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Wednesday, February 05, 2014

NBA Enters Post-David Stern Era

David Stern completed his 30 year tenure as NBA Commissioner on February 1, turning the reins over to his long-time trusted deputy, Adam Silver. Until fairly recently, the consensus opinion seemed to be that Stern was vying with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for the title of greatest sports commissioner of all-time. In the past decade or so, Stern has been assailed by increasingly vocal critics who disapprove of his allegedly dictatorial leadership style and who blame Stern for some problems/controversies that the league faced, including lockouts in 1998 and 2011, the Tim Donaghy scandal and the voided Chris Paul trade. I strongly feel that the NBA should do more to recognize, honor and support its retired legends--including but not limited to the "Pre-1965ers"--and that the NBA should belatedly complete the ABA-NBA merger by finally granting official status to ABA statistics; it is disappointing that Stern did not use his power to make those things happen. Nevertheless, Stern's overall track record is very positive. I wrote my David Stern legacy column in October 2012 after Stern first announced his plan to retire as NBA Commissioner in February 2014 and I stand by the conclusion I declared at that time:

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.

Stern may have rubbed some people the wrong way by acting like he was the smartest man in the room and by using his intelligence and strong will to lead the NBA on a certain path--but the reality is that he often was the smartest man in the room and the decisions he made resulted in skyrocketing revenue that benefited owners and players alike, a pioneering drug policy, global expansion of the game, innovative community service programs like NBA Cares, increased executive employment opportunities for women and minorities (the NBA has consistently been far ahead of the other pro sports leagues in this regard) and overall development of the league that would have been unimaginable when Stern first took office; under Stern's watch, the NBA went from having its premier event--the NBA Finals--televised on tape delay to having its top stars become one-name global icons: Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron.

Stern does not deserve all of the credit for the NBA's tremendous growth--throughout his tenure the league had a steady stream of great stars and great teams--but he deserves a lot of credit for not only making sound marketing decisions but also for disciplining owners, players and anyone else who stepped out of line and conducted themselves in a way that could potentially damage the league. Stern's leadership was equally evident during good times and during bad times; he not only helped the league derive maximum benefit from the skills and charisma of Magic, Bird, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron and other stars but he also guided the league through the dark days of the Donaghy scandal and through contentious labor negotiations that might have caused serious damage to the NBA if the league had not been fortunate enough to have a strong, wise leader at the helm.

David Stern has carved out a very prominent place not only in NBA and sports history but in the cultural history of the United States and the world, because the NBA's impact cuts across socioeconomic and national borders; in the early 1980s, no one could have imagined that basketball would be the global game that it is today and that the NBA would be able to touch the lives of young people so profoundly in so many different countries.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:56 PM

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