On Wednesday night, the Oklahoma City Thunder downed the Miami Heat by a 112-95 score in a game that was the highest-rated NBA telecast of the year, broadcast nationally by the cable station ESPN. It featured two championship contenders cobbled together by two different, ingenious means, with one squad deftly working over the vicissitudes of the salary cap to align several established stars, and another franchise taking a smart and slow approach to rebuilding with young and internationally scouted talent.
The game was played in an expansion city, one that had previously failed as a pro basketball market. The other team hailed from a city that proved its mettle as a small-market basketball powerhouse by temporarily hosting a franchise after a natural disaster in New Orleans, followed by a willfully deceiving purchase of another failing franchise it intended to move from a town that cheered for its own championship-winning franchise for 41 years.
Both teams have recently had to cut major contributors because of financial concerns, even with their franchise valuations reportedly trending toward the billion-dollar mark. On each of the players’ uniforms, the NBA logo was altered in a shade of red to celebrate the Chinese New Year, while sideline billboards sent cheers China’s way as its millions of basketball fans watched from afar — before the billboard folded over to promote sporting apparel or the league’s next slate of nationally televised contests. In the thousand-dollar lower bowl in Miami, game attendees couldn’t be bothered to show up on time, if at all, and most left early even while the upper-bowl denizens loudly cheered on in hopes of a Heat comeback.
A random Wednesday night game in the heart of winter — just one of 11 games on the schedule — featured a lengthy "SportsCenter" lead-in prior to the contest, pitched even in the days before the Super Bowl. The game deserved the hype, to be sure, but the machine did most of the work. The contest took only 2 1/2 hours to conclude, but the presentation behind it — the television setup, the promotion, the expansion, the deceit in Seattle, the draft maneuvers, the luxury-tax fears, the salary-cap machinations — took decades. Mostly because of the outgoing NBA commissioner.
David Stern has been associated with the NBA for decades — since the Lyndon Johnson administration — and Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the day he took over as commissioner of the league. He’ll also step down as commissioner on that day, topping off a run as chief executive that was as unwieldy and destructive as it was constructive, streamlined and profitable. David Stern helped bring basketball to millions who were either unaware of or unable to enjoy the NBA previously. He also cost thousands of Americans jobs during two lengthy lockouts. His arrogance and ego often got in the way of the game’s best interests, as did his insistence on earning more profits for the 30 NBA owners, who, it can be argued, Stern cares about more than the game itself, or the actual game.
He also took the proverbial ball and ran with it, expertly. Which is good, because everyone’s dad knows they don’t call traveling in the NBA anymore.
Critics should rightfully look to what David Stern was handed in 1984, when he assumed the office from the late Lawrence O’Brien. A drug-testing program and salary-cap system were already agreed upon and in the stages of being implemented, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were already in their fifth seasons, and the NBA was just months away from drafting Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone and Michael Jordan. With TVs turning to color, and more and more fans interested in watching teams in Los Angeles and Boston play basketball, the thirst was there when Stern took over.
The man followed through, though. And even if his obsessions eventually got the best of him, he did a masterful job with the bounty he was given.
(And, oh, what a bounty. This game, and its players, are pretty damn good. In 1984 or 2014.)
(2002 kind of stunk.)
None of the innovations credited to Stern were of his own design, but that’s the way these things often work — in art, commerce, athletics or in the political realm. His ability to sustain the fine work of his predecessors, while pouncing on the evolution of the times that were growing up around him, was brilliant. Expanding international relations, embracing cable and satellite television, attempting to even the financial playing field, recognizing the power of the Internet — the man even artfully detailed the benefits of a legalized modified zone defense in the presence of disbelieving journalists on a cocktail napkin in the summer of 2001. Stern didn’t invent any of these significant positive movements, but he made sure they were implemented tout de suite.
He also looked the other way when owners in Charlotte and Los Angeles did terrible things to their fan bases. He looked the other way when Howard Schultz chickened out and sold the Seattle SuperSonics to an ownership group in a city with an NBA-ready stadium, and obvious designs on never attempting to stay in Seattle. He also changed course completely when owners in New Orleans and Sacramento attempted the same sort of chicken-scratch maneuver.
He also, two different times, locked NBA players out of the contracts they had legally signed to in order to secure enhanced profits for his relatively small coterie of owners. Nobody is playing a tiny violin for those locked-out players, but we are looking with much sympathy at the thousands of North American workers who had their summer, fall and winter months irrevocably harmed by Stern’s dogged pursuit of keeping every one of those NBA owners moderately happy as they recovered from the same terrible contracts they had happily signed off on.
These sorts of lockouts don’t just cost fans actual games, players their massive paychecks and the NBA goodwill. They change people’s lives. David Stern was well aware of that, and yet he still continued in driving his hard collective bargain. He had to come out a winner, no matter the cost. And though the NBA is more popular than ever, both the league and, more importantly, the game’s growth were significantly set back so that Stern could please his 30 owners. Just 30 people, most of whom were on the hook for terrible basketball decisions that nobody forced them into.
That’s a difficult legacy to juggle, but that’s what happens when you run a million-dollar industry for 30 years. Or, to Stern’s credit, a million-dollar industry that turned into a multibillion-dollar worldwide phenomenon.
“Credit.” There’s that word again. It’s important that we recall with exacting precision David Stern’s calculated missteps as he walks away from the game, but you cannot deny the man’s influence, and the way he adeptly navigated a fertile era that allowed for such significant growth. Never forget the bad that came with the good, but also understand that from 1984 to 2014, the NBA was mostly very, very good.
David Stern was part of that. To what degree is up to the history books. Ones in which he’ll no doubt want to write the forward, while also wanting final say on the cover images.
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