Regardless of his 5-foot-7-inch frame, stout build, and that rather unsavory mustache that began his commissioner’s tenure in 1984, David Stern brought coolness and sophistication to the NBA. Soon-to-be wealthy men a foot taller clamored to shake his hand on draft night, and the league became the first to bond with hip-hop culture, making a successful partnership.
The NBA was a moderately successful league before Stern took over for Lawrence O’Brien, who ensured it would be the most prominent basketball league by sucking in the American Basketball Association’s top four franchises and eliminating the competition. Stern ensured that the league would not only survive in the changing economy of the 1980s but also flourish and shake its well-deserved reputation of a league that ignored its drug issues. The Stern administration has been wildly successful despite a series of warts and speed bumps. He will step down in February 2014, having orchestrated perhaps the most prosperous 30-year run of any professional sport. NBA Finals games were on tape delay before Stern took over, with fans having to turn their heads when their local sportscast displayed the final score.
Now the NBA is opening offices around the world, and just held preseason games in Milan, Istanbul, Beijing, and Berlin. Stern turned 70 last month and despite maintaining enthusiasm that matches the league’s vivacious image, many of the incoming rookies are 50 years his junior, and he decided to avoid the Bud Selig plan of just hanging around until they kick you out.
Deputy commissioner Adam Silver had been receiving an increasing amount of responsibility over the past few years, and it appears Stern will allow Silver to make the decision on whether ads will be displayed on game uniforms. And Stern intimated that Silver will make more pressing decisions as the next 15 months progress.
Stern’s accomplishments are many,
When asked to single out his achievements or what has brought him the most pride, Stern was unusually humble, far from the hard-charging negotiator who bullied the NBA Players’ Association to accept a cap on the length and amount of salaries, an unprecedented move for American pro sports.
“Well, I’m not a big believer in the L word, legacy,” he said. “I just want people to say that he steered the good ship NBA through all kinds of interesting times, some choppy waters, some extraordinary opportunities, and on his watch, the league grew in popularity, became a global phenomenon, and the owners and the players and the fans did very well.”
Of course, Stern has his detractors and failures. The NBA draft lottery has never created parity in the league; the rumors of Stern banning Jordan from the league to cool off his apparent gambling issues never completely died down; and there were four lockouts, two of which forced Stern to cancel games.
There was also the microfiber basketball used briefly in 2006, an idea as successful as “New Coke.” The Malice at the Palace fight between the Pacers and Pistons eight years ago changed the landscape of fan and player interaction during games and also forced Stern to alter the course of both teams with lengthy suspensions.
And perhaps the most piercing dagger into the relatively pristine reputation of the Stern era was the Tim Donaghy betting scandal, in which the official admitted to betting on NBA games during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. Donaghy was accused of affecting pointspreads for games. He served 11 months in federal prison. He accused Stern and the league of intentionally extending playoff series for more television money. Stern has steadfastly denied that other officials bet on games or were involved in extending series, and while Donaghy has spent the past three years claiming to anybody who would listen that the league was involved in the conspiracy, no other officials were found responsible.
Stern also didn’t endear himself to Lakers fans by voiding a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the team last year from the league-owned New Orleans Hornets. Other matters such as the league-mandated dress code, the controversial relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, and his attempted muting of outspoken Mavericks owner Mark Cuban are examples of Stern’s sometimes risky and brash actions.
It is undeniable, however, that the league developed into a professional sports juggernaut under his administration. What Stern initiated was marketing the league’s superstars, such as Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James, to the international fan. And he was also blessed with larger-than-life figures such as Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal to further popularize the game.
Stern’s legacy as a pioneer for the game is unquestioned, regardless of whether there was a ferocious businessman behind the affable smile. He represented the owners steadfastly, ensuring that the players, unlike those in Major League Baseball, wouldn’t control the financial future of the league.
“We have done so many wonderful things in the organization,” said Timberwolves owner GlenTaylor, who just stepped down as chairman of the Board of Governors. “The marketing, leadership, the brand recognition, going international way before our times, and David has led that. He has taken the contracts that we have gotten from our rights in television, and it’s gone up like 40 times, 40 fold in this particular time. And we addressed significant issues, as the world has changed. The needs of the owners, the needs of the players have changed, and David has led us through that each time. I think it has benefited not only the owners, but David has done things for the players. When David started, the players were being paid on average $250,000, and when we completed this contract the average player is going to get paid $5 million. He’s not only benefited the owners, but the players that we work with closely.”
While the NBA Players Association was often unhappy with Stern’s tactics, the financial growth of the league in terms of salaries is unquestionable. But the brutality of the labor negotiations last summer, his disenchantment with a flawed economic system, and the sentiment that the league is at its peak encouraged Stern to walk away and enjoy his accomplishments from afar. Say what you want about his cunning ways and the numerous conspiracies he has denied, David Stern leaves his post without question more popular than his brethren in the other three major pro sports. He is the commissioner you’d most like to have a drink with, a celebrity in a sport of celebrities.
“It’s been a spectacular journey,” he said. “Each step along the way, there are things you have to do, things maybe you wish you hadn’t done, but I don’t keep that list. So, I’m totally pleased, and am particularly pleased with the transition with which we are now embarking. But for the most part, it has been a series of extraordinary experiences, and enormous putting together of pieces of a puzzle, and it goes on forever.
“There will always be another piece of the puzzle, so the question is, at what point do you decide that, you know, let somebody else do it? That’s the point that I’m at now. I think the organization, as Adam said, that’s here, put together by us, is an extraordinary situation.”
TNT trio takes out crystal ball
The crew from Turner Network Television, entering another year of working together for Thursday night national telecasts, offered their takes on the season. Their opinions were varied and at times hilarious. The offseason’s biggest questions come from Los Angeles, where newly acquired Dwight Howard will try to blend into the Lakers’ system for an immediate championship run.
“When you have two great big guys like Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol,” TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal said about the Lakers’ Princeton offense, “I don’t want them at the free throw line on the pick-and-rolls, you want at least one of them down in the post. And if they are going to switch offenses, I think they should go back to the triangle.”
Charles Barkley stopped O’Neal in midsentence and asked him if he actually called Howard “great.” O’Neal, who has been one of Howard’s biggest critics over the past two years as the two have generated a public feud, responded.
“I said he’s great, but I said he needs to step it up. I said he needs to do more,” O’Neal said. “I never said he wasn’t a great player, don’t even try it. I said 28 and 15.”
O’Neal believes that Howard should be able to score 28 points per game — despite the presence of Kobe Bryant and Gasol — along with grab 15 rebounds with the Lakers. “He’s great right now but in order to be the Great Fifth [center of all time], he needs to step up,” O’Neal said. “He can [average 28 and 15]. He needs to get easy baskets. He’s going to get a lot of drop-off [passes]. He’s going to get a lot of rebounds. That should be his goal.”
The TNT crew agreed that the Heat are the favorites to repeat as champions but they do have weaknesses.
“I think Miami’s one of the favorites,” Barkley said. “The only way you can beat them, you’ve got to beat them up physically. They are a very small team. LeBron [James] covers up a lot of weaknesses because he’s so physically amazing. Boston, to me, has got a legit chance of beating them. Oklahoma City I don’t think can beat them. If you’ve got a big team that can dominate down low, you can beat that team. But no one is going to beat them on the perimeter with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.”
O’Neal, Barkley, and Reggie Miller agree that the Celtics are legitimate title contenders.
“I love what Boston has done,” Miller said. “Right now, [the Heat and Celtics are] 1-2 in the Eastern Conference. Jeff Green is playing fantastic during the preseason. JasonTerry, Courtney Lee, I think once Avery Bradley comes back, a healthier Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett moving to that center position, and [Rajon] Rondo being Rondo, this is a team that is primed. I would not be surprised if we see in the conference finals again those two teams going to head to head.”
Said Barkley: “The Heat are the champions and everybody wants to say it’s going to be them and the Lakers [in the Finals]. I think that the [potential] Miami-Boston series is a toss-up. Nobody can check LeBron James. But Boston has, they’ve got great depth, great size in [Jared] Sullinger and Fab Melo in the draft. I think the most underrated player in the NBA is Jeff Green. I know he didn’t play last year. I loved him in Oklahoma City. I think when he got to Boston he went late in the year so he never really got comfortable. I think he is going to be fantastic.”
There is a great deal of concern around the league about former Celtic Delonte West, who was suspended indefinitely by the Mavericks last week and is likely to be bought out of the final year of his contract. West, who was suspended earlier last week by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle for one game, began a series of tweets denying that the issue was because of his bipolar disorder or ignoring his medication. He also admitted he sat across the street from AmericanAirlines Center crying after his suspension. This may be West’s last chance in the NBA . . . The league’s Board of Governors approved the sale of the Memphis Grizzlies to California businessman Robert Pera, who plans to keep the team in Tennessee. Former Memphis State and NBA standout Anfernee Hardaway is a minority owner of the club. Pera is considered one of the younger, energetic owners David Stern wants in the league. Pera takes over for Michael Heisley, who moved the franchise to Memphis from Vancouver . . . The Board of Governors also named Spurs owner Peter Holt to replace GlenTaylor as chairman. Holt has been one of the smaller-market owners pushing for a larger share of basketball-related income for owners . . . The Knicks may have a gem in swingman Chris Copeland, who dropped 34 points on the Celtics during a preseason game Oct. 20 in Albany. Copeland has averaged 15.5 points during the preseason and could be frontcourt relief in case Amar’e Stoudemire misses an extended period with a knee cyst. Copeland, 28, played at the University of Colorado and signed with the Knicks after an impressive summer league . . . It may be the end of a career for Adam Morrison, who was waived by the Trail Blazers on Saturday. Morrison told the Globe this summer that he would likely retire if he didn’t stick in the NBA this time. Morrison was the third overall pick in the 2006 draft, but tore his left anterior cruciate ligament before his second season. Since then he’s been relegated to a journeyman, and he said his experience overseas was regrettable and he did not want to repeat it.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.