League of his own

NEW YORK – Thirty years ago, David Stern, an idealistic young attorney for a prestigious New York firm, lent his pro bono expertise to a hometown cause in Teaneck, N.J. He chased a landmark lawsuit against real estate brokers who long had been accused of racial steering, the prodding of whites and blacks to different homes in different Northern Jersey towns. Mostly out of sight, Stern operated in the coalition's shadows until the suit was won, until communities were integrated.

"The right thing to do at the time," the NBA's commissioner said Friday afternoon in his Olympic Tower office.

If nothing else in 1976, this was an original window into his progressive soul, politics assuredly far to the left of most of his NBA owners. Looking back, it might have pained Stern to bring one of Karl Rove's Republican operatives, Matthew Dowd, onto his payroll to help restore the NBA's increasing disconnect with Middle America. While Stern was winning Red China with Yao Ming, he was losing the red states with Allen Iverson.

There was a part of the nation whom had been unable to get past the tattoos and cornrows, unable to relate.

For the start of the 2006-07 season on Tuesday night, Stern has stolen a page out of departed NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's old playbook, angling to regulate his players' appearance on the court after implementing a dress code off it a year ago. No more arm sleeves, no more layers of shorts sticking out of game shorts, no more wristbands pushed up to the elbow.

Slowly, surely, in loud and soft ways, Stern has remade his league again.

"I used to think the precise rules of what you wore on the court and how you wore [that] here was an NBA way to deal with it," Stern said. "Which is 'let's not get too uptight about it.'

"But I decided that I was wrong."

His players will grumble for a time about this (and about the new basketballs), but what always has allowed Stern to be the commissioner of basketball – the commissioner of everyone – has been this gift: an ability to shuttle that precarious border between older brother and father.

At once, Stern plays the part of protector of his players and his product – from the societal double standards born of hip-hop – just as he embraces the casual fan's need to see him frame himself as the law-and-order commissioner.

All of which Stern calls "a form of schizophrenia that is necessary."

As much as anything, what made the NBA's stars transcendent in the 1980s and '90s had been Stern's ability to market his leading men. But in the empty gulf between Michael Jordan and a generation of stars suddenly discovering playoff glory, the league became a victim of its own starry caste system, trapped in a place where the American feeder system struggled to deliver mature kids and polished players.

"The courtside seat at an NBA court does not have a closer runner-up in any sport," Stern said. "And as a result, because that seat can be replicated by a TV camera, our players are the most recognizable, most familiar faces in all of sports. It works for you. And against."

In another sport, he added, "If you say X was just indicted for trying to do Y, I don't even have a picture of him in my mind's eye other than him running down the field in a helmet, or running around the bases in a hat …"

"Our guys are out there with shorts and a tank top. So, if it's LeBron (James), Dwyane (Wade) and Carmelo (Anthony) on the cover of SI, it's one thing. But if it's Stephen Jackson at a strip club at three in the morning, it's another thing.

"I don't want to go there. I have my theories. It all sounds like it's complaining, and the fact of the matter is that we ask mightily for the public's attention and we have to be ready to receive it whether it's good or bad."

Stern is reluctant to discuss the racial overtones that seem to find their way into criticisms of his league, but he will say, "When Ron Artest went into the stands, it was, 'All those players are …"

He doesn't fill in the blank. Plenty of people do it for him.

And then he says, "And I know for a fact that they're not [all the same], so I wonder why they're so easily generalized. Maybe we're not doing as good of a job as we should be doing, or maybe there's something else at work."

Stern calls this a "new golden era" for the NBA, an emergence of likable young stars rising into the championship chase now. What's more, Stern has started an initiative that was neglected too long by the league. Finally, he is using the stature of his office to lead a dialogue on cleaning up the cesspool of amateur basketball in America. The system has gone to hell, as responsible as anything for the flood of overseas players gobbling up NBA jobs.

"We're all guilty," Stern said. "I just read about the 50-game Fox schedule for high school basketball and the ESPN full schedule for top-25 football teams. I assume by the year 2010 we'll have kindergarten championships on some sports network. I don't know what the answer is, but it would be nice if the kids who are being – some would say showcased, some would say exploited – got something more out of it than they perhaps currently do."

The 19-and-under age minimum accomplishes Stern's wish of getting NBA general managers and scouts out of high school gyms, but does nothing to address the ultimate problems. "There's no railroad train here rushing down the tracks for action," he said. "We've got a lot to work to do."

From the windows outside Stern's office along Fifth Avenue, you almost can see the world now, all of it a long way from his '84 elevation to commissioner, a longer way from even the issues that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird couldn't gloss over in the sport.

"Starting out, we went through our survival stage," Stern said. " 'Is this league too black, have too much drugs, are $250,000 a year too high of a salary? Could it ever survive?' "

Back then, he never considered the possibility of standing the test of 22 years on the job, ushering the NBA in and out of eras, in and out of turmoil and ultimately to unprecedented prosperity.

"No chance," Stern says about the possibility then that he ever would have stayed so long as commissioner. "No chance."

"But the beauty of this job is that it changes."

And it keeps him here on the 15th floor of the Olympic Tower, chasing tomorrow even after his longtime football contemporary, Tagliabue, called it a career. Eventually, the NBA has a way of bending to the commissioner's will. There's a relentless way to Stern that forever finds him getting his vision validated, getting his league his way.