BOSTON – In the moment of revelation a year ago, the commissioner’s instinct was that the NBA lost its chance for salvation. The bouncing balls had gone all wrong in that Secaucus, N.J., television studio, and now the representatives of Portland, Seattle and Atlanta lined up on the stage, finalists in the draft lottery.
Nor Los Angeles…
“The Pacific Northwest and the Deep South,” David Stern grumbled in the row behind me that mid-May night. “Give me a big market.”
As it turned out, the teams with the best chances of winning the top two picks – the Memphis Grizzlies and Boston Celtics – finished fourth and fifth in the lottery. This made Memphis sellers and Boston buyers. This set into motion Pau Gasol to the Lakers, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Celtics.
The basketball season’s saviors wouldn’t be one-and-done teeny boppers, but twenty- and thirty-somethings chasing championships.
Even a seething Stern couldn’t have conceived that a wayward lottery would’ve triggered the events that led to his sport’s wildest dream – the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics NBA Finals that starts with Game 1 on Thursday night. America’s rushing back to its televisions to rediscover one of the sport’s most romantic rivalries, the Celtics-Lakers rising out of the rubble.
Between that mid-May night and these NBA Finals, there were times everyone wondered whether Stern had lost his grip on the sport. For the league, this had been a time of crises and uncertainty. The residue of an embarrassing All-Star weekend in Las Vegas lingered. The suspensions of Phoenix Suns Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw delivered crushing criticisms of the commissioner. Basketball’s best player, Kobe Bryant, behaved like a petulant child, demanding to leave L.A.
And once the lowest-rated NBA Finals ever were done, the FBI walked into Stern’s Olympic Tower office and told him that one of his referees, Tim Donaghy, was on the take of gamblers.
All hell was breaking loose when Stern walked into a news conference at a midtown Manhattan hotel and declared that Donaghy’s deeds constituted the darkest day in NBA history. While it first seemed like it would take the league a long time to live this story down, it passed by opening night. There had been some discussion that this story passed out of the public consciousness so rapidly because of the commissioner’s deft handling, but it had nothing to do with him.
Yes, it helped that no other officials were implicated, but truth be told: Stern was the beneficiary of a public that had become numb to scandal, sporting and societal. From steroids to spygate to phony collegiate amateurism, the public has come to expect that nothing is on the up and up. Everyone condemned Donaghy, tsk-tsked the NBA and moved onto the next disgrace.
Mostly, the basketball saved Stern. Finally, the game was the story again. For the first time since the Michael Jordan Bulls’ dynasty crumbled, there comes a Finals that has people talking not about what the league isn’t, but what it is again.
The collision course of Los Angeles and Boston covered Stern on his relentlessly embarrassing alliance with smarmy Seattle owner Clay Bennett, whose uncovered emails exposed duplicitous intentions to move the Sonics, and a strange man-crush on the commissioner. It appears these days that Stern takes his ownership allies where he can get them, because the old guard loyalists like Detroit’s Bill Davidson and Washington’s Abe Pollian are fading away.
Twenty-five years ago, the great progress Stern made as commissioner started with the good fortune of those Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Finals, a marketing genius born out of a dream. They moved Stern into the big seat a quarter century ago, and the Lakers-Celtics started him, started the NBA, on the way to a glorious run. Out of the bouncing balls in the Jersey swamp, out of the league’s darkest hour, the commissioner gets the good fortune of dumb luck again.
Somehow, it’s Los Angeles-Boston.
The commissioner’s lottery plea has been answered.
Give him his big markets.
- David Stern