NBPA eager to work in time of labor peace

In annual All-Star meeting, NBPA talks recognizing past, present and future in new CBA

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

NEW ORLEANS – For most NBA fans, the National Basketball Players Association blips onto their radar only in times of labor strife, with collective bargaining agreement talks stalled, with rhetoric rising, with a lockout looming.

The union, just like the league in those rancorous and high-profile times, knows how to do war. What we’re about to learn now is how well the NBPA does peace.

Avoiding the sort of disputes that undermined the 82-game schedule in 1998-99 and 2011-12, the NBA and the NBPA reached agreement on and ratified a new labor deal in December that runs at least through the 2022-23 season. The process was aided by an unprecedented flood of revenue into the system – the start of the league’s new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast contracts – that boosted the 2016-17 salary cap by more than 34 percent (from $70 million per team to $94.1 million).

That was, effectively, the tide that lifted all boats, pre-empting squabbles over the absolute last dollar via BRI (basketball-related income) split and freeing both labor and management to get creative and pro-active about other issues and programs.

“It is a little different realm,” veteran forward Anthony Tolliver, one of the NBPA’s vice presidents on its executive board. “Normally around this time, there’d be articles coming out, ‘What’s the snags? What’s the holdup?’

“We have a deal. The players’ association, we have our own challenges that most people don’t really know about or talk about. … Getting the deal done as early as we have really just enhances our chances to focus on the core values that make the players’ association what it really is.”

Or as fellow VP James Jones said during the NBPA’s “state of the union” media session Friday at All-Star Weekend: “We approached [this negotiation] from the standpoint that BRI split wasn’t the Holy Grail. That’s the sexy headline but for us, it’s ‘What can we do in this negotiation that will impact and change the lives of our players, their families and future generations?’ ”

Jones, Tolliver, union president Chris Paul, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts and NBPA chief marketing officer Jordan Schlachter participated in the media session.

As Jones noted, after serving as the flashpoint of past CBA talks, the BRI split in the new deal stayed right where it was: a formula assuring the players of approximately 51 percent in times as lucrative as these. Minimum salaries for veterans, rookie scale deals and amounts for various salary-cap exceptions all were adjusted upwards.

There were multiple changes and updates throughout the CBA, with most of them driven – or allowed to be made priorities – by the amount of money flooding into the system.

For example, the NBPA taking control of its players’ licensing rights looks to be as much a growth and development move as it is a financial one. For two decades, the union has accepted a fee from the league, which marketed those rights for another revenue stream. Now the players and their reps are interested and savvy enough to handle and profit more directly in that area.

Another enhancement: health insurance for retired players and an improving rapport overall with the National Basketball Retired Players Association. While no generation of active players doubted the contributions of those who came before them in laying the foundation for both the union and the league’s profitability, there occasionally were tug-of-wars over how much the present group owed the past.

Now there’s seems to be a smoothing, as exemplified by Paul’s words Friday: “One thing is for sure, whether you admit it or not: Everybody always talks about Father Time, but one thing we’re guaranteed is, all of us at some point will be a retired player.”

Thurl Bailey, chairman of the NBRPA board, told NBA.com Friday the relationship between the union and his group never has been better.

“We’re really grateful as retired players for some of the things that have come down the pike,” said Bailey, who entered the league in 1983 and played 12 seasons with Utah and Minnesota. “Health insurance, that’s something that’s obviously unprecedented and couldn’t come with greater timing for all our members. For the NBA and the NBPA to come together and know how important that is, we’re truly grateful.”

Bailey acknowledged that Roberts’ and the union’s top priorities must be the today’s generation, not yesterday’s. “Her job is to take care of the current players and put them in the best position with the NBA,” he said. “But what I think everybody wants is for all of us to bring the past, the present and the future together.”

Bailey said Purvis Short, a 12-year NBA veteran mostly with Golden State who later served as the union’s director of player programs, will have a new role as a liaison between the league, the NBPA and the NBRPA.

Roberts spoke of her “joy” at being able to negotiate the new CBA as she and the union’s team did with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the owners’ labor relations committee. It was done largely behind the scenes, without posturing for or seeking leverage in the media. Neither she nor Silver were driven to “win” the bargaining talks for their reputations, insiders have said.

Also, Roberts termed it an “absolute delight” that their pursuit of this deal was a “player-driven process.” “Players were not used as props,” she said. “They were engaged in giving us direction.”

Said Paul: “The thing I think we’re all most proud of is the feedback from our players. That’s one thing we talked about years ago, making sure we got real feedback from our players. ‘Tell us what you need. Tell us what you want.’

“Coming into this league, you really don’t know what to expect. You don’t really understand what the league is or what the NBA does. I think we’re getting a lot of feedback from our younger guys so we can continue to grow the game for the future, for the present. And we’re also always trying to figure out ways to impact our past players, who paved the way for us.”

Veteran San Antonio forward Pau Gasol was elected to serve on the union’s executive committee at the NBPA’s annual All-Star meeting of player representatives. Roberts cited Gasol’s background as one of the league’s top international players in broadening the NBPA’s knowledge base. Gasol, 36, fills a vacancy on the board left by former NBA guard Steve Blake and starts a three-year term.