We don't know how he plans to celebrate his 25th anniversary as NBA commissioner Sunday, although I suspect David Joel Stern won't be wasting time with a Super Bowl party when he could be streaming video from NBA.com, watching the Oklahoma City-Sacramento game on his laptop, or finding some obscure corner of the globe to enlighten with basketball.
We'll just have to guess what the best commissioner in American professional sports will be doing, because he's keeping quiet about his silver anniversary. No interviews, no lavish feasts. "No plans for recognition," one person close to him said.
Through the years: David Stern welcomed Hakeem Olajuwon to the NBA in 1984 ... (Getty Images)
Allow me: Whether you like the NBA or not, take a moment and try to imagine where it would be without a certain sharp-witted, razor-tongued, absurdly competitive legal mind from Teaneck, N.J.
We'll never know if God created anyone better for this job than Stern, but for now we'll have to assume not. And I don't think it's a stretch to say that without Stern, the NBA would be on the same level with equestrian or water polo. Or worse ... the NHL.
"He's grown the business, not only from a playing standpoint, but from a television standpoint and a P.R. standpoint," said Rod Thorn, one of Stern's top admirals in the league office for 14 years before running the New Jersey Nets. "He's an expert in all aspects of the professional basketball business. Basically at the right time, most of the time, he's done what needed to be done in order to keep the sport moving."
No American sport is better positioned for the global, digital age than Stern's NBA. When some leagues were stuck in the past, fretting over antiquated paradigms, Stern was busy devising a plan to tap into the increasingly global economy and online platforms. Stern lashed out defiantly -- as he has been known to do from time to time -- last summer when he was sharply criticized over a mini-trend of NBA players signing with European teams. He must've been laughing inside. If not for Stern, there wouldn't be basketball in Russia, Greece and other parts unknown -- much less teams capable of signing a marginal NBA player or two.
"Naismith invented the game," wrote Brandon Hoffman of Ballerblogger.com. "Stern will go down as the man most responsible for its globalization."
The fact that there is such a thing as Ballerblogger.com -- and the hundreds of NBA-related blogs, sites and message boards -- also is a credit to Stern's vision. No sport is discussed, debated, blogged or shared online as widely or passionately as the NBA. This is no coincidence.
Nor is the expanding diversity of the players.
During an era when the racial climate has progressed to the point of equanimity, if not quite equality, the NBA has been leading the way. It also has served as a symbol for how stereotypes continue to hold us back. On one hand, the lazy typecasting of the NBA as America's thug league has persisted under Stern's rule. On the other, he has been branded as insensitive for imposing a dress code that sought to divorce his game from the hip-hop culture it has otherwise embraced. It's one of the many can't-win-for-losing areas that have marked Stern's reign.
He didn't raise the NBA from infancy, but rather adopted it as a troubled teenager and watched it grow like an overeager child who makes you proud one minute and mortified the next. Stern's baby has made his heart swell with pride and made him want to hide under the covers and never come out in public again. It comes with the territory of being a parent.
With the globalization of the game and the free flow of international talent into his league, Stern has not only tackled an impossible task; he has trumped himself. For all these years that the venerable Dr. Richard Lapchick has been studying race in sports, the NBA has been far and away the most progressive and successful league when it comes to hiring and maintaining minorities in positions of power. It's not even close. Those who continue to label the NBA as a haven for hoodlums expose themselves not only as ignorant, but also uninformed. Black political leadership has spent decades striving for equality and economic advancement; if only they could've accomplished a fraction of what Stern has.
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Now for the issues, and there are many.
Stern's focus has been sidetracked in recent years by an embarrassing spectacle at the 2007 All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, where a man was shot and paralyzed in a strip club after an incident involving NFL player Pacman Jones. As always, the NBA was blamed. Stern's desire to go out on top was further muddled by the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal, a catastrophe that could have been worse for the sport than drug suspensions and Magic Johnson's HIV announcement. Stern wouldn't allow it, responding at first with humility and then with one of his typical shock-and-awe campaigns to root out evil and protect his game. Donaghy is in prison, NBA referees now answer to a retired Army general, and the game endures.
More than simplistic, knee-jerk suppositions about officiating bias, Stern's legacy is now challenged by conditions beyond his control. He admitted before the season that about half of his 30 teams are unprofitable -- and that was before they were engulfed by an ever-deepening economic crater. Tickets to NBA games can be had on StubHub.com for as low as $1. Teams are bleeding money, practically abducting fans with cut-rate seats and corny promotions. Many of the owners who have gleefully appointed and reappointed Stern to advance their cause are now wondering how he will respond to this, perhaps the most formidable challenge of his quarter-century administration.
Stern bemoans the 1998-99 lockout as one of the low points of his tenure. Now he is staring down the barrel at another. The league's collective bargaining agreement expires in 2011 and owners are all but assured of passing on the chance to extend it another year. As in '99, the economics of the game are in dire need of repair. No matter whose fault it is -- irresponsible politicians, greedy players, the bogeyman -- the end result will go on Stern's résumé. Good or bad.
"What's the impact going to be on professional basketball, as well as other professional sports, as far as the economy in the next couple of years?" Thorn asked. "I think that will determine a lot of what happens in the next collective bargaining agreement."
The combination of expansion and relocation has given us teams in Memphis, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and New Orleans, leaving the league too reliant on small markets that can't sustain pro sports under the current economic conditions. A substantial number of owners stand in lockstep on the notion that at least one small-market team must be moved. Some team executives are privately wondering whether owners will put their checkbooks away when all these marquee free agents become available in the next two or three summers. Others wonder if the WNBA and NBA Development League -- two sources of pride for Stern -- will survive the dire times.
The last thing Stern wants is a lockout on his watch as he nears the end of one of American sports' most righteous rides. At 66, he has no specific plans to step aside – although Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor reportedly has been appointed to come up with a succession plan. It is widely assumed that Stern's right-hand man, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, is next in line.
Stern is committed through the end of this collective bargaining agreement, but there is no way he leaves until labor peace is achieved, struggling franchises are stabilized and the basketball business can get back to expanding. It will require vision, tenacity, a little sarcasm, and a vigorous defense of the game.
Anybody know someone like that?