Lakers’ Derek Fisher is a union man all the way

Derek Fisher sits in an almost-empty restaurant on a midweek morning in Cleveland that defines silence, save for the hushed conversation at a nearby table and the occasional clink of dishes behind a closed door.

He seems to savor it as he sips his coffee. There will be little downtime for him in coming months.

After the Lakers’ playoff push ends, Fisher transitions from 13 teammates to about 420.

Derek Fisher: An article in the March 8 Sports section about Lakers guard Derek Fisher and his role as president of the NBA Players Assn. said Forbes magazine reported that 12 of the 30 NBA teams lost money last season. In fact, Forbes said 17 teams had operating losses. —

As president of the NBA Players’ Assn, he’ll be on the front line during negotiations on a new labor contract, with the very real possibility of an owners’ lockout that could stall the sport before it typically starts up again in October. Pro basketball might be paralyzed for an entire season.

About half the team owners claim to be losing money and want to slash player payroll at least 35%. The players, though, are content to keep the average NBA salary at $5.8 million, perhaps agreeing to a slight reduction if the money is directly allocated to lower ticket prices, Fisher said.


This gridlock probably won’t be cleared before the collective-bargaining agreement expires June 30.

Fisher, 36, remains buoyant. He has been on five championship teams and might hoist the trophy for another one in June, but he’s been pointing toward this moment as a labor figure since his third pro season.

A lockout delayed the start of the 1998-99 NBA season for more than three months. It was a contract year for Fisher, and he spent it nervously waiting to play again.

“I remember not being quite sure what all the commotion was about,” he said. “It was a big year for me and lo and behold, half the season’s canceled and all this stuff is going on. I felt like I should at least understand better how this was going to impact me for the rest of my career. It stoked the fire as far as getting involved with the union.”

After the players made concessions that included allowing maximum salaries to be capped, a 50-game season began in February 1999.

Now in his 15th NBA season, Fisher is plenty aware of the differences between owners and their high-profile employees this time.

Almost all players would understand if owners walked into the negotiating room, painted a poor economic picture and asked for a 2% salary cut in exchange for lower ticket prices “so that more fans and families could come watch you guys play,” Fisher said.

“But it’s a different conversation when we hear, ‘OK guys, we want you to take a pay cut or make a concession for whatever the number would be percentage-wise, not to really lower ticket prices or make it more affordable for people to come to the game — essentially we want to increase our profit margin.’ Right now that’s all we hear, so it’s hard to say, ‘OK, sure,’ if the idea is just to allow the owners to continue to be more successful in this business as a product of a lot of the talent that’s come through this league, past, present and future.

“Thus far there hasn’t really been any reason given or explanation given that this is better for the game or this is better for the whole.”

Fisher has prepared for the worst. He has told NBA players to save money, sending them thick folders that deal with financial-planning questions.

“We tabbed it from A to Z,” he said. “Contacting your bank, how your mortgage is being paid, your cars, your house for your mom, all these different things that guys are going to be faced with all at once if no paycheck is coming in. We’ve really tried to get guys locked in to that area to make sure they’re making decisions now so they don’t get hit July 1.”

The players are on board with Fisher, confident he and Billy Hunter, executive director of the players’ association, will seamlessly steer through negotiations with owners.

“I think D-Fish has been awesome, man,” said veteran New York Knicks guard Chauncey Billups. “He stands up for everything that we talk about as a unit, as a body. I think that he carries himself in an unbelievable manner. I’m very comfortable with him.”

Fisher wants to see more details from teams that claim to be losing money, saying it’s a “little tough” to accept reports of large losses. Forbes magazine recently wrote that 12 of the 30 NBA teams were in the red last season.

“There are just too many variables,” Fisher said. “There are owners that if they bought a team for $400 million, they spent $100 million in cash and borrowed $300 million. . . . As those interest payments go up, then he can report that he’s losing money, but it’s off of the interest payment that he bought the team with. It’s not necessarily because he’s paying X-amount of salary to his players.”

Fisher doesn’t like the idea of an NFL-style hard salary cap to prevent free-spending owners from dominating financially. NBA teams are currently allowed to go over a soft $58-million cap to re-sign their own players.

"[NBA owners] have kind of loosely thrown around the term ‘competitive balance.’ They feel like a hard salary cap would emulate the football system, which would allow more guys in the talent pool to be spread around and therefore you’d have more competitive teams,” Fisher said.

“There’s no magic formula to winning a championship that just says if you’re in this city or you’re on this team and you have these guys, you’re going to win automatically. I think the feeling is the bigger-market teams have more of an advantage, they have the ability to tap into more revenue streams and have a larger fan base, but those are realities of the world we live in, not necessarily a broken collective bargaining agreement.”

Certainly, Fisher has done well as an NBA player, earning about $55 million during his 15 seasons.

Fisher mentions his own experience in signing a three-year, $10.5-million contract last July to stay with the Lakers.

“I just came off a contract negotiation with a team that could afford to pay probably whatever they wanted to pay and they told me, ‘This is what we’re going to pay you and either you can accept it or go somewhere else,’ ” he said. “I decided to stay and that’s that. They paid me the number that they felt like they wanted to pay. Every team in the NBA has that option right now. There isn’t anything in the collective bargaining agreement that says you have to pay all these guys this much money.”

In three more months, Fisher moves from player to activist. The basketball world will be watching.

Times staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.