A humbled man
Rattled by crisis, Stern's legacy suddenly on the line
Posted: Tuesday July 24, 2007 5:05PM; Updated: Tuesday July 24, 2007 7:14PM
Smug. Imperious. Self-satisfied. Prideful.
All are adjectives associated in recent years with NBA commissioner David Stern; none of them was on display in the Manhattan hotel ballroom and before the national television cameras on Tuesday.
This wasn't the avuncular commissioner the public has grown familiar with at various times over the past 23 years, since the day Stern assumed his post and helped a league already poised to prosper -- with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and with Michael Jordan on his way -- do just that.
This wasn't the affable "What, Me Worry?'' Alfred E. Stern who had shrugged and smiled his way through various controversies, issues and accusations, secure in the knowledge that his owners, players, coaches and he himself were all getting fabulously wealthy during his stewardship.
This wasn't even the dismissive Stern who, during the NBA Finals in June 2006, bristled at a question about conspiracy theories, made a blanket statement about his referees' integrity, and finally, rather than acquiesce to requests to make his officials more available to the media for transparency's sake, told a roomful of reporters to "print the conspiracies!''
Thirteen months later, they don't have to. They can simply print the news of the day, as unearthed by the investigation into referee Tim Donaghy's alleged gambling and illicit conduct as one of the league's veteran and now most notorious refs.
Shaken. Humbled. Cautious. Needy. Those were the adjectives in play Tuesday as Stern reached out to the public for tolerance, patience and understanding after what he termed "the most serious situation, and worst situation, that I have ever experienced.''
This wasn't Uncle Dave or Boss Dave at the podium. This was Serious Dave and Lawyerly Dave, dancing as fast as he could while tiptoeing right up to the lines of legality in what he could and could not say about Donaghy, the target of a federal probe that has rattled the NBA's underpinnings. Not since the NBA's days of drug problems and tape delays in the 1970s and early '80s, if then, has the league faced such a crisis of confidence, with Stern unexpectedly confronting the defining moment in his legacy.
And even then, as he 'fessed up like never before and claimed to welcome scrutiny that he would have swiped at with the back of his hand in happier times, Stern barely could finish his thoughts before being publicly challenged. On ESPNEWS, pop-up balloons from viewers emerged below him on the screen, questioning his honesty, doubting his sincerity, and even suggesting that he resign.
Some of that, sure, is due to the level of discourse and easy anonymity that is available in this age of technology. Some of it, though, is business as unfortunately usual for the NBA, the most beleaguered of leagues in terms of suspicions and allegations. To all too many, the Donaghy case merely has raised the floor for the conspiracy buffs.
While Stern told the world that the uncovering of this "rogue, isolated criminal'' was the worst thing that could befall the NBA -- a breach of the "most sacred trust in professional sports'' -- it would, from this point forward, look to be the best result possible. For decades, Stern had the absolutes on his side; not one compromised referee had slipped through his vast security network of retired FBI agents, decorated military personnel, former cops and pensioned troopers. Now he and everyone else who makes a living off the league are praying that it was merely one compromised referee.