I said, “Call David Stern for what?” He said, “David Stern wants to do a deal, but he wants you to call.” I had been the one to make all the calls throughout this negotiation. Every time there had been a call [I had made the call] except for the time he called from [Aspen]. Every time it’s me calling David. I said, “I’m not calling David. The hell with it. It is what it is. If this thing is going to go down, it’s going to go down.”
Armato: I said, “Look, let’s not stand on ceremony here. There is a lot at stake—over $2 billion in salary and the future of the league. Who cares who calls first?”
Hunter: He talked to me for like 15-20 minutes. Before we hung up, he said, “Promise me you’ll call David Stern.” After he hung up, two minutes later I called David. I remember that when I called David that he was anticipating my call. I don’t know if Leonard had called beforehand and informed him that I would be calling; I didn’t leave Leonard with the impression that I would call. But David was receptive and said he wanted to get together and he was hopeful we could work something out.
Kessler: We just assembled quickly and went over.
Quinn: The atmosphere was tense, but reasonably friendly. There wasn’t a lot of yelling. By that time I think Stern was yelled out.
Kessler: That last night we had to close the gap on like 15 key issues. There was something open on this, something open on that, there were a lot of open pieces that had to be closed that night.
Quinn: The big hang-up was the max salary. That was the ultimate issue that got resolved that late night. … It was somewhere around 2 o’clock in the morning. I remember taking Billy outside and saying to him, “The max salary is not the end of the world.”
Kessler: They were willing to negotiate and put more on the table that evening. We finished at like 4 in the morning.
Quinn: I remember that we had a deal, people shook hands, it was cold as hell. We walked out of the NBA offices. … I remember walking down to the elevator and it was myself, Jeff Kessler, and Billy. There were no cabs around, so we were walking up Fifth Avenue, talking about how we had just saved the season.
What that season would look like is another story.
For Part 2, visit The Ringer on Tuesday, February 19.