WRITING A – 30 – ON 30 YEARS
I didn’t agree with everything David Stern did as NBA Commissioner, but I am a fan.
First, the perceived negatives. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but when, at the end of the first full season of his watch, with the league in need of a boost to further the turnaround he started with an austerity plan, two envelopes of the seven in the draft lottery bin appeared to be stuck to the side of the cage while the others were loose, and one of those two had a dog eared corner, and that was the envelop stern pulled out of the bin to reveal that the biggest market team in the league, the Knicks, would get the biggest player in the draft, Patrick Ewing, I had a slight problem. All’s well that ends well. Stern was right, jump starting the Knicks was a big step forward for the league and, remarkably, the Knicks never won a championship with what may have been ill gotten gains.
I was also in disagreement with the Knick heavy suspensions in the 1997 playoff series with the Heat, but, hey, turnabout, as they say. The Knicks got their payback.
Of the commissioners of the big four sports, however, I found myself, more often than not, in agreement with Stern. He joined the NBA as an outside counsel in 1966, the year I graduated from high school and was rooting my heart out for the Celtics, in the midst of their dynasty. In 1980 he became the league’s general counsel under commissioner Larry O’Brien and four years later, on February 1st, he succeeded O’Brien as commissioner.
Always an astute observer of numbers, Stern was well aware the players were virtually the only people in the league making money and he opened a legitimate set of books to show them as much, making them realize that about half of the teams were about to go out of business, half of their prospective employers, and he got them to agree to cutbacks that included things like giving up first class air transportation, little things that added up and, along with the relocation of half a dozen franchises, put the league on the path to fiscal well being. Under Stern’s watch seven new teams were expanded into the league and it took minimal tinkering to keep them healthy.
He addressed the “gansta” attitude that permeated the league, and turned off legions of fans, by instituting a dress code for travel and for injured players sitting on the team bench. He took the game global. Where, once, the U.S. dominated with ease on the international stage, the competition from other corners has become fierce and his is the one league that has a legitimate shot of expanding to other countries as the number of international stars in the league increases every year. It is serendipitous that as Adam Silver gets ready to move up to the commissioner’s job, the man in charge of the league’s global marketing partnerships, Mark Tatum, will fill the number two slot.
Timing may not be everything, but it can be very helpful, and Stern caught the coattails of the second coming of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, Bird and Magic, with Jordon on the way. He was wise enough to position himself and the league for the success they could all bring it together. In his first year at the helm league revenues were $118 million, last year they topped four and a half billion.
Tomorrow, 30 years to the day after he picked them up, David Stern gives up the reins of the NBA, on his own terms. My dad always told me to leave things in better condition than you found them. David Stern did that. I’m a big fan.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.