BOSTON — The story was irresistibly provocative: In the midst of the last NBA lockout, Kobe Bryant made a late-night phone call to Billy Hunter, the head of the players union, and urged him to accept a 50-50 revenue split with the owners. A side deal had been reached.
“You can put this thing to bed,” Bryant supposedly told Hunter in that call. “Do the deal.”
This conspiratorial tale was a central piece of Hunter’s lawsuit against the union and its former president, Derek Fisher. So Bryant was understandably pleased when a Los Angeles judge this week dismissed much of the suit, including all traces of that fanciful story.
“Of course, it should have been (dismissed),” Bryant told Bleacher Report on Friday, in his first public remarks on the case. “It’s unfounded. It’s just silly.”
Hunter was fired last February in a unanimous vote by player representatives. He filed a wrongful-termination suit in May, primarily to claim the $10 million left on his contract. But he also used the lawsuit as a platform to broadcast his grievances with Fisher, whom he accused of secretly negotiating with league officials and plotting to take his job as executive director.
Allegations of a backroom deal between Fisher and NBA officials first surfaced in late October 2011, in an anonymously sourced news report. No supporting evidence ever emerged, and the story was never corroborated. But it took on new life when Hunter incorporated the details in his lawsuit.
The part involving Bryant was contained in court documents filed in November.
“He’s full of s---; that’s what I thought,” Bryant said Friday, recalling his reaction to Hunter’s claim. “I was shocked, more than anything else. Just shocked. It’s one of those things, it just kind of comes out of left field.”
Bryant, like several other marquee players, briefly participated in the labor negotiations. But he quickly became disillusioned with the process as well as the infighting between Fisher, his close friend and longtime teammate, and Hunter. Bryant said he knew early on that the players were in an unwinnable position.
“It was very easy for me to understand from the beginning that us, as players, are always going to be on the losing side of the situation,” Bryant said. “Because the owners always have the upper hand, always have the advantage. From that perspective, it’s very easy for me to just detach myself and not get involved. I went down, listened to the nonsense that was going on, said this ain’t for me.”
Chris Paul was elected union president last summer, after Fisher’s term expired. But the executive director job remains unfilled, nearly a year after Hunter’s ouster. The union’s executive committee is working with a consulting firm to identify candidates, but it could take until the summer before a successor is hired.
Bryant, who has never held elective office but remains an influential voice, said the union was right to take a deliberative approach.
“They need to be patient,” he said. They need to approach this in a professional manner and find people that are as talented on our side that are on the NBA side. That’s the bottom line. We have the ability to go get top-level executives; there’s no reason why we should not do that. Especially with the amount of revenue that we generate. I think it’s important for them to be patient. I think it’s important to have checks and balances in place and not giving one person all of that control, and have clear lanes of accountability. I think if we have that, we’ll be all right.”