Strong Leadership is David Stern's LegacyNBA Commissioner David Stern has announced that he will retire on February 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after he replaced Larry O'Brien. Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, long Stern's right hand man, will be Stern's successor. The timing of Stern's announcement is interesting; the 15 month transfer of power presumably ensures a smooth transition, though at least one cynic has already suggested that Stern hopes to have some kind of farewell tour or victory lap. Stern has had a great run and he is perhaps mindful that holding on to power until the bitter end can indeed lead to a bitter end; thirty is a nice round number that also means that Stern's tenure will have lasted a few months longer than NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's. Rozelle is probably the only commissioner of a major professional sports league whose career can be compared with Stern's in terms of longevity and positive impact. The NFL expanded from 12 teams to 28 teams during Rozelle's reign and Rozelle is rightly credited with vastly increasing the NFL's popularity and profitability.
Stern has long been viewed as the best commissioner in professional sports, though his reputation was somewhat tarnished by his voiding of the Chris Paul trade last season and by the perception during the most recent lockout that he no longer wielded the same power that he once did. It has become quite popular among some media members to take shots at Stern but an objective examination of Stern's career contains many highlights and very few lowlights. The NBA expanded from 23 teams to 30 under Stern's watch, revenues soared and each decade produced players and teams who will forever be a part of American sports iconography: Magic's Lakers and Bird's Celtics in the 1980s, Jordan's Bulls in the 1990s, Shaq and Kobe's Lakers in the 2000s. Stern cannot take credit for the talents of Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq and Kobe but he deserves some credit for the fact that when those players were at their peaks they were among the most popular and recognizable athletes in the world, something that has not typically been true of the best players in the NFL, MLB or NHL during the past 30 years. It is easy to forget that not long before Stern became NBA Commissioner the NBA World Championship Series--the catchier designation NBA Finals only became officially used in 1986, two years after Stern took over--was shown on tape delay and the NBA was widely perceived as a drug infested league that was "too black" to achieve mainstream popularity. Stern took steps to change not just the negative perceptions but also the reality; in other words, his triumph was not just a matter of deft public relations work but also one involving substantive actions: Stern instituted a drug policy that provided treatment for players who had substance abuse problems but also insured that such players would not be allowed to play until they fixed their problems. Much like Rozelle, Stern had the foresight and negotiating acumen to raise the NBA's TV profile and thus present the beauty of the sport in a captivating way; "NBA action...it's fantastic" is a slogan that is still repeated three decades later not just because it is catchy but because it is true: the NBA features the best athletes in the world (a phrase that Stern often used publicly) and it is truly breathtaking to watch those athletes display a unique combination of size, speed, jumping ability and dexterity.
A major part of Stern's vision has been to make basketball into a global sport like soccer. NBA players first participated in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and that proved to be a seminal event in basketball history: the "Dream Team" is arguably the greatest team ever assembled in any sport and the heroics of Jordan, Magic and company inspired an entire generation of basketball players around the world: Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and many others are children of the Barcelona Olympics.
Stern also cleaned up the NBA game on the court, pushing for flagrant foul rules and fighting regulations that vastly toned down the violence in the sport. When players got out of line on or off the court, Stern swiftly issued fines and/or suspensions that not only punished the initial offenders but deterred future potential offenders. In Stern's NBA, if you throw a punch--even if it misses--you are suspended. The end result: players rarely throw punches. In Stern's NBA, if you leave the bench area during any kind of confrontation you are suspended. The end result: bench-clearing brawls and ugly scenes that could escalate into serious violence are a thing of the past.
The NBA has long been at the forefront among sports leagues in terms of providing opportunities for women and members of minority groups to become executives, coaches and referees. The NBA does not need special rules regarding this (like the NFL's Rooney Rule) because equal opportunity hiring has become a part of the league's culture. Stern also oversaw the creation of the WNBA.
Is Stern's record flawless? Of course not. In addition to the Chris Paul trade debacle mentioned above, he presided over two lockouts that resulted in lost regular season games (1998, 2011) and a federal investigation revealed that NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on games that he officiated. However, the other sports leagues had worse problems and scandals during the past 30 years. Rozelle's NFL lost seven games--almost half of the season--to a strike in 1982 and then in 1987 the NFL lost one game to a strike and used replacement players in three other games. A dark cloud hangs over the NFL now because of the numerous pending lawsuits alleging that the league has not properly cared for players who suffered head injuries. MLB canceled the latter portion of the 1994 regular season and also wiped out the entire 1994 postseason, including the World Series. MLB's all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, was banned for life for betting on baseball games. MLB's record book is infested with inflated numbers produced by PED cheaters. Labor issues shortened the 1994-95 NHL season, wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season and may also eliminate the 2012-13 NHL season. The NHL does not adequately police on-ice violence and thus there have been numerous ugly incidents involving players assaulting other players. For the past three decades, Stern's NBA has enjoyed a better record of labor peace than the other major American sports leagues and has achieved this while increasing both revenues and player salaries without neglecting the health and safety of the players.
I have two primary complaints about Stern's tenure. Stern's NBA should have acted much more swiftly and much more generously to take care of retired players in general and and the "Pre-1965ers" in particular. Stern's NBA also should have clearly and unequivocally included ABA statistics in the pro basketball record book. I sincerely hope that Adam Silver corrects both of these injustices; it is shameful for a league as profitable as the NBA to not take care of the players who built the sport and it is shameful for the NBA to act as if ABA statistics do not exist: the NBA should not only fix its own official records but it should insist that its television and media partners acknowledge the ABA just like the NFL's television and media partners recognize that pro football's first 4000 yard passer was Joe Namath, who accomplished that feat in the AFL.
There has been such a media backlash against Stern recently that I almost feel compelled to make a few things clear to anyone who might question why a writer would praise Stern. I do not know Stern personally and I have never interviewed Stern one on one; my closest contact with him came when I attended a few of his press conferences during All-Star Weekends and prior to playoff games. I am not employed by the NBA nor does it seem likely that I ever will be--even though my writing skills and historical knowledge could be a tremendous asset to a league that sometimes acts as if basketball history began with Bird, Magic and Jordan. So, I have no interest or motivation to be an apologist either for Stern specifically or for the league in general but it is my honest opinion that an objective evaluation of Stern's career would rank him very highly in the pantheon of commissioners.
A major aspect of leadership is perception. A leader must have a strong personality and a clear vision for the future but he also must convince others that they should follow him. A young Kobe Bryant once told Phil Jackson that he wanted to lead the Lakers but Jackson chided Bryant that no one on the team was ready to follow Bryant just yet because Bryant was too young and unproven. Bryant ultimately became one of the sport's great leaders and great champions; he always had a strong personality and a clear vision but he had to convince his teammates to perceive him as a leader. When I think of David Stern, I think of his response to the "Malice in the Palace"; he immediately issued several lengthy suspensions, he suspended Ron Artest for the entire season and when media members asked Stern if a vote had been taken about those punishments Stern replied, "It was unanimous, one to none." That is leadership; he did not pass the buck, he did not wait to see which way the wind was blowing: he made it very clear that players who go into the stands to fight with fans will not be playing in his NBA. In contrast, when I think of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, I think of Selig shrugging impotently as the 2002 All-Star Game ended in a tie--and, much more seriously, I think of Selig turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the abundant evidence of rampant PED cheating in his sport. For 30 years, Stern has looked the part of a commissioner and, much more significantly, he has acted the part. You never doubted who was in charge of the NBA with David Stern at the helm.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM