The National Basketball Players Association almost collapsed under the pressure of negotiations with owners three years ago.

This time, under the stewardship of a former National Football League kick returner and U.S. attorney, the union appears as strong as its ever been entering negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement.Billy Hunter has forged a union within the union, improving communication with its 400 or so members and their agents. He has embraced the factions that felt ignored under previous executive director Simon Gourdine.

"Billy's done a masterful job of bringing together what was previously divided," said attorney Jeffery Kessler, who assisted Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing in their effort to kill the union three years ago. "The union was in turmoil."

Hunter, who played college football at Syracuse University and professionally for the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins, has been able to calm the waters since taking over for Gourdine, who was fired after the decertification attempt failed.

At the time, Hunter was a practicing attorney in California. He then sought the $975,000-a-year job at the urging of longtime friend Dave Bing, a Hall-of-Fame guard who spent his career with the Detroit Pistons.

"Billy can communicate with people on any level, whether it's an athlete, lawyer, agent or owner," Bing said. "He has what it takes."

The union's membership agreed, and voted to hire him. He took the job in July 1996.

It wasn't the first time that Hunter stepped into a cauldron. He's faced controversy throughout his career, starting in 1963 when he was captain of the Syracuse football team. Hunter asked other black athletes to sign a petition urging the university to drop segregated schools as opponents.

Hunter recently scored his biggest union victory, convincing an arbitrator to reduce the NBA's punishment to Latrell Sprewell for choking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.

While Hunter wouldn't quantify the win, he said its impact is already being felt. More than anything, it shows that Billy Hunter, the athlete, understands the players needs, and that G. William Hunter, the union boss, can ably defend their interests.

"It increased the players' trust and confidence in this organization," Hunter said. "It shows that we can, and will, look out for their best interests."

After taking over the union leadership, Hunter addressed the criticism that his predecessor, Gourdine, was uncommunicative. Gourdine wouldn't comment for this article.

Hunter met with the union's Agent Advisory Board, giving agents a chance to voice their opinions. Such meetings have given rise to Hunter's popularity, some said.

"Billy has indicated a willingness to work with the agents without fear, but without giving undo deference either," said agent Bill Strickland, who, along with Dallas Mavericks President Terdema Ussery, ran against Hunter in the union's election. "That tells us we're in this fight together."

The 55-year-old Hunter regularly leaves his corner office on Broadway in Manhattan to spread union cheer among players at Madison Square Garden.

He frequently travels to other cities - even though he dislikes flying - to meet with union members. He began a tour of NBA cities today to keep players abreast of the most recent union developments. The tour was planned before owners voted to reopen the collective bargaining agreement yesterday.

"He's doing it better than it's ever been done before," said agent Dwight Manley, who represents Dennis Rodman of the Bulls.

Even with all of Hunter's bridge-building and his victory in the Sprewell case, he hasn't persuaded everyone that the union is a force.

"The NBA basically treats the union like it's not there," Manley said. "The league has its own agenda and really doesn't care what the union thinks."