It doesn't matter that Derek Fisher is blowing smoke in the public's direction by denying reports of a rift between himself and a few members of the NBA players' union. What matters is the reason he felt the need to do so, the effect it could possibly have on labor negotiations and whether he'll get the support he needs to secure a 2011-12 NBA season.
Fisher did the right thing by writing an open letter to players Monday, reiterating his commitment to them while attempting to swat away any hints to the contrary. He did it again in a statement Tuesday. Quite honestly, he had to say something. When you're accused of talking to owners behind the backs of union executives and promising to deliver the owners' coveted 50-50 split of annual revenue (known as basketball related income, or BRI) without anyone's knowledge -- words like "alleged" or "allegations" won't floss over the damage done to your reputation.
"Let me say on the record to each of you," Fisher wrote in Monday's letter, "my loyalty has and always will be with the players. Anyone that questions that or doubts that does not know me, my history, and what I stand for. And quite frankly, how dare anyone call that into question."
The response doesn't exactly address the specifics of whether the union president did what he was being accused of. But it's necessary to understand that, even in the worse-case scenario of clandestine discussions with the other side on Fisher's part, it doesn't negate the reality that he was, indeed, acting in the best interests of the players he represents.
Contrary to what union hardliners might want us to think, a 50-50 BRI split is in the best interest of the players. Something, simply, is better than nothing at all. If you are going to walk away from a league-average salary of $5 million, projected to escalate to $7 million, with $2 BILLION on the table -- guaranteed minimally over at least the next seven years -- during a ravaged economy and escalating unemployment, you damn well better have options in your back pocket.
If Fisher has noticed the players don't have any options, kudos to him.
The union officials who talk about drawing a hard line in the sand by demanding nothing less than a 52-48 split can bloviate all they want over how they've given enough already, dropping from 57 percent to 52 percent on BRI, modifying luxury-tax issues and mid-level exceptions, etc. But to walk around with their chests protruding like they're going to do something about it now, acting as if their biceps bulge bigger than those of the owners, is laughable.
Correction, it's sad!
Sad because playing overseas is not an option for a rank-and-file consisting of at least 400 players. Sad because players formulating their own league was never an option. Sad because, at the end of the day, the evident lack of the players' preparation for these negotiations in comparison to the owners' has become clear, revealing how executive director Billy Hunter and the union's recent arrival at these negotiations must have been predicted by owners years earlier.
Evidently, someone must have forgotten to tell the union these talks have been going on for years.
That's the only conclusion that can be drawn when a rookie wage scale, a maximum limit on player salaries, an escrow tax (10 percent salary givebacks) and a luxury tax were all implemented in 1999. The owners knew this move toward a 50-50 split was the ultimate prize way back in the 1990s, and the players did nothing about it.
So now that a 50-50 split is on the table, that D-Day has arrived, it's time to throw Fisher to the wolves?
"Derek Fisher needs to do the right deal," one player closely connected to Hunter told me. "He needs to understand that some of these guys talking all this junk about being hardcore are the same guys who'll be calling for his head the second the season is canceled, after they've finally realized the owners ain't budging.
"Who the hell doesn't want a 52-48 split at this point?" the player said. "Hell, we wanted more than that. Billy's right to demand it, too. He's right to be frustrated. He's right to feel like we're getting abused. But at the end of the day, you don't sit around and lose $2 billion, cost hundreds of players to lose our jobs and thousands more employed by the NBA to lose theirs, over two damn points on BRI because you are ticked off. You don't do it. That's just stupid."
And then some!
In the end, Fisher's the president, not Hunter. He can talk to whomever he wants. If he engaged in secret negotiations with the commissioner or the league's owners, he shouldn't have. It's wrong! But an apology, along with a willingness to move on and get a deal done, should be the order of the day. Nothing else.
There's a deal to close. There's $2 billion to collect, along with assurances than 450 players and thousands of folks affiliated with the NBA will remain employed for years to come.
We've had enough failures in recent memory.
We don't need another one, of the ignorant kind.
Follow Stephen A. Smith on Twitter: @stephenasmith.