NEW ORLEANS – For months, crisis and calamity had come to rule his commissionership. At times, the emperor of the NBA had looked so unable to clutch his crumbling kingdom. This had been the year of living dangerously for David Stern. Everything started with a debauchery of a Las Vegas All-Star, and the bad bounces of the lottery ping-pong balls, bottomed out dynasties in Los Angeles and Boston and a historically unwatched championship series.
And then, one day in July, the feds called and welcomed Stern to his worst nightmare. The mob had gotten to one of his refs, Tim Donaghy.
Suddenly, Stern had lost his grip and everyone had to wonder: Would he ever get it back?
So here was the comeback commissioner on Saturday riding a rapid restoration. This All-Star weekend has been a fascinating study in his ability to control a message, to re-dictate terms of engagement. The MVP of it all marched into a board room for his league’s competition committee meeting on Friday with blue jeans and muddy shoes.
“It created a sensation unto itself,” Stern preened.
The NBA did wonderful work in New Orleans. They executed the largest single-day volunteer effort for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. They reminded America that there is still great suffering here, great need and it made for a moving, memorable Day of Service that included 2,500 NBA-inspired volunteers and basketball’s biggest stars.
As Stern wore a T-Shirt and jeans in the rain on Friday at Laurel Elementary School, he didn’t like the way a photographer cramped him as his wife tried to join him painting a mural. “I came here to work, not for a photo op,” Stern sniffed, suggesting the photographer back off.
A noble admonishment and all, but Stern understood that beyond the good done for New Orleans and the future of the Hornets here, this was the biggest photo op in the sport’s history. After a Vegas All-Star weekend when it was just the league’s luck that criminal football players running roughshod on the Strip somehow reflected worse on the NBA than the NFL, this time Stern had taken back its midseason showcase and framed it his way.
“It’s not about the PR attached to it,” he insisted, but in good times and bad, Stern has been the architect of the NBA’s marketing machine. At a time Stern’s league was wobbly, Donaghy threatened to undo his league. When the story hit in July, Stern marched into a Manhattan hotel room and delivered a dramatic monologue, bearing the burden for someone he called a “rogue, isolated official.”
As it turned out, the issue barely resonated at the season’s start. For the rest of the referees, there was a fear that Donaghy had initiated open season on them among fans. Every bad call threatened to illicit derisive taunts and cynical cracks. “But there has been virtually none of the ugliness that we might have thought,” Stern said. He’s right. There are those crediting Stern’s public confronting of the issue, but truth be told, it had little to do with him.
The commissioner has been the beneficiary of the scandalous sports climate, a public so numbed to corruption, so expectant of it, that it ultimately has little staying power. Between performance-enhancing drugs and campus corruption, spy tapes and spitballs, sports fans haven’t come to just expect the worst, but ultimately armor themselves with indifference.
In most minds, Donaghy passed because there’s always something else sinister rumbling down the tracks. As much as anything, good basketball has been a salvation for the sport this season.
At the draft lottery in May, Stern groaned over Portland and Seattle winning the rights to the next two saviors, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. “Give me a big market,” the commissioner was overheard grumbling when the likes of Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia missed out on the top two picks. If you had told Stern on that night in Secaucus, N.J., that within months the league could be on course for a Lakers-Celtics finals, he would’ve insisted that you had lost your mind. Now, Stern has the Suns’ Shaquille O’Neal back in the West for a final championship push and the commissioner sure made it sound like his office was willing to let the Jason Kidd trade to Dallas happen without a punishment for Jerry Stackhouse revealing covert operations.
Make no mistake: This isn’t an NBA free of perils. There are struggling franchises in too many cities, a trend of downward interest stateside balanced with a global boom that has Stern studying the possibility of a European division.
Before the commissioner talked on Saturday, his old nemesis, Billy Hunter, the Players Association chief, delivered a mea culpa for his disparaging of New Orleans as a potentially dangerous All-Star host for the NBA players. At the time, it was a destructive, ill-conceived damnation that New Orleans didn’t need. As it turned out, New Orleans didn’t want to hurt the NBA’s All-Stars, just hug them.
David Stern made sure that it was beamed to the world. Amid all this good, all these houses and learning centers and playgrounds left behind, he had orchestrated the biggest photo op in NBA history. After such turmoil and uncertainty, the comeback commissioner finally had a picture worth snapping again.