HOUSTON -- Out of the hundreds of credentialed media, perhaps 30 or so devoted newshounds gathered on a corner outside a downtown hotel on Saturday afternoon to watch Billy Hunter get fired. Across the street fans streamed into the NBA Jam Session to willingly subject themselves to multiple DJs and hype men unleashing a non-stop boom-bap of noise and strobe lights.
These were the two faces of the NBA. On the one hand, the non-stop empty calorie sensory overload served up nightly in arenas across the country was turned all the way up to maximum volume. On the other, a quiet revolution was taking place involving the game's biggest stars that will, if executed properly, help usher in a long overdue new era.
The basketball event taking place inside the Jam Session was the D-League All-Star game, a low-rent affair featuring less than zero defense and a nonstop dunkathon that like the contest conducted later that evening felt rote and tired. "This is a waste of time," a Western Conference executive said and it was, just like all the other ginned-up competitions created to fill a weekend's worth of airtime.
All-Star weekend had its share of guilty pleasures to be sure, but even the main event on Sunday failed to register much in the way of indelible moments, unless you count Craig Sager's space suit as iconic. Impossibly positive in-arena hosts practically begged the lethargic crowd to MAKE SOME NOISE and their pleas were met with stony silence and half-hearted golf claps. How could they compete with all the other artificial distractions to produce something that approached genuine enthusiasm?
Back on the corner, the man guarding the hotel door was serious about his job. No one was entering on his watch without the proper ID, and once we did we were cordoned off in a section of the lobby, a grim reminder of the labor strife that consumed the league for the better of part of last year. A handful of players trickled down the escalator, but no one was talking.
Upstairs they were voting to oust Hunter, the embattled union chief who stood accused of nepotism, allegedly shady financial dealings and negotiating a contract extension for himself that they were about to declare null and void. After 90 minutes or so we were allowed to ascend the escalator to the second floor past a phalanx of security to a conference room where Derek Fisher told us they had voted unanimously, 24-0, to fire Hunter. "This is our union and we're taking it back," Fisher said.
There would be no questions, owing to the existence of a criminal probe and two other ongoing investigations. From a media perspective the whole thing was a hastily thrown together ruse using the press as props for a three-minute statement masquerading as a press conference. "You've got to be kidding me," one hound sighed as Fisher headed for the exit.
And yet, the action was decisive and it involved players at the highest levels, a stark contrast from previous union activity. The New York Times reported that LeBron James took an active role in the meeting, questioning Fisher and the lawyers who prepared the independent audit Fisher had called for, all of which was a complete turnaround from his passive involvement during the lockout.
The new executive committee includes substantial players like Andre Iguodala and Steph Curry along with holdover Chris Paul. They represent a broader spectrum of experiences from the old board that relied heavily on role players.
After almost two decades with the players union, Hunter wasn't even invited to Houston for his own execution. Within the hour he posted a statement on his website calling everything into question and threatening a lawsuit. Calling it a website gives it entirely too much credit. It's a blogspot, crudely constructed and so very 2006. It will get uglier before it gets resolved, but palace coups are rarely orderly.
A few hours later, David Stern held court for the last time at All-Star weekend. Next year it will be deputy commissioner Adam Silver sitting in the big chair. "Praise the lord," Stern interjected and the room laughed. He was totally in command, not that too many questions cut deep to the bone.
Roughly half of them were about the Kings owners trying to relocate to Seattle, and reading between the lines it seems that Sacramento has a very good chance to make its case if mayor Kevin Johnson can get the city's bid in order. That was the other important development of the weekend.
The other half were a jumble of bullshit PR, international queries and hometown nods. Stern handled all of them with his trademark deftness and wit, save for one about performance enhancing drugs raised by TrueHoop's Henry Abbott.
Stern went back at Abbott, but the man had done his homework and was ready for the salvo. It was the only real showdown moment in an otherwise innocuous 30 minutes, but it too passed quickly. It wasn't quite a victory lap for Stern, but it was satisfyingly easy. Like everyone else, however, he wasn't talking about Hunter or the union.
The last collective bargaining agreement was their final battle and with it came the dawn of a new era. The luxury tax is now a de-facto hard cap, affecting not only the owners' bottom lines but also their general managers' ability to construct their rosters. It's a convenient cover for keeping expenses down, but it's also a system that favors creativity and foresight.
"We think that the collective bargaining agreement is working," Stern said. "We think that it's yet to click in its fullness, which will happen next year."
That's when the tax takes full effect, along with "revenue-sharing projects" that Stern alluded to, but are still not yet clear. The goal is to "both compete and to be profitable," in Stern's words. The second part is essential to the league's survival, but the first part may be beyond even his reach. You can't legislate against dumb, after all, and the NBA is a uniquely star-driven league.
It's unfair to say that the players let this happen with their laissez-faire attitude. The economics and conditions were far too complicated for such easy analysis. But their long-standing reluctance to engage the owners and take an active role in their organization certainly played a part. That's why the union business is so important and it wasn't hard to see that while the league's succession plan is in place, the players are starting over.
Sunday was a gorgeous day in downtown Houston. The sun was bright and warm, temperatures were in the low 70s and a strong breeze wafted through the dank stench of the weekend's debauchery.
With Stern and Hunter on their way out, the NBA stands at a pivotal transition point. Long after everyone forgets about Kevin Hart, Ne-Yo and the unfortunate leather sweatpants trend, this weekend will be remembered for the players' decision to take their league back and their timing is perfect.
LeBron has finally cut through the thicket of his own tortured narrative to carve out his rightful place among the all-time greats. Kyrie Irving announced himself to the world, taking his spot alongside players like Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade in crunch time.
Irving was one of seven new All-Stars and established young phenoms like Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin put on a blinding offensive show. Chris Paul, the game's MVP, was masterful with his precision passing and ability to make sense of a ragged flow.
"I'm on this thing called Synergy day in and day out watching basketball," Paul said, which immediately endeared him to a new generation of media members who also spend their days riveted to the scouting service that has revolutionized the way the game is covered.
The league has never been deeper or presented and covered in so much depth. It is the right time for such exposure. All that was left was for the players to make a bold and decisive stand about their futures.
Now they have to follow through with the hard work and determination to remake their union in their image. That will be the hardest part, but if they can they have the potential to usher in a new era.