NEW YORK – Behind the commissioner's podium, there was no National Basketball Association logo. Just a blue curtain dropped down to the stage, almost as though the league wished it could separate the sport and the circumstances for a packed press conference. Still, this wasn't Major League Baseball's used-car salesman, or the NFL's blond-haired neophyte, but a face, a figure, as synonymous with the NBA as Jerry West's slashing silhouette.
Here was David Stern, emperor.
Here was the last lifer commissioner, fighting for it all.
Back in 1984, Michael Jordan and Stern were rookies, and No. 23 delivered them on some improbable journey. Together, they took the momentum of Magic and Larry and transcended basketball to its most spectacular glories. Sport's greatest player turned Stern into his generation's greatest commissioner. And maybe deep down sometimes, Stern thinks back to that final storybook Jordan jumper in the '98 finals and wonders if that wouldn't have been such a bad time for him to walk away, too.
"I can't believe it's happening to us," Stern said Tuesday, when asked about his reaction when the feds called him a month ago with word that one of his referees had been working with the mob.
What Stern meant to say was this: He can't believe it's happening to him.
It's been 23 years as commissioner, and those close to him believe that his identity, his life, has been so interwoven with the NBA that they always believed they'd have to extract him out of Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue someday. He always found a new challenge, a new frontier. The charm of Stern, the greatness of him, was that he always believed his greatest accomplishments still were on the way.
When we were visiting in his office in late October, he offered me this when asked why he had stayed so long as commissioner: "The beauty of this job is that it changes."
As it turns out, it's beauty and it's beast.
The commissioner laid out a compelling case Tuesday about how the mob could've allegedly worked its way undetected into Tim Donaghy, how an official constantly under league investigation for erratic and volatile behavior, and yes, even suspicions of gambling, could've been allowed to stay on the job.
"Yes, I'm surprised, but no more surprised than the head of the FBI, the head of the CIA, that rogue employees turn on their country in criminal activity despite the best investigative procedures," Stern said.
Those were prudent parallels for P.R. spin out of the commissioner – and yes, reasonable in belief – but they're of little consequence to a public that always wanted to believe something was awry anyway. No one ever wanted to give the NBA the benefit of the doubt on the legitimacy of draft lotteries and officiating, and they sure don't want to believe Donaghy was acting alone until they hear that when the feds make this case – if even then.
As long as Stern stays commissioner, this scandal haunts him. It will be a part of every day and night on the job. He's synonymous with this scandal, and it promises to work its way into the opening paragraph of his epitaph.
For years, the NBA has believed its ultimate demise threatened to be in the behavior, the appearance, the disconnect between the public and its players. However, the undoing of the NBA had nothing to do with tattoos and cornrows and baggy shorts. It was a pasty white kid from Philadelphia with a bad attitude, and a bad problem. After everything, it turned out to be an inside job.
The NBA isn't done, but it will take years to repair the damage of a ref believed to be shaving points. For everything Stern expected to accomplish in his golden years with the NBA – such as expansion into Europe and the Far East – it all becomes secondary to winning back a trust. He called it a "covenant with fans," but even under the best circumstances that's been an uneasy relationship.
As much as anything, Stern has ruled with iron-fisted control. And yet Tuesday, at the Westin off Times Square, everyone could see that his cocksure arrogance had been coated with contrition and uncertainty. At the mercy of this federal investigation, Stern has been kept in the dark about the exact games that Donaghy and the mob allegedly compromised in the past two years, about whether the playoffs were part of the scam. His league, his legacy, is getting rummaged through by federal agents, and it's too late for him to stop it. He can promise a thousand changes for the future – and he did – but they're hollow now.
Truth be told, the NBA had its chance to stop Donaghy and failed. Ultimately, NBA security could have no more pressing mandate than making it its business to know that one of the league's referees had such devastating gambling debts that he made himself vulnerable to mob coercion. They had investigated him for problems with antisocial behavior and chased leads on his gambling and even threatened him with his job. They knew enough to know better with Tim Donaghy.
Now, there will be consequences for years and years. The Jordan era never was perfect, and maybe we never will know the complete story about what the commissioner knew, and did, about Jordan's own gambling issues. But Michael could make everything better on the court, could make everyone forget the blemishes in the background.
Ever since Jordan left the Bulls in '98, there's been so little that's glistened for Stern. There was an ugly labor war a season later, and Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case, and embarrassments and failures for Team USA. There have been uninspired championship series and declining television ratings and the Pistons-Pacers brawl in Auburn Hills. Now, Stern is waiting for the feds to tell him the complete story about what Donaghy and the mob has done to his beloved ballgame.
Nine months ago, Stern was sitting in his 15th floor office thinking back to his beginning in '84, saying, "Starting out, we went through our survival stage, 'Is this league too black, have too much drugs, are $250,000 a year too high of a salary?'
"Could it ever survive?' "
All these years later, with the commissioner playing the part of the logo on stage Tuesday, David Stern had to be wondering again, "Can it?"