OKLAHOMA CITY – David Stern is pushing 70, tired, irritable and still surrounded with no one to tell him the truth. For all the young diva stars in the sport, no one has an entourage of yes men as deep as the NBA's commissioner. Rest assured, everyone told Stern how out of line Jim Rome was on Wednesday, that Stern’s public tantrum was validated, that Stern justifiably defended his honor. Rest assured, no one dared tell the commissioner he needed to put the NBA above himself, stop the preening and let Kevin Durant and LeBron James be the stars of these Finals.
No one dares tell Stern the ultimate truth that his ego, his vindictiveness, is an embarrassment to the league.
That wasn’t about Stern’s honor, his reputation or defending his good name on Rome’s radio show. If Stern can’t handle a line of questioning on the draft lottery without resorting to personal insults, he shouldn’t sit for the interviews. In a lockout year, everyone has had too much Stern. Just ease back, let the Finals speak for itself and stop thrusting yourself into these predicaments.
Stern's office demands that kind of discipline from him because this is no time of the year for the commissioner to turn into a sideshow gone viral. Of course, Stern has always believed himself to be bigger than the office, bigger than the sport. The NBA’s never known a diva like him, and the owners will make sure it never does again.
For the good of the legacy that Stern so cherishes and, more importantly, for the good of the NBA, there needs to be a succession of power soon. The longer Stern stays, the worse for his legacy. It’s sad to watch, and his accomplishments do deserve a graceful ending. He has his deputy commissioner, Adam Silver, set up to succeed him, and Stern has suggested that the transfer of power could come within the next couple of years. Within ownership and high-level league management, there's growing hope it comes sooner than later. They’ll never push out Stern because most of the owners do respect him and admire his acumen and achievements.
One owner told Yahoo! Sports that Stern "has a few good years left in him," and insisted he didn’t care about Wednesday’s diatribe. Another owner and several executives felt his behavior on Rome's show diminished the league and needlessly distracted from the spectacular buzz surrounding this Miami-Oklahoma City series.
Nevertheless, this episode where the commissioner resorted to biting personal counterpunches leaves you to wonder: How much more does the league want Stern out front representing the sport’s brand?
In the age where NBA superstars are worth tens of millions of dollars more than the rules let them earn, the owners have long been reluctant to assign limits on the commissioner. That’s why he acts this way; treating public dissent with condescending disdain. In private, he’s profane, petty and seems to live for the way the office allows him to inspire such fear and loathing of the league’s masses.
Perhaps the NBA doesn’t rig draft lotteries, but it sure seems to rig news conferences with local-yokel reporters throwing up softball questions for Stern to debunk the league’s boogeyman of the day. For now, it’s the fact that an NBA owned-and-operated franchise, New Orleans, won the draft lottery. He didn’t mind that question on Tuesday night at a news conference, but bristled on the radio Wednesday? Come on. Once again, Stern’s problem isn’t so much the mistrusting public, but such doubt within his own league with how he’s conducted business, how he lords over the referees and how deep the consequences may go for those who ever dare to challenge him.
In the end, owners and executives often measure possible challenges and crossing of the league with this weighty thought: How bad will Stern punish us?
Stern’s condescending "how-dare-you-question-me" tone lost its credibility long ago. Former referee Tim Donaghy shattered it. All those years that Stern spoke so arrogantly about the ethical infallibility of his officials, and it turned out to be pure mythology. Donaghy existed, operated and went undetected within the NBA until the feds popped him.
Once, Stern was a great commissioner: tough, respected and leading a vision that inspired a global transformation of the NBA. Those days are gone, and now most in the NBA tap their feet, stare at the ground and harbor hope they’re reading Silver right. They think Silver will be more open-minded, less dictatorial and ultimately introduce an era where the league office acts like an ally, not Big Brother.
Until then, no one will push out Stern. No one will tell him it’s time to go. He is still the best mind in the sport, but his spirit is different. Every day, the commissioner chips away at his own legacy, his own league, and it’s kind of sad to see. He’s irritable, tired and he should start walking toward the door. David Stern was a great commissioner, but he owes himself a graceful goodbye. Mostly, he owes the NBA.
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