I tried not to let my general repugnance with David Stern cloud my objectivity in providing a balanced examination of his 30 year reign as commissioner of the NBA... but in the end I failed. Plenty of people have expressed gushing praise over his vision and achievements. I am not one of those people.
David Stern will finally retire from his position as NBA commissioner tomorrow, Saturday, February 1st. He does so after 30 years on the job, to the day. When I first began to mull over the profundities that define David Stern to me I think that this quote succinctly summarized my general feelings...
David Stern is the single most important person in the history of basketball.
- Bill Walton
Actually, when I read that it emotionally scarred me in a way that closely resembles walking in on your parents... I may never see the game of basketball the same. Of course, Bill Walton is an walking caricature of hyperbole and overdramatization, but he's definitely not on an island in issuing encomiums to the exiting emperor.
David Stern is the number one force, the number one reason why the league is where it is today. That's not disrespectful to any one great player in any one era or any owner. This has to do with the leadership of one man.
- Pat Riley
The USA Today article that provided these jewels has cameos from other high profile NBA personalities, such as local legend Jerry Colangelo, who make glowing remarks.
Good for them. I disagree.
I contend that the position of commissioner was mostly just a sinecure based on timing and external factors. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time is enough. Some businesses succeed because of good management and some succeed in spite of bad management. Has the NBA developed because of David Stern or in spite of him? In all earnestness, I believe there have to be at least a couple
million people who could have done just as well... and carried themselves with more grace and dignity during the process.
Why don't we look at the record...
Stern took the league from tape delay to prime time.
Did he or was it just a complete matter of timing? ESPN had just started up (1978) and had a contract with the NBA (1982-84) before Stern's arrival. The NBA Finals had gotten ratings of 13.0 in 1982 and 12.3 in 1983 behind the star power of Larry "Legend" Bird and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Just months after David was "sworn in" he was gifted the greatest golden goose of marketing this side of Tiger Woods in Michael "Air" Jordan. Did Stern make the stars or did the stars make the league? Basketball is uniquely suited to sell its prominent athletes due to their unparalleled exposure. With the growth of the media and cable television wasn't it just a formality this dynamic would establish itself?
If Stern made the game, not the stars, then why was the NBA Finals rating of 12.3 in 1983 higher than any rating since MJ retired. In fact, it's only crept over 11 once in the last 12 years. Has the NBA become more popular since Stern took over? Yes and no. In raw numbers it most certainly has, but that's mostly based on population, cable/satellite tv, market exposure, etc. The league has failed to captivate America the way it did in it's glory day... which started before David Stern did. Let's look at another sport that I think has a similar situation. Was the commissioner of the PGA responsible for the explosion in the sport's popularity or was it because of Tiger Woods?
Stern globalized the game.
Actually, FIBA official Borislav Stankovic opened the door for NBA players to compete in the Olympics. Here's what David Stern said about it...
The notion that the NBA wanted to redeem the 1988 loss? Patently wrong. From our view, we were stuck with playing in the Olympics. We didn't see it becoming the phenomenon that it became.
We said to FIBA that we weren't gung ho to play in the Olympics, but we would try to be good soldiers to support basketball. So they had a vote. The U.S. was against it, the Russians were against it, too. But the overwhelming vote was in favor.
To this day, Stern is still going against the grain on this subject by suggesting that NBA veterans shouldn't be allowed to participate and setting the age limit at 23. A suggestion that has rankled players that would be deprived of the privilege of representing their country. The Dream Team, which was a watershed moment in the globalization of the game, had to be practically shoved down Stern's reluctant throat. What a visionary...
Stern's dress code helped the NBA image.
On the heels of the "Malice at the Palace" episode the NBA instituted a dress code to help repair a tarnished public image. Players were associated with a rap/hip-hop lifestyle (the bad connotations thereof) and were viewed as "thugs" and "violent". While this policy has surely helped renovate the public perception of the league after the collateral damage it suffered, it was a reactive policy... not a proactive one.
The problem occurred under his watch, and still hasn't been fully repaired, but he is lauded for his damage control? Wouldn't a more impressive feat have been forestalling this snafu? Didn't the disconnection become apparent before meltdown stage? Weren't players given way too much liberty to dress however they felt to begin with? This was a job after all. Hadn't the more violent and brutal style of the game been left to the players to police for some time? This wasn't the no hand checking league we have today.
I would give Stern as much credit here as I would dole out to Bud Selig for the masterful way he looked the other way during the steroid era and then championed the clean up effort in baseball. It's not really that dissimilar of a scenario, is it?
Relocation - The Vancouver Grizzlies/Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets/New Orleans Pelicans and Seattle SuperSonics/Oklahoma City Thunder have all moved in the twenty first century. This type of relocation suggests instability in the league and alienates fans. The the Sacramento Kings nearly became the Seattle SuperSonics again? Musical chairs, perhaps?
The 1985 NBA draft - Was that envelope really frozen like Stern's cold dead heart?
Work Stoppages - Stern was on the job for two of them, 1998 and 2011. In the first he got his ass handed to him so bad that the owners were practically crying bankruptcy and insolvency. The commissioner has reportedly governed over a multi-billion dollar sport that couldn't turn a profit. Sounds like another gold star for the Hall of Fame plaque. The next one was protracted in an embarrassing fashion while MLB celebrated a new deal of labor peace and the NFL was able to avoid missing regular season games.
Chris Paul Trade Veto - The insanity of this ruling was stupefying.
Officiating - Consistently terrible, occasionally crooked. Does anyone else think this refuse makes the sport nearly unwatchable at times?
Imbalance - The commish has managed to create/extend a competitive nightmare in the league that allows the fewest unique championship winners of the major sports. Small market teams delight!
Finally, Stern became the essence of the pitiful figure that hung around just a little (or in this case a lot) too long. The last lockout saw Stern effectively castrated as he no longer held sway to influence the outcomes as had once been his calling card.
carefully vetted toady deputy commissioner Adam Silver takes the baton from David, which doesn't give me a copious amount of confidence that Goran Dragic may still crack the Western Conference All-Star roster as an injury replacement...
And then the coup de grace... the "vicinity of the bench" ruling that more than anything defines not only Stern's reign as commissioner, but also the nature of his character.
It wasn't just the fact that Stern levied the suspensions against Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw for coming to the aid of Steve Nash, it was the way he heckled the Phoenix Suns and their fans when people had the audacity to question his decision. He was smug, arrogant and condescending.
It is probably a good thing for a commissioner to be bumptious to a certain extent. He must maintain equanimity and make confident, concrete (and sometimes unpopular) decisions. After he made his choice to uphold the letter of the law, which I still feel wasn't the spirit of the rule, he was justified to defend it. But he didn't have to rub it in our faces...
I'm sure that a fair share that have read this will think that I am spiteful, petty and small in my own right. Well, in these situations I just like to think, "What would David Stern do?" Maybe he would say this...
It's not being decided by [Robert Horry]. It's being decided by two Phoenix Suns who knew about the rule, forgot about it, couldn't control themselves, and didn't have coaches who could control them. And don't you forget it. Now, is it exactly fair? Probably not. Is it a red letter rule. Absolutely. Did it cost other players and teams their playoffs and championships? Yes. So, I guess there's no way to get the message through. Do you think next year the players will understand it?
I'm unhappy with the result. If the owners would like to change it, I'm happy to do it, believe me. I'd be very happy to do it. But to listen to the palaver that Robert Horry changed the series is just silly. What changed the series is that Amar'e and Boris ran out onto the court.
I won't ever forget it, David. You got your message through, by making an example out of us. Using the owners to deflect the discussion away from your ability to legislate the rule was disingenuous. You were the one and only person in a position to negate or defer the suspensions. But I never expected that out of you. That would have been silly.
Now the palaver over your retirement can dissipate. It's time for you to go away.