Stern steers NBA toward chaos

Kyrie Irving could wait a while to make his NBA debut with the league nearing a lockout

NEWARK, N.J. – When David Stern tried to tell everyone goodbye at the NBA draft on Thursday night, even his childhood roots couldn’t spare the commissioner a public proclamation on the state of his stewardship. Here rumbled a barrage of boos for the son of New Jersey, the end of the NBA draft’s first round bleeding into the beginning of a long, hot summer of the commissioner’s condescending labor lectures.

Just one year ago, Stern ducked out of the draft, shuffled to the side and let LeBron James(notes) light the match to the most unforgettable, unimaginable summer and season the sport’s ever seen. Never bigger, never bolder, never more perfect for this imperfect reality television world.

Now, a year later, everything comes tumbling down. This draft was the beginning of the end for a golden time in the NBA, where the suspense was over where a 6-foot guard out of Glens Falls, N.Y., would go and whether Minnesota's general manager could sell off enough draft picks to pay the buyout package on his 32-132 coach. The draft had crossed the Hudson River to Jersey, leaving Madison Square Garden for Newark, and it felt like the sport itself would keep heading south too.

Stern has brought the sport into an unnecessarily dark and ominous place. He has let too many incompetent owners buy into the NBA, and helped them thrust too many incompetent management teams into marching themselves back to the top of the lottery year after year.

The lockout’s coming, and the NBA can thank Stern for it. He no longer leads the owners, but gets led. He’s lost his autonomy to operate, lost his ability to be sensible, understated and conciliatory. There ought to be givebacks in these talks with the players, but Stern has let the fringe element of NBA ownership dictate policy for the masses. He doesn’t want a second lockout on his Hall of Fame plaque, but it’s coming and the burden belongs on him.

He can’t sell compromise, and he can’t sell good-faith negotiations to his ownership. The owners wanted this lockout, which they’ve carefully orchestrated. They’re determined to break the NBA’s union, and that’s clearly become the commissioner’s mandate now. The owners could’ve agreed to real revenue sharing, and the collective bargaining agreement would’ve been signed months ago. Stern can’t sell it, and the sport will suffer something fierce for it.

Stern is no longer the sport’s leader, its moral compass, but the errand boy of the fringe owners. He’ll walk into a hotel board room on Friday morning with what will probably be a brief, contentious meeting that'll empty out with players and owners all agreeing: There isn’t enough time between today and June 30 to close the gap.

Stern’s deputy commissioner, Adam Silver, had the most patronizing of lines in the NBA playoffs, suggesting how the fact that James and Dwyane Wade(notes) would be getting 10 percent raises next year, and how with revenues growing only 4 percent, this was evidence of how well the system worked for the players. Hey, James is the reason Silver gets to wear such nice suits on Stern’s private charters, the reason buildings are full, television ratings robust and the reason merchandise leaves the shelves.

“This has never been a partnership,” Derek Fisher(notes) told me the other day, and that’s never been so true in the NBA. The gulf between owners and players has grown nastier, more distant, and Stern’s set the tone for it. After all, he walked into the locker room with the players at All-Star weekend, and menacingly reminded them he knew where the bodies were buried, because he had buried so many himself.

This was Stern doing what he does best: Lording over the sport through intimidation and bullying. You’ll see his smug indignation all summer long. This lockout gives Stern the stage as the sport’s biggest star, something he loves, because his proposal to the players would guarantee that he’d be the highest-paid player in the NBA.

The NBA goes away now, and goes away for a long time. The final sound at the end of the draft's first round will resonate over a long, hot summer – and maybe a winter – without basketball. This time a year ago, there was a Lakers championship with Kobe Bryant(notes), the summer of LeBron and a season of spectacular drama. Now, there was David Stern marching out of the boos of draft night, and into the boos of the board room.

He couldn’t sell the owners, couldn’t sell the players, and he can no longer sell the public. Here comes the summer of the NBA’s emperor, the lockout to end basketball lockouts. Tough Jersey guy buried all the bodies here, and now he comes to bury his sport. His legacy on the line, his fault.

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