The Commissioner and I

Bidding Adieu to the Father of Modern Basketball

by by Sam Rosen

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Last Tuesday afternoon my best friend called, which was exciting because he only calls if he forgets to tell to me to add extra cheese, or if something wild has just happened in the NBA. I barely missed the call, and before I could dial him back he sent me a text: “Silver is taking over in 2014!!!!!!!” I knew what this meant immediately. David Stern, the man who has run the league for nearly thirty years, had announced that he would be stepping down, and “Silver” is Adam Silver, the dweeby, loveable Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer of the NBA. I called my friend back, and he was giddy when he answered. “Did you see my text?!” he squealed. I responded with a halfhearted “yeah,” and he was indignant. “Why do you sound so bummed?” he asked. “We’ve been wanting this forever.” This wasn’t exactly true. We had talked about wanting it forever, but from my end, I’d never meant it. I had offered support whenever my friends, like most NBA fans, had complained about David Stern over the years, but in the way that you laugh at an over-the-line joke and feel guilty afterwards.

David Stern has never been beyond reproach. He’s known largely as arrogant and headstrong, he’s bullied his way to unpopular decisions and four lockouts in the past 17 years. Despite this, he’s done an amazing job. When David Stern took over as commissioner in 1984, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were at the top of their games and about to stage another incredible championship matchup between the Celtics and the Lakers. A month after the Finals, the NBA Draft saw the selection of Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and some guy named Michael Jordan. Critics of Stern have always pointed to this unprecedented influx of talent as a way of downplaying his stewardship, but I think they’re missing the point. The league had enjoyed transcendent stars before, but still toiled in relative obscurity—before Stern, NBA playoff games were routinely tape-delayed on TV, and the league’s cultural significance trailed far behind that of the NFL and MLB. Five years after Stern took over, in 1990, the league inked TV deals with TNT and NBC that totaled nearly one billion dollars. Seven years after that, he helped form the WNBA. During his tenure the average annual player salary has risen from $250,000 to $5.2 million.

David Stern made the NBA fairer. Before Stern took over, the league had no salary cap, and the teams that enjoyed higher revenues in bigger markets had a distinct competitive advantage. Under his direction, the NBA has implemented the most sophisticated salary cap in professional sports. Payrolls are governed by a ‘soft’ cap, which means that the salary cap can be exceeded in special circumstances. One major exception allows teams to exceed the cap to re-sign current players, a rule that has helped small market teams retain their franchise stars. All other major American leagues have a ‘hard’ cap or no cap at all. The NBA also pioneered the rookie wage scale, which locks draft picks into reasonable contracts instead of forcing NBA teams to pay exorbitant amounts of money for unproven players. Only last year, after seeing teams lose tens of millions chasing overhyped prospects, did the NFL institute a rookie wage scale of its own. Thanks to Stern the league also has a weighted lottery system for determining the order of the NBA Draft. Prior to 1984, teams with little chance of making the playoffs would routinely lose games purposefully to increase their chances of landing that year’s best college player. David Stern devised a system that gave teams with more losses a better shot at, but not a guarantee of, the top pick, saving fans and players alike from subjection to games where only one team is trying to win.


Successfully pulling off massive structural changes, though, has occasionally given Stern the hubris to believe he’s smarter than not just everyone in the room, but everyone in the room combined. A few weeks ago, he announced that the NBA would attempt to make games shorter by limiting the amount of time that players can do handshakes and dances prior to tip off. Cutting two minutes of playful rituals to speed up NBA games is like speeding up a wedding by asking the flower girl to sprint down the aisle, but Stern refuses to acknowledge the pettiness of this new rule. The most noteworthy example of Stern’s arrogance came last December while the league had ownership of the New Orleans Hornets. In 2010, the NBA bought the Hornets in an effort to keep the team afloat when no suitable buyers emerged. Stern promised that he would not meddle with the decision-making of New Orleans’ management, but broke that promise in unprecedented fashion last winter. At the time, the Hornets’ best player was Chris Paul, a highly-marketable point guard who is generally considered one of the five best players in the world. Paul, however, had grown tired of playing for a perennial loser, and had quietly asked for a trade. When word of Paul’s discontent spread throughout the league, New Orleans was besieged with trade offers. Dell Demps, the Hornets’ General Manager, eventually settled on a blockbuster deal. Paul would be traded to the Lakers, joining Kobe Bryant to form one of the best backcourts in NBA history. In return, Los Angeles would send All-Star big man Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets, and both the Lakers and Rockets would combine to send four very good players (including Lamar Odom) and draft picks to the Hornets.

The deal sent shockwaves through the NBA, but ultimately seemed to be good for everyone involved. The Lakers snagged the best-possible player to lighten the load for an aging Bryant, the Rockets got the center they had long-coveted, and the Hornets were able to re-stock their roster and avoid losing Paul for nothing in free agency. The trade occurred the day NBA lifted its lockout, and all the players involved were hustling to reach their new cities in time for training camp when the news broke—David Stern had vetoed the trade. Stern had decided in the eleventh hour that the trade package was not good enough for the Hornets, the team he temporarily owned. Owners, coaches, and players around the league were appalled at Stern’s intervention, and for different reasons. Some were frustrated the Stern had allowed the Hornets to shop Paul in the first place. The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement had been structured purposefully to help small market teams like New Orleans retain their stars by allowing teams to offer current players more money in free agency. “You’ve got other teams that are making the decision…to stick it out [and hope to re-sign their star players in free agency],” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told TMZ. “You would think the team owned by the NBA and run by the commissioner would be the first to stick it out…to me, it’s hypocritical.” Many others around the league were simply angered that Stern would intervene after promising to give Demps autonomy. A source close to the Lakers told ESPN that Stern’s claim that the trade had not been finalized when he vetoed it was “a flat-out lie.” Stern was his usually coy self, telling Yahoo Sports, “Let’s not talk too much about how the sausage was made.” Six days after the veto, the Hornets sent Paul to the LA Clippers for a package that included a player and a pick (star swingman Eric Gordon and what would become the 10th overall selection in the 2012 draft) much better than anything the Lakers or Rockets offered. Stern had gotten good results, but in the most controversial way possible. In April of 2012, Tom Benson, the owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, agreed to buy the Hornets from the NBA. That May, New Orleans overcame 13.7 percent odds to win the first pick in the Draft Lottery, which allowed them to selected University of Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis, arguably the best prospect since Lebron James. Few believe that Stern tampered with the draft lottery to favor the Hornets, but the results raised eyebrows amidst an already messy scandal.

I’ve gotten over the veto, but there is one thing for which I will never be able to forgive David Stern. In the wake of the 2004 brawl that saw members of the Indiana Pacers go into the stands and brually attack fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit, Stern initiated a wholesale makeover of the league’s image that included the institution of a player dress code. The dress code forbade players from wearing sneakers, boots, jeans, t-shirts or large jewelry, among other things. Many companies institute reasonable dress codes for their employees, but given the context of the brawl in Detroit, the NBA’s was highly offensive. It pandered directly to bigots who assume that every young black man in jeans and Timberlands is a thug, and insulted the intelligence of the people who don’t. That I find Stern’s decision reprehensible, though, does not mean that I can’t see the complicated terrain he’s had to navigate. The NBA must confront issues of race more bluntly than any other major professional sports league. The NBA has a higher concentration of black players than any other league, which has led many detractors to take a racialized stance on player misconduct. When Ben Rothlisberger was accused of rape, or when wide receiver Rae Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder after the death of a woman carrying his child, the issues was seen as cases of individual crime, not evidence of moral bankruptcy throughout the relatively racially-diverse NFL. In contrast, much lesser offenses like the brawl in Detroit have led the NBA to be categorized widely as a group of violent thugs. Stern’s responsibility to keep the league popular and profitable in the face of this dynamic does not excuse his race baiting, but it provides a context in which we can see Stern as having responded poorly to adverse circumstances instead of creating a racialized framework out of thin air, even though the results are shameful.


David Stern made the NBA—and basketball as a whole—more international. He was commissioner in 1992, when the first Olympic basketball team ever comprised of professional players went to Barcelona and put on one of the most dominant and awesome shows in the history of sports. The ‘Dream Team,’ led by Jordan, Bird, Johnson, Barkley and other all-time greats steered a generation of young foreign athletes to basketball, and the best of that generation now help comprise the NBA’s elite, having brought new moves, theories, and styles with them to the US. Spain, the country that hosted the Dream Team two decades ago, now boasts one of the best basketball programs in the world. Many of its most innovative players— like the Gasol twins with their unprecedented combination of size and finesse, or the point guard prodigy Ricky Rubio—attest to being inspired immensely by the team that Stern sent to Barcelona. Most of the NBA’s marquee teams now feature foreign-born stars, and Stern has, with their help, expanded the league’s scope to unprecedented levels. David Stern made the NBA more beautiful. Throughout his tenure he has bolstered and refined rules that prevent defenders from manhandling offensive players when they have the ball, catalyzing offenses that are more fluid and defenses that rely more on teamwork, communication, and strategy than brute strength.

More than any of that, though, David Stern turned basketball players into superheroes. My first pets were three goldfish named Antoine, Kenny, and Ron, the first names of the three best players from the historically crappy Boston Celtics teams of the late ’90s. This was the basketball equivalent of naming my pets after the members of O-Town or the cast of Blue Crush—rarely is such mediocrity rewarded so passionately. I did this because when I was growing up, the players in the NBA were both astonishingly God-like and intensely relatable. Any basketball fan born in the ’90s grew up in a golden era, where Michael Jordan ruled with jaw-dropping dominance while a group of fascinating and captivating players—the fastidious John Stockton, the bombastic Charles Barkley, the melodramatic Reggie Miller, the explosive and self-destructive Shawn Kemp—tried in vain to dethrone him. And the post-MJ NBA has been just as exciting. The game was, and continues to be, so fluid and gorgeous, the league so brilliantly structured and saturated with compelling storylines that we forget that there was ever a time when not many really gave a shit about the NBA. I remember where I was when Miller’s Pacers came thisclose to vaulting the Bulls into the Finals, when Kobe threw that alley-oop to Shaq, when Mike retired and I cried in my bedroom, when I first watched LeBron as a high school junior and dreamed of seeing him live, and when my Celtics won in 2008 and my Dad and I just couldn’t stop hugging each other. David Stern was not directly responsible for any of these events, but if not for him I may never have cared about any of them.


Before my friend and I finished our phone call, he suggested we go to the 2014 NBA Draft in New York to welcome Adam Silver when he first fills the commissioner’s role of announcing the first round picks. Over the years Stern has relished in that tradition, which for him has always been met with boos and taunts as he reads the selections. He stands not just resolute, but smug as he receives the jeers. Last year, he even cupped his hand playfully behind his ear. And that’s what’s so remarkable about Stern—people hate him because he’s perceived as ruining a league they love, but they rarely acknowledge that he’s a huge part of the reason they love it in the first place, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all. I told my friend it sounded like a plan, but I’ll soon start lobbying for us to go see Stern’s last draft instead. I want to say thanks, I want to say goodbye, and I want boo him and laugh as he urges us on.

SAM ROSEN B ’14 doesn’t care how the sausage was made.