I believe all of that, but here’s the thing:
I can’t hear it from the agents.
Even though I believe all of those things — Stern’s ruthlessness, the union’s naivete — I can’t believe it when it comes from the players’ agents. If that doesn’t make sense to you, I would understand why. I’m basically telling you that I know, in my heart, two plus two equals four. But if a sports agent tells me two plus two equals four? Well, not so fast. Let me dig through some Euclidean math. A calculator. An abacus. Something.
I’m going to need some independent verification, because if a sports agent tells me that two plus two equals four, and if agents only tell the truth when the truth is convenient, well … I’m stuck. Between a rock and a fraud place.
Which is where the players are right now too. They’re stuck between the immovable owners and their own insincere agents.
As the NBA was lurching toward the unthinkable, a missed chunk of regular-season games if not a missed 2011-12 season entirely, the message has been controlled by the agents. They were the ones talking among themselves, and then leaking it to the media, about the need to decertify the union. They were the ones sending letters to their clients, and then leaking it to the media, about the need to refuse any labor agreement — even one supported by Hunter and Fisher — that reduces the players’ share of the league’s basketball-related income to less than 52 percent.
They were saying and doing those things, and on the surface those things make sense to me.
But not if the agents are saying it. Not if the agents are doing it.
Agents are liars — the best ones, anyway. All of them? Not all of them, no. That would be a generalization, and not a fair one. But perception is reality, and that’s my perception, which means it’s my reality: The best agents get to be the best agents because they can massage unfriendly facts in their favor. Now that the agents are massaging the message about this lockout, I’m starting to rebel. Against the agents. And the players.
If agent Dan Fegan tells me it’s sunny outside, I’d assume he represents the only company in town that sells sunscreen. As for me, I’ll wear a raincoat. Because in Dan Fegan’s hands, the truth starts out as a loaf of bread and ends up a pretzel. He’s great at what he does, even if what he does isn’t always going to fool a lie detector.
Even so, the agents are the tail wagging this dog. Fegan is among a handful of the most powerful agents, representing nearly a third of the league’s players, advising their clients to do one thing while Hunter and Fisher are advising the players to do another. On the one hand, I believe the agents have a better head for business — especially the ruthless business of negotiation — than Derek Fisher and even Billy Hunter.
On the other hand, the agents are gambling with someone else’s money. Eventually, ultimately, the money trickles down to them — yes. But first the money goes to the players, and the agents are urging the players to get the best deal possible, even if the best deal possible isn’t possible without a lost 2011-12 season, and maybe even if the best deal possible isn’t possible at all.
But what do the agents care? They’re crowded around the richest poker table in Vegas, looking over some guy’s shoulder and urging him to push more money into the pot while he’s bluffing, bluffing, bluffing. The agents are risking everything, but it’s not their everything. They are skilled money managers who have gotten rich off players, and they are leveraged to handle a lockout better than most of their clients, I promise you that. So if the agents claim to know what is best for their players, well, it doesn’t matter that I’m tempted to believe it.
I can’t believe it.
Neither can Fisher, who has sent to his union two cautionary letters about the snakes in their midst.
“I question their motives,” Fisher wrote to the union last month when agents sought decertification.
“The [agents’] letter … includes misinformation and unsupported theories,” Fisher wrote to the union this week when agents put parameters on what deal the players should, and should not, accept.
Derek Fisher has been in the NBA for 15 seasons. He knows agents better than most people on this planet — he employs an agent, for crying out loud — and in his own words, he “question(s) their motives” and says they are trying to seduce players with “misinformation and unsupported theories.”
I’m with Fisher. Agents cry wolf for a living. It’s what they do — and here they are, doing it again. Just so happens, I can hear the wolf myself. I can hear it. Smell it.
But since the agents are the ones who claim to see it, now I’m not sure.
Maybe what I smell isn’t coming from a wolf. Maybe it’s coming from somewhere else.