NBA Players Union Votes to Fire Executive Director Billy Hunter

Billy Hunter was fired as the National Basketball Association players union’s executive director, a move he called “preordained” following a probe that concluded he put his own interests ahead of the group.

Player representatives from 24 of the 30 NBA teams in Houston for All-Star weekend voted unanimously yesterday to oust the 70-year-old former federal prosecutor, union President Derek Fisher said at a news conference.

“No threats, no lies, no distractions will stop us from serving our membership,” Fisher said. “We do not doubt that this process will continue in an ugly way.”

Hunter, whose firing ends a 16-year tenure, said he and his legal team would review the actions and statements made in his absence. He was denied a chance to address the union before the vote.

“I look forward to gathering the evidence showing how certain individuals made sure the outcome was preordained,” Hunter said in an online statement. “The current interim regime in control of the NBPA has set a terrible precedent for the union. It violates every tenet of fairness upon which the union was founded.”

Hunter, questioning the legality of the voting process, said, “I do not consider today’s vote the end, only a different beginning.”

The firing ends almost yearlong speculation about Hunter’s future with the association, punctuated last month by the results of an audit of the union conducted by New York-based law firm Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison. The review concluded that while Hunter did nothing illegal, he failed to manage conflicts of interest, lacked proper corporate governance and did not disclose his $3 million-a-year contract wasn’t properly ratified.

Interim Director

Players Association staff attorney Ron Klempner, who was announced on Feb. 1 as interim executive director until a permanent successor is chosen, will remain in that role.

Yesterday’s firing leaves unclear how much Hunter is owed. It isn’t known if the players will agree to pay Hunter what is left on his contract.

Hunter issued an online rebuttal two days ago to the audit, saying his contract was valid and that he has always put players first.

Hunter helped negotiate collective bargaining agreements that pushed the average NBA player’s salary to more than $5 million, the highest in U.S. team sports. The union, in debt when Hunter took over, now has $80 million in net assets, according to his rebuttal.

Hunter said in his rebuttal that his contract is valid and he is owed more than $10 million if terminated. The audit report said the union had “no obligation” to accept the document as enforceable.

No Vote

Player representatives never voted to ratify Hunter’s contract, a necessary step under union bylaws, the report said. Hunter said in his rebuttal that such a vote is necessary for new contracts, not extensions.

Arn Tellem, one of the NBA’s most prominent agents, and players such as Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets and Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics, called for Hunter’s firing following the report. Tellem, whose clients include former Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, warned players of Hunter’s “treachery” in an e-mail to clients.

At yesterday’s meeting in Houston, LeBron James of the Miami Heat and Jerry Stackhouse of the Brooklyn Nets were the most vocal, according to two people in the room who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. James was calling for change, they said.

James left the meeting an hour before it ended without talking to the media. He had a charity appearance scheduled.

Commissioner David Stern declined to comment on Hunter’s firing. “We’ve seen Derek Fisher’s statements, and we await notification from the union as to who we should be dealing with,” he said.

Family Members

The union since 2001 has paid $4.8 million to Hunter’s family members and their professional firms, Bloomberg News reported in April citing public records, a pattern of nepotism that the audit called “unacceptable.” Last month, Hunter purged family members from the association.

The audit also said Hunter made questionable choices when charging travel expenses to the union, and spent more than $100,000 in union funds in the past 10 years on luxury gifts for members of the executive committee. Those gifts included a $22,000 Patek Philippe watch given to Fisher in June 2010.

Hunter also spent at least $300,000 pursuing speculative business ventures as possible investments for the organization, including a mixed martial arts fighting league in Japan and a failing bank venture that had Hunter’s son as a director, the report said.

Hunter said in his rebuttal that the gift-giving was in keeping with a union tradition, and that appropriate due diligence was pursued on all business ventures.

Ex-NFL Player

A former captain of the Syracuse University football team, Hunter played two seasons in the National Football League with the Washington Redskins and Miami Dolphins. He served as a federal prosecutor in 1977-1984 before managing his own firm.

The union’s business practices are being probed by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, the U.S. Department of Labor and the New York State Attorney General.

The union today also appointed a new executive committee: Matt Bonner of the San Antonio Spurs as vice president; James Jones of the Miami Heat as secretary and treasurer, and Stackhouse as first vice president. Also appointed as vice presidents were Roger Mason Jr. of the New Orleans Hornets; Chris Paul and Willie Green of the Los Angeles Clippers; Andre Iguodala of the Denver Nuggets, and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors.

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