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Thursday, January 02, 2020

David Stern Played a Pivotal Role in Creating the Modern NBA--and Modern Sports

David Stern, who just passed away at the age of 77, served as NBA Commissioner from 1984 until 2014. When Stern first took office, the NBA was a 23 team league that was struggling to convince broadcast TV networks to televise its showcase event--the NBA Finals--live as opposed to on tape delay. Cable TV was in its infancy, and global marketing of the NBA was just a pipe dream. Women's professional basketball did not exist in any meaningful, stable way, American professional basketball players were not permitted to participate in the Olympics, and the notion that a significant number of foreign-born players would become NBA All-Stars would have been deemed absurd had anyone dared to utter such a thought.

Stern is not the only reason that the NBA expanded to 30 teams, that the NBA Finals became a global spectacle, that TV revenues enriched the league, owners, and players beyond their wildest dreams, that the NBA became a global sport rivaling soccer, that women's professional basketball achieved some measure of stability, that the 1992 Dream Team inspired basketball players around the world, and that many foreign-born players became NBA icons--but Stern played a major role in each of those radical changes.

Stern is without question the greatest and most influential commissioner in NBA history. A strong case could be made that he is the greatest and most influential commissioner in sports history.

One of the best aspects of Stern's leadership of the NBA was his consistent willingness to take a strong stand on an issue, and deal with any criticism that followed. After the so-called Malice in the Palace, Stern did not wait to see which way the public relations winds would blow; he suspended Ron Artest for the remainder of the 2004-05 season, and he suspended several other NBA players for their roles in the melee. Asked if he had taken a vote before issuing these decisions, Stern tersely replied, "It was unanimous, one to none."

There are many other examples of Stern's decisiveness; here are three articles that I wrote about such situations:

Stern Justice: Carmelo Anthony Suspended for 15 Games (2006): In the wake of a Madison Square Garden brawl between the New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, Stern fined each team $500,000 and suspended seven players for a total of 47 games, with Carmelo Anthony "leading" the way with a 15 game suspension. After reading a prepared statement about the suspensions to the media, Stern added these comments: "We're going to go after the players who aren't able to stop. We have set up the goal of eliminating fighting from our game. Clearly, we're not getting through, or players in certain circumstances just don't want to be restrained. I would suggest that those players will not have long careers in the NBA. What happened Saturday night will stop because that is not what we're about."

Pundits React to Crawford Suspension (2007): When respected referees Jake O'Donnell and Joey Crawford damaged the NBA by acting like they were bigger than the game, Stern stepped in and swiftly reminded them--and anyone thinking of following in their footsteps--that they were not bigger than the game, and that no one would get away with such conduct under Stern's watch.
David Stern Swiftly and Decisively Responds to Gilbert Arenas' Foolishness (2010): I never understood how/why Gilbert Arenas became a media darling, but after Arenas brought guns into the locker room Stern suspended Arenas indefinitely and declared that Arenas "is not currently fit to take the court in an NBA game."

In contrast, as I noted almost three years ago in an article titled The NBA Shamefully Devalues Its Product, the oft-praised Adam Silver has a long way to go to match the bold leadership displayed by David Stern on a wide range of issues, including but not limited to the "load management" plague that is growing in popularity; Stern at least stemmed the tide in that regard, but Silver has always vocally supported "load management," and Silver has done little to stop this odious practice.

It should also be noted that Stern presided over four lockouts (1995, 1996, 1998-99, 2011), two of which (1998-99, 2011) resulted in the first work stoppages in NBA history. Stern has often been criticized for not preventing those work stoppages, but I was one of the few commentators who praised Stern's handing of those labor disputes. History has proven Stern right: both the owners and the players have benefited enormously from the various collective bargaining agreements that were signed after the lockouts. Stern brilliantly balanced his fiduciary duty to the team owners (his employers) with his goal of helping the league generate more revenue overall. 

Stern's record is not perfect, but no one's record is perfect. As I wrote after Stern announced his retirement as NBA Commissioner, 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." Those failures are not insignificant, and it would be wonderful if Adam Silver would take the lead regarding both issues; it also would be wonderful if any media members had sufficient knowledge and courage to challenge Silver to take action, as opposed to continuously writing public love letters to Silver while trying to diminish Stern's accomplishments.

The great baseball manager Sparky Anderson once said that he would not embarrass any catcher by comparing him to the incomparable Johnny Bench. Something similar could be said about comparing Stern to other sports commissioners.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:50 AM



At Saturday, January 04, 2020 6:27:00 PM, Blogger Al Fahridi said...

Hi David, I agree with your assessment. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on an issue involving Stern: the famous "basketball reasons" behind the decision to veto the trade sending Paul to the lakers, Gasol and Odom to the Hornets (I remember the Rockets were involved too, but can't recall which of their players would have moved). Thanks

At Monday, January 06, 2020 1:24:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The proposed deal "would have shipped Chris Paul to the L.A. Lakers in exchange for Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first round pick while sending Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets," as I wrote in my article titled Commissioner Stern Should Not Have Voided the Chris Paul Trade.

You can click on the link to read about the whole story, but if you just want to know my basic take on what happened, I wrote that Stern "made a horrible mistake" by voiding the trade. The real mistake/problem was that the league was running the Hornets in a blind trust until a new ownership group could be found and approved. This created a conflict of interest for Stern, who had to balance the overall good of the league and the specific best interests of one team.

At Tuesday, January 07, 2020 7:10:00 AM, Blogger Al Fahridi said...

Thanks David, very interesting read. It is hard to speculate with what ifs, but it is fair to say that voiding the trade had some quite strong effects, not only for the teams involved but for players too (Odom's downward spiral, Bryant's do-it-all effort just to get to the playoffs in 2013 leading to the achilles' tear).

At Thursday, January 09, 2020 9:38:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome.

I agree that there were far-ranging implications from the voided trade.


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