Throughout this Hall of Fame weekend you will read many things lauding the career of former NBA commissioner David Stern, citing his accomplishments and his positive impact on both the league and the game of basketball. You will also have the ability to read several pieces dismissing some of his most notorious acts and denigrating his work both early into and towards the end of his tenure. Such are the vicissitudes of a long career spent helming a massive, growing business organization that does nearly all of its work on record and in the public eye. Things are complicated.
Stern no doubt deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame. We can crank at the fact that several important NBA players, contributors and coaches are routinely overlooked by the embarrassingly partisan and shoe company-obsessed Hall voting committee, but even if Stern had been a milquetoast commissioner for this league, his longevity and subsequent impact make him an appropriate inductee.
In some areas, though, Stern was far from passive. As the NBA’s lead counsel, he helped usher in increased drug testing and an ever-evolving salary cap setup. As commissioner he pushed for massive expansion that watered the league down significantly until its teams discovered that they could scout and employ international players. Those players were no doubt inspired by the promotional arm of the league, beginning with Stern’s insistence on holding exhibition games overseas in the 1980s, and the eventual allowing of pro players in the Olympics starting in 1992.
Of course, the maddening end of that arm has LeBron James cramping up on a national stage after four straight Finals and an Olympics appearance, Kevin Durant hearing criticism for backing out of Team USA due to exhaustion, and Paul George’s unfortunate and career-altering injury suffered while preparing for a tournament that a cynic could call unnecessary and profit-driven. It’s complicated.
The league’s players are making more money than ever, and in lockstep the league’s owners are also making more than ever; with relatively small outposts in Sacramento and Milwaukee recently selling for around a half a billion dollars and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently purchasing the Los Angeles Clippers for an astounding $2 billion.
Of course, Ballmer had to convince the NBA that he was not going to move his new team to Seattle, a town that Stern just about completely abandoned by deciding not to get in the way of Oklahoma-native SuperSonics owners Clay Bennett and Aubrey McClendon when it was obvious that they were soon to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City, even after McClendon was caught admitting as such (while lying on record) in released emails.
And, of course, Ballmer only got a chance to sell the team because the NBA finally forced Donald Sterling out of its ranks after decades of David Stern ignoring (and, with no fines from the league, in a lot of ways endorsing) Sterling’s racist, discriminatory practices. But, hey – half a billion for the Bucks!
David Stern doesn’t secure these sorts of profits without two things: TV rights negotiations, for which he is masterful while working within, and by locking out his players. Locking out his players and cancelling games and (say it with me, one last time) taking paychecks away from thousands of North American workers who tangentially receive income based around the NBA’s regular season schedule.
Stern did it four times, and in two of those turns he moved to short two different NBA seasons by 32 and then 16 games as the league and its players argued over a collective bargaining agreement. Stern’s goal was simple – he was to re-align the rules in order to save lacking NBA ownership from itself, because the previous CBA hadn’t been strong enough to keep some owners from tripping over their own shoelaces.
Sure, you can argue that it was his job to represent his owners in negotiations and that this was just an unfortunate byproduct of his job description, but these lockouts only came about because Stern couldn’t keep his disparate ownership groups in line as they signed up for bad deal after bad deal, forcing Stern to lock out the players in order to make things right. And making things right, in Stern’s eyes, meant holding firm, twice canceling games, and costing thousands of non-NBA players needed paychecks. During the holiday season, no less.
But, hey, there’s no more cocaine, right? And LeBron James sells shoes in China, right?
The times didn’t come up around David Stern. He inherited a league with a salary cap and a drug suspension program and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and he welcomed Michael Jordan into its ranks after just four months on the job, but Stern did his part. He embraced the international exposure, his league was the first to properly utilize the burgeoning cable television movement, and his league was and is always miles ahead of its competitors in football, baseball, hockey and college sports when it came to utilizing the internet’s strengths.
He could come off as alternately flip, demeaning, crass and bullying; but that smug self-satisfaction was born out of all those extra hours spent trying to turn himself into the smartest guy in the room. In his mind, he deserved it. And in a lot of ways he was correct, in his estimation.
That’s what you get, with David Stern. He won’t stop you from handing him plaudits, but even at his most prickly he’ll still manage to bring you back with some semblance of charm and humor. He didn’t quite ride the coattails of Magic, Larry and Mike, but their presence certainly didn’t hurt. He and his league didn’t back into the cable and internet boom, but the timing sure was was in Stern’s favor. He didn’t quite clean up the NBA, society as a whole just about got wise to the perils of what was once considered an innocuous party drug in cocaine, but the Stern-ascribed hammer was still needed.
He didn’t have to take those December paychecks away from the security guard that worked the arena, all so David Stern’s millionaire and billionaire owners had more of a level playing field in which to negotiate with their millionaire players, but Stern certainly ended up making the owners he represented happy, as was his job, because the heck with “basketball reasons.”
He’s never made a single NBA basket, but he sure helped change a whole hell of a lot.
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