Thirty years ago, the NBA assigned a 41-year-old league executive to bail water from a slowly sinking ship which had been taking on water for the better part of the previous decade. Sure, they had a bit of history, a game which was popular amongst the masses, and a couple budding superstars by the name of Magic and Bird, but they also had a league whose championship couldn’t find live TV, an image problem with middle-America, and a burgeoning cocaine epidemic on the verge of submarining the professional version of one of this country’s big-four sports. They needed help, and they got it from a Columbia Law School graduate who’d spent the better part of his post-college career working as a counselor both outside and within the framework of the National Basketball Association. However, while Commissioner Stern may have done his share to breathe life into a league gasping for air, he and his tactics did their share of diminishing the game their league revolves around.
That’s right, it’s not all been roses for David Stern throughout his 30-year tenure as Commish. While universally considered to be an asset to a league unquestionably better off than when he took the reins, controversy has kept close tabs on the man who tried to keep such to a minimum. He obsessed over the perception of his league, and kept a stranglehold on its pulse in an effort to protect the reputation he so valued.
When any one or thing capable of threatening the league’s image got loose amongst the wolves who feed on such fodder, Stern would quickly and harshly strike down upon those guilty of attacking the baby he called his own. From player indiscretions to questionable officiating, game manipulation to league mandated wardrobe, and unruly owners to the game ball itself, Stern ruled with an iron fist and let little out from beneath his thumb in an effort to pull all the strings responsible for making the NBA go.
Ask Seattle: They loathe the ex-dictator who they blame directly for losing their team. Ask the Sacramento Kings, who still view their 2002 Western Conference loss to the Lakers as thievery on the part of the league office. And ask everyone not named the New York Knicks, who “miraculously” watched the newly-crowned-Stern pull the Knickerbocker’s envelope from a hopper, en route to the most anticipated rookie in recent memory (Patrick Ewing) finding his way to the #1 media market in this United States. Erroneous accusations without merit, per the now ex-commissioner, but fire amidst a lot of smoke, per the wrong side of the handful of battles Stern has taken up against.
If he wanted it, he usually got it. Jeans and a T-Shirt? Sorry players, if not in action, you’ll be wearing jackets on the bench. You’d like to hear from the referees following a controversial game? Sorry, unfortunately the officials will not be made available to the public. Chris Paul to the Lakers, Lamar Odom to Pelicans, and Pau Gasol to the Rockets in a 3-team blockbuster trade? Nah, maybe next time. Stern got what he wanted, and in most cases that meant “stars” and marketability … at any cost.
Since he became commissioner, Larry and Earvin became Bird and Magic, Nike made Michael and Charles, “Air” and “Sir,” and Orlando, Houston, and Detroit never played San Antonio, Portland, and New York, but rather Shaq, Hakeem, and Isiah played Duncan, Drexler, and Ewing. Stern took to marketing the individuals more, and the teams those individuals played for far less. He believed people came to see the players more than the competition, and it’s pretty inarguable that he manipulated the rules around said campaign. Traveling went from a step-and-a-half, to essentially 3 steps. There are reasons why players like LeBron, Kevin Durant, and anyone else likely to grace the marquee rarely, if ever, foul out. And, how many times have you heard someone either in or covering the league make the following statement; “He’ll get that call next year,” in reference to a rookie? These aren’t coincidences, nor are they to be found anywhere in the rule book published by Mr. James Naismith more than a 100 years ago. But what they are is one of the many marks – good or bad – which will be left by outgoing Commissioner Stern, and the foundation of a game called “NBA Basketball,” new Commissioner Adam Silver has been handed in his wake.
It is over. Stern is gone, Silver is in, and the page has been turned in an endless book we call the NBA. But regardless of where it goes, where it was, and how it got here is in many ways the legacy of a man many may be glad is gone, but who they also owe for the league they love so much.