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Looking back on Stern's NBA reign

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Adam Silver, left, will take over for NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. (AP)  
Adam Silver, left, will take over for NBA commissioner David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014. (AP)  

NEW YORK -- Toward the end of a news conference announcing his retirement, David Stern swerved off course with a drastic -- and at this point, perhaps appropriate -- departure from his firebrand, win-at-all-costs, his-way-or-the-highway image forged over three decades as commissioner of the NBA.

At the end, when asked if he had any regrets, he broke out a little Sinatra. Let the record show that I made the bare-knuckle bully sing.

"Regrets, I have a few," Stern crooned, breaking off in mid-verse on a transformative day in the history of the National Basketball Association. Adam Silver, Stern's right-hand man as well as his hand-picked and unanimously approved successor, finished the verse for him -- the way Silver had increasingly picked up where the vocabulary was becoming too complex or combustible during last season's lockout.

"Too few to mention," Silver interjected.

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"That’s right," Stern said. "We finish each other's sentences."

The song is forever Sinatra's to sing, and the thoughts conveyed will be for history to decide. But for the most part, without the benefit of hindsight -- save for the past 30 years -- it sounds about right.

The NBA is in a far better place today than it was on Feb. 1, 1984, when a cocksure attorney named David J. Stern took over for Larry O'Brien as commissioner. It has been a tenure so rich, so economically and culturally significant, that none other in American professional sports can begin to compare.

And so on Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the very day since he was elevated to the office he ruled with a wry quip as often as with double-barreled fists of iron, Stern will walk away. The man known throughout the league's Fifth Avenue office tower simply as "DJS," among other less flattering monikers, will call it quits.

He will stop being commissioner, in practice, though never really in theory. Though he said he'll be "tucked away someplace else" -- as in, playing golf or tennis in Naples, Fla., -- Stern will continue to be, as he put it, "on call." Like the Godfather.

"I'm stepping down," Stern said, "not retiring. ... I'm looking forward to doing some other things." But this will be Stern's NBA forevermore, a sports and commercial empire the likes of which nobody could’ve possibly imagined when a tough-talking legal eagle from Teaneck, N.J., took over in the dark ages of the sport.

"For the most part, it's been a series of extraordinary experiences and an enormous putting together of pieces to a puzzle, and it goes on forever," Stern said. "And there'll always be another piece of the puzzle. And so the question is, at what point do you decide, 'Let somebody else do it?' And that's the point that I'm at now."

Stern informed owners in the executive session Wednesday night of his intention to step down as commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, and he once again made it clear that he was recommending Silver to succeed him. The full Board of Governors (with each of the 30 teams represented) voted unanimously Thursday to move forward with negotiations to appoint Silver as the next commissioner on the same day Stern steps down.

Billy Hunter, the executive director of the players' association and Stern's longtime bargaining adversary, said Stern "has earned his spot in the pantheon of sports commissioners. Deservedly, his name and reputation will always be synonymous with the phenomenal growth and success of the NBA over the last three decades."

Negotiations on a contract with Silver are expected to be completed in time for the full board to formally approve his promotion from deputy commissioner -- an office he has held since 2006 -- at the April meeting in New York.

"This seemed to be a great time," Stern said.

In explaining why now, Stern said the NBA is in "terrific condition," lauding the financial and competitive achievements of a collective bargaining agreement negotiated with the players after a five-month lockout last season as well as the potential for global growth and impending negotiations on new national broadcast rights agreements. The NBA's eight-year, $7.44 billion TV deals with ABC/ESPN and TNT expire after the 2015-16 season, and according to some estimates, the value of the package could grow by 30 percent or more.

"The opportunities for this league are truly limitless," Silver said.

And this has been part of the majesty of Stern's reign: His deftness at playing the shell game. Silver, who presided over the labor talks as lead negotiator, will no doubt continue the traditions learned at the feet of his mentor. Only 11 months ago, Stern and Silver painted a picture for the owners of a sports league in shambles, suffering hundreds of millions in annual losses -- a business so sick and product so competitively skewed that skipping an entire season and flushing $4 billion of revenues was preferable to continuing to operate.

Now, the skies have parted and the future is so bright, you have to squint to see it.

"For me, the course of the next 15 months is really to make sure that the revenue-sharing agreement is doing all the things it seems to be doing in a proper way, to make sure that our international [business] is doing as well as it has been doing,” Stern said. "... There is a lot of good stuff going on.''

And a lot of good stuff will unquestionably be the bedrock of Stern's legacy, growing a two-bit sideshow into a global brand -- sparked by the career of someone named Michael Jordan, but also by Stern's insistence on introducing the NBA's athletes and personalities to the world in the form of the Dream Team in 1992. Think about it: A sport that several years into Stern's tenure as commissioner was still showing playoff games on tape delay now could now be on the verge of national broadcast and digital rights deals well in excess of $1 billion a year..

Was there bad stuff? You bet. Stern himself mentioned the league's drug scandal of the 1980s as a low point, saying that having to ban Micheal Ray Richardson for life "wasn't really a great situation for me personally," but that his annual preseason phone call from Micheal Ray -- now coaching in Canada -- is something that he looks forward to each year. He didn’t mention the league’s overexpansion and shameful game of musical franchises that's played out on his watch, or the Tim Donaghy officiating scandal, but it goes without saying that those are among the most glaring blemishes.

And with the runway cleared for Silver, some of the greatest challenges inherent in running a business cartel in which 30 oligarchs must be kept happy at all times will persist for the new guy to solve. With Stern's retirement news eclipsing all else Thursday, the continued embarrassment of the Sacramento fiasco and Seattle’s bid to avenge the relocation of the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City were kicked down the road for another day. Flopping? Jersey ads? Petty crackdowns on pregame-game celebrations? A World Cup to replace NBA involvement in the Olympics? All of that will now be for Silver to sort out -- among other things.

And while Stern sprayed so much sunshine Thursday on the business he was so busy tearing down a year ago, don't hold your breath for his successor to be singing the same praises on July 1, 2017, when the owners and players have the opportunity to opt out of the CBA. Another lockout, anyone? The way every sport is following the same blueprint these days, you can almost bet on it.

But on balance? Any objective look at Stern’s legacy, this bold and successful effort to push the NBA from the dark, dust-balled corners of sports consciousness to the middle of the stage -- not to mention the corner offices of board rooms the world over? A good run. A pretty good run, indeed.

"Life is a journey, and it's been a spectacular journey," Stern said. "And each step along the way, there are things you have to do, things you wish you maybe hadn't done. But I don't keep that list.'' History will keep it. And it will mostly be kind.


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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