The commissioner’s office will never escape this truth: In so many ways, Donald Sterling has carried out the NBA ownership vision of David Stern.
Bully and mistreat your employees.
Treat the front office and coaches like necessary evils with bare minimum salaries and staffing.
Turn a profit in a sparkling new arena.
Stern has long preached that coaches are too expensive, scouts too plentiful and perhaps no one has heeded the commissioner’s words like the Los Angeles Clippers' owner. He has a history of hiring them cheap, and refusing to honor contracts. The NBA has a history of letting it go without protests.
Yes, Stern's silence and inaction on Sterling's despicable behavior has to be considered as some level of approval. Now, Kim Hughes tells the story to the Racine (Wis.) Journal-Times about how Sterling didn’t pay for his prostate cancer surgery as a Clippers assistant coach several years ago. Clippers players contributed much of the $70,000 needed to take care of the costs that weren't covered by Hughes' medical insurance.
And once Sterling fires those coaches and scouts, he often stops paying the balance of their contracts. He dares them to sue. Some can, and do. Some can’t afford the legal fight and end up settling for pennies on the dollar.
This happened with scouts Scott Wissel and Jerry Holloway a year ago. They made less than six figures a year, and the Clippers simply stopped paying them. Essentially, Sterling was telling them, "The season’s over, and so what if your deal runs October to October. It’s April, get lost and we aren’t paying you."
Eventually, Holloway won a settlement, and Wissel had to fight more than a year to get part of his money. Where was the league office? Where was Stern’s indignity?
This has been going on for years, and the commissioner’s office has allowed it. Often the only injustices in the NBA are injustices directed at Stern. He saves his moral indignity for those daring to challenge him, like Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy late last week. For Stern, here was a crusade worthy of his ire.
Van Gundy tried to make sense of 593 foul calls without so much as a flagrant foul on Dwight Howard(notes). And after speaking the truest words of the season – saying that Stern doesn’t allow dissenting opinions in the NBA, that free speech is a scarce commodity on league issues – the commissioner reacted in a most predictable, childish way on state-run NBA radio. After refusing to confront Van Gundy directly and promising to take the matter to Magic ownership, Stern sounded like a power-drunk small-town mayor saying "… We won’t be hearing from him for the rest of the season."
Off to Stern’s Siberia. Stern wouldn’t stop there, because he gets such a charge out of humiliating those under him. Taunted Stern, "I see somebody whose team isn't performing, whose star player was suspended, who seems to be fraying.”
No commissioner has ever been so emboldened to speak this way. Yet now, so much of Stern’s staying power is built on a far more flimsy baseline. Respect has eroded for him, replaced with fear and loathing.
“It’s a divisionary tactic to take away from the 593 fouls without a flagrant,” one long-time league executive said of Stern’s rant on Van Gundy. “The question is: Do you have to be mean and a bully to be a commissioner? As he’s gotten older, he has become more mean-spirited, and it shows in how he deals with his own staff, coaches and with the new-age owners.”
When Stern goes to Orlando’s ownership group, he knows it'll soon be wondering how much of an impact Van Gundy’s mouth will have on Howard and the Magic in the playoffs. Teams tremble over retribution from Stern and fear it in the form of officiating.
Big and small markets. Winning and losing franchises. Great and lousy general managers and coaches. Old and new owners. They all agree: Don’t push Stern too hard because there will be a price to pay. Better off bowing, kissing the ring and shuffling past him.
Anything goes in Stern’s NBA, except challenging the emperor. The league office never cares about criticism about most of its biggest stars, owners and coaches. In some cases, it'll openly encourage it. Want to invite a call to your boss? That’s easy. Pull back the curtain on the commissioner.
Several Clippers paid the bill for cancer surgery on an assistant coach, but the NBA cares. Sure it does – about Stern’s power, about his ego. The NBA has taken over USA Basketball and the Naismith Hall of Fame. It’s creating an infrastructure to control and make money off amateur and summer basketball through iHoops. The NBA has mobilized resources and staff to indoctrinate basketball cultures in the Far East, Europe and beyond.
But for all the new worlds that Stern tries to conquer, he’s losing touch, losing hold, on the old-world NBA. Few believe in the purity of his office, nor its intentions.
Stan Van Gundy will be made to regret his words far more than Donald Sterling will ever his deeds. That’s the cold-blooded truth of a cold-blooded code.
That’s David Stern’s NBA.