On Friday, the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., welcomed a star-studded class over a lengthy induction ceremony. The group included one of the top guards of the '90s, one of the best defensive players of his era, a foreign-born trailblazer and various titans of the non-NBA portions of the basketball world. Yet there was no question which individual loomed largest — the final inductee of the night, longtime NBA commissioner David Stern.
In a relatively short speech, Stern opted to move the spotlight away from his own accomplishments and instead called attention to those people who helped the NBA achieve great success over his 30-year tenure as commissioner, which officially ended this past February. It was perhaps the most self-effacing speech possible, a testament to the NBA as an organization rather than the leadership of one man.
Stern's enshrinement began with a video covering his time as commissioner, with short comments from such luminaries as Bill Russell, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James alongside video clips. It was fairly standard Hall of Fame fare, albeit a well-produced glimpse at the strides the NBA has taken over the past 30 years. Take a look below:
Stern was accompanied on stage by five presenters — essentially the Hall of Fame's term for existing members chosen by inductees as a welcoming party — who marked important developments and achievements of his time as commissioner. Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell was Stern's first choice, but he did not speak of the all-time great's 11 championships. Instead, Stern mentioned Russell's accomplishments in the civil rights movement and the importance of bringing him back into the NBA fold over the past few decades.
Russell was followed by Magic Johnson, who meant much to the NBA not just as a player but as a public figure when he retired in 1991 after contracting HIV. Stern praised Magic for changing attitudes towards HIV and AIDS, which also allowed Stern to note the NBA's role in other social issues.
Next came Russ Granik, who spent 22 years as the league's deputy commissioner. Stern used Granik as a stand-in for every NBA employee and associate who had helped the league to accomplish something over the past 30 years. Stern stressed that he had only been the commissioner, not the primary actor in all these efforts.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson will be intertwined forever for their rivalry and role in increasing the NBA's popularity, but Stern also touched on the former's ability to build upon his stardom to become an executive in the league. Essentially, Stern took pride in the fact that great players can have careers that extend past their time on the court.
The fifth and final presenter was Bob Lanier, who served as president of the players' union when the NBA instituted harsh penalties on drug use to curtail a growing problem. Yet Stern gave Lanier the majority of the praise for instituting the policy — he only mentioned his own role in making sure that punished players would have avenues to re-enter the league after being banned for life.
You can watch Stern's entire speech here:
The most important player of Stern's tenure is notably absent from that list, but his presence also would have been an odd fit for the proceedings. When Michael Jordan was enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2009, he gave one of the most self-involved, resentful speeches imaginable. It's unclear if Stern or the Hall of Fame reached out to Jordan for his involvement, but the mere memory of that moment would have been out of step with Stern's approach to the proceedings. This speech was not about Stern — it was about 30 years of the NBA. In Stern's view, he was merely lucky to bear witness to it all.
That's not necessarily an accurate picture of events. As our Kelly Dwyer wrote on Friday, Stern's legacy is complicated, and his induction was (understandably) all about the good stuff. Yet there's no question that he deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame, and it was nice to see him bring attention to the league as a whole rather than willfully turn the event into an extended tribute to his greatness. All things considered, this speech was a nice way to say goodbye to his 30 years as commissioner. It just shouldn't substitute for a full historical consideration of that same period.
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