Roundtable: Examining David Stern's NBA legacy
Roundtable: Examining David Stern's NBA legacy (cont.)
With David Stern set to step down as commissioner after 30 memorable years, we asked four Sports Illustrated staffers who have covered Stern and the NBA extensively -- Lee Jenkins, Ian Thomsen, Jon Wertheim and Hank Hersch -- to look back at his career and assess his legacy.
Lee Jenkins: There are so many -- championing small markets, promoting diversity, spreading the sport overseas, committing to women's basketball, helping America understand HIV -- but those all fall under one bigger umbrella. When Stern took over as commissioner, the NBA was a league on the fringe, with playoff games that weren't even broadcast on television. He was fortunate to come along at roughly the same time as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, but he understood the importance of promoting players and turning them into stars. He took the NBA into the mainstream.
Ian Thomsen: He set up the NBA to become the only global sports league capable of thriving throughout the world. When Stern took over the NBA, it was a penny-ante organization endangered by bankruptcy. No one was envisioning profitability or expansion for pro basketball, much less the advent of a Dream Team. Stern saw a potential for the NBA that transcended the domestic aims of the rival leagues in America. Will the NBA ultimately become more popular and profitable than pro football or baseball? It's hard to imagine that day right now, but the potential to be a moneymaker on every continent is something that exists down the road for the NBA to a much greater extent than for the NFL or MLB.
Jon Wertheim: The macro achievement: He leaves the league in immeasurably better shape than it was when he arrived. By every conceivable metric, yes. (Consider: The NBA's annual television revenue at the time was less than $30 million; today it's roughly $1 billion.) But also in terms of image and perception. Other commissioners inherited stable and entrenched and successful businesses. Stern took over the equivalent of the 2013-14 Milwaukee Bucks. As far as a specific achievement: He was way ahead of the game, doubling down on globalization, seeing that -- accelerated by technology -- the NBA's marketplace and talent pool were not confined by borders. Team rosters, of course, bear this out. But also, travel internationally and it's remarkable how many NBA jerseys you see.
Hank Hersch: I'm guessing the answer Stern would want would be the globalization of the game, and while I'd be inclined to dispute that just on principle, I think that's correct. After being fortunate to catch the Magic-Bird-Jordan wave in the 1980s and '90s he didn't just find another wave to ride -- he found it and rode it like Kelly Slater. It helps, of course, that the game is actually played by billions of people around the world -- unlike the NHL, MLB and NFL -- but he marketed the NBA brilliantly, encouraged the involvement of players in his outreach and reaped a fortune for owners.
Jenkins: The 2011 lockout ended early in the morning on a Saturday. I talked to Stern over the phone on Sunday. He described what it was like at 2:30 a.m. in that midtown Manhattan law firm, the owners in one conference room and the players in the other. "That was the darkest moment," he said. "We were almost at the conclusion that this wasn't going to work. We weren't going to be able to make a deal." Stern walked out of the owners' room and into the players'. Union executive director Billy Hunter, following his lead, walked out of the players' room and into the owners.' Small groups gathered in the hall. The sides then met at one table and pondered the consequences of a wasted season. "We had to keep at it," Stern said. "We couldn't leave." Less than 30 minutes later, the lockout was over.
Thomsen: I was interviewing him a few years ago in his office, and I made the case that it was in the best interests of his league and others to legalize sports betting in America in order to take it out of the hands of organized crime so that it could be regulated and taxed. Had I raised the same issue with the NFL or MLB, it would have been shot down instantly. Stern became the first major league commissioner to suggest that nationally legalized gambling on the NBA as a "possibility" that "may be a huge opportunity." There was an independence to Stern that made him fascinating.
Wertheim: I interviewed Stern at NBA headquarters, maybe 10 years ago. The commissioner's office faces south, looking down Fifth Avenue. When I arrived, we made small talk and he looked out his window. "You should be able to see your apartment from here," he said casually. This, of course, was thoroughly disarming. How did David Stern know where I lived? But it was this kind of a) attention to detail and b) shrewd deployment that made him such an effective leader. Critics will call him a micromanager for having opinions about the color of seats in Miami and the courtside signage in Portland. But that's what leaders who see themselves as caretakers do.
Hersch: When I was the NBA editor in the 1990s I invited Stern to the SI offices for an off-the-record lunch with the rest of the editors. He exhibited all the moves familiar to anyone who's seen one of his press conferences -- he can be charming and condescending, funny and brutally dismissive. But it was also obvious how engaged he was with every aspect of the NBA. His answers were always smart and they came from a place of deep passion and interest. I remember thinking he could have run any company or even succeeded in politics, but that the NBA was the perfect forum for him.
Jenkins: Part of the reason the NBA wasn't more popular in the 1970s and early '80s had to do with race. It would have been nearly impossible, 30 years ago, for a sport to crack the Big Three when nearly every player of significance was African-American. Stern obviously didn't eradicate prejudice -- I still wonder what people mean when they say, "I hate the NBA, but I love college basketball" -- yet he created a platform for young African-American men from inner-city backgrounds to become international icons. He made certain that figures like LeBron James and Kevin Durant would be in the world's living room, and the enlightened portion of the world has been delighted to have them there.
Thomsen: Scoring was down at the beginning of the last decade, but the basketball people couldn't agree on a way to address the problem. Stern put together a special committee, led by Jerry Colangelo, that enabled teams to play zone defenses and encouraged a faster open-floor tempo with ball movement at the expense of isolation play. In those days coaches would fill out their rosters with defenders at the expense of shooters; now coaches favor offense at the expense of defense, which has made the NBA more attractive in the same way that enhancements of the passing game have made the NFL more popular.
Wertheim: Many of us fell in love with the NBA when the going was already good. But the more you read about the league in the early '80s, the more you appreciate how thoroughly Stern transformed the product. The Finals were on tape delay. There was a rampant drug problem. Corporate America thought the league was "too urban," which, of course, is code for something else. Many of us had a good laugh about the Silna brothers fleecing the league with their deal to get a piece of the NBA's TV revenue in perpetuity: But this tells you a lot about the state of the league in the late '70s.
Hersch: The salary cap. I'm sure he got a lot of credit for it at the time, but I think because so many leagues have adopted a cap that maybe it now gets short shrift. It was a brilliant solution to a rancorous relationship with labor -- a win-win for everyone. I remember taking a friend who works in the non-profit world to a Knicks game and he was floored by how much players made. But when I explained that the NBA's system allowed players to reap about half the revenue, he could see they were participating in the success of the whole business. Their salaries were outlandish, yes, but also fair.
Jenkins: He was a better commissioner than owner, but that's the role he played for the New Orleans Hornets when they were on the market in '11. Stern insisted that Hornets general manager Dell Demps had authority over basketball decisions and Demps made what looked like a sound one: He engineered a three-way trade that sent Chris Paul to the Lakers and brought Goran Dragic, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Lamar Odom and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But Stern, under obvious pressure from owners wary of the Lakers' power, vetoed the deal. Three franchises were devastated. Numerous lives were changed. The Clippers wound up with Paul, in exchange for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al Farouq-Aminu and a pick. The first package was arguably more appealing.
Thomsen: His decision to not enable the trade of Chris Paul in 2011 was a fiasco. Despite the backlash, I believe to this day he he acted as any normal owner would have on behalf of the New Orleans franchise, which at that time was being operated by the NBA in order to prevent it from being moved out of the city; Stern held out for a trade that would cut payroll and create flexibility in order to attract a new owner to buy the team. The whole thing was managed badly and his autocratic style encouraged people throughout the league to come to the worst conclusion about him.
Wertheim: Like anyone who's held a leadership job for three decades, Stern made his share of mistakes. It's hard, for instance, to watch the "Save Our Sonics" documentary and not cringe at Stern's role and his imperious stance. He was simply on the wrong side of right. Rescinding the Chris Paul trade was not his finest moment. Neither were the lockouts. And while it was collectively bargained, the one-and-done rule benefits no one.
Hersch: The Tim Donaghy scandal. There had always been suggestions that the league dictated outcomes in games and the draft, and Stern over the years acted as if those claims were absurd. Now, Donaghy was saying what many suspected had actually occurred. How seriously did Stern take the accusations? After a debacle like the Lakers-Kings Game 6 in 2002, shouldn't he have been proactive in making changes? Time has passed and the scandal is hardly on top of everyone's mind anymore, but I do have friends who, after complaining for years about dubious traveling and charge calls, abandoned the NBA for good when Donaghy admitted he had made calls based on the point spread.
Jenkins: Stern is definitely the best commissioner in NBA history. In sports history, I'd put him in the top two, but it's hard to argue against Pete Rozelle, who positioned the NFL to become the juggernaut it is today. As much as Stern accomplished, the NBA still does not threaten the NFL, even though more people play the sport, it produces more stars and it has none of the same long-term health concerns. Stern has carried the league to unfathomable heights, but there is room for successor Adam Silver to take it farther.
Thomsen: There's no questioning he's the best in the NBA's history. But the evidence does not yet exist to rank him ahead of Pete Rozelle, who was responsible for taking the NFL from the No. 2 league in America to No. 1. When Stern took control in 1984, the NBA was No. 3 in America, and 30 years later it is still No. 3. I think the day may come when the NBA will move up in that ranking, and if so it will happen because Stern laid down his vision for the NBA to become a global property. Future generations may be more impressed by his foresight than the generations he has served over the last three decades.
Wertheim: Hard as it is to compare commissioners among sports and eras and media landscapes (what would Pete Rozelle have thought about the RedZone channel?), Stern is certainly on the sports commish Mt. Rushmore. He completely transformed his league in a way that, I would argue, no other commissioner has. Some of this, of course, owed to good fortune. His first years coincided with Magic, Bird and Jordan. Plenty of forces outside his control -- the changing media landscape, technology, the DVR that made sports especially valuable -- helped build the NBA into the multibillion-dollar behemoth it is today. But go through the "CEO checklist" -- longevity, business savvy, legacy, visionary thinking, generally unwavering support from the boardroom (i.e., the owners), leadership, innovation -- and there's a lot of high marks there.
Hersch: Yes, he's the greatest commissioner in NBA history. I don't know enough about the works of Kenesaw Mountain Landis and Clarence Campbell to say he's the greatest in all sports, but in my lifetime only Pete Rozelle could give Stern a run for that title.