Sterling misdeeds unite league, union

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Last weekend when the world woke up to the Donald Sterling TMZ tape, it wasn't just an instant crisis for the NBA league office and its owners. The players' union also found itself called to act, as the labor force where high-level management had been impugned as a bigot.

But the National Basketball Players Association had a few problems: More than half of its membership was scattered for the offseason. Union president Chris Paul was in Sterling's employ, as the starting point guard of the Clippers, in the middle of an intense playoff series. To top it off, the union has been without an executive director since Billy Hunter's disgrace.

Within days, however, NPBA adviser and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson stood on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall arm in arm with current and past stars claiming victory. The threat of a league-wide player playoff boycott had helped convince NBA commissioner Adam Silver to mete out the toughest punishment possible for Sterling.

Silver needed the players to back him, to end the corrosive dialogue around Sterling that tore at the fabric of the league. Johnson and Silver had been partners in stressful times once before -- both were integral to backroom politicking by which the Kings did not ditch Sacramento, California, for the bigger, richer market of Seattle.

The players needed something too: a reason to come together.

Economists say the biggest names in the NBA are worth many times what they're paid, and that generally the players are the straw that stirs the NBA's drink. Their challenge in actualizing that power, however, has been in working together well enough through tough negotiations. Players presumably could wield significantly more power, on economic and other issues, if they had a galvanizing event.

Both the league and the union got what they wanted, with the union enjoying one of its best days in years.

Taking a hard stand against racist statements was a no-brainer. Sterling offered up the ideal opportunity. Basketball players and politicians alike know you take a free layup like that. Johnson's political instincts enabled him to take advantage -- complete with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Steve Nash standing with him.

Armed with some positive momentum, Johnson is now trying to keep the players together.

"This was galvanizing for us, it was a powerful moment for the union," Johnson told ESPN.com. "We saw this as an opportunity to reset the players' relationship with the league because ultimately we have the same goals."

Johnson's role with the union was sudden, strategic and productive in a way the union hasn't experienced while in a long-term quagmire. With players and agent factions jockeying for position in the wake of an embezzlement and nepotism scandal from past executive director Hunter that is raging on for a second year, Paul brought in Johnson less than a month ago to attempt to restart the process and create more trust.

This is a big change. In the lockout, Hunter called for limits on Stern's limitless powers to punish players. The proposal didn't get far. With Stern in retirement, however, the dynamic between the league and the union shows signs of shifting.

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