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David Stern: The Best Commissioner Ever



By Mike Silva ~ October 29th, 2012. Filed under: NBA.

I think David Stern’s tenure can be summed up by the various reactions to his announced retirement.  All the top basketball writers had their take on Stern’s tenure, some of it laced with their personal experience dealing with a man that was strong-willed and often a bully.

Mitch Lawrence, New York Daily News - Lawrence focused on some of what Stern didn’t get right. Leaving Vancouver, the Seattle Supersonics debacle, handicapping defenses, lack of a franchise tag on players and his power grab were the focus of his piece. I can’t argue with Lawrence on any of these points, although I’m not sure the Vancouver move is something that was egregious as they were 27th of 29 teams in attendance their last season (2000-2001). The lockout probably is mostly to blame for the death of basketball in Vancouver.

Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports - Probably the harshest of all the retrospectives. Wojnarowski believes Stern was in the right place at the right time, and most anyone could have benefitted from the Magic, Bird and Jordan ascension of the late-eighties. The piece is best summarized by his opening paragraph

“The biggest ego in the history of the sport, the emperor of the NBA gets everything he ever wanted now: 15 months of farewells and bows; a tidy 30 years to fit onto his Hall of Fame plaque; and a chance to repair and repackage a legacy that NBA commissioner David Stern had slowly, surely lost the power to manipulate.”

Does Stern have an ego? Of course, all commissioners do. I think Wojnarowski is one of the best basketball writers out there, but his dislike for Stern seems to come across with this opinion piece.

I will get into why Stern’s sometimes bullying leadership was necessary for the league to grow. Do you think Knicks’ fans are unhappy about Stern’s meddling? If they are, just remember that Donnie Walsh might never have been in New York if not for the league office stepping in. I think David Stern had quite a bit to do with that.

Ken Berger, CBS Sports - One of the more balanced views of Stern you will find. He addresses the failures we mentioned earlier, but acknowledges the overall tenure was a resounding success. Berger adds in some of the upcoming issues that Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, will face. July 1st, 2017 is when the owners or players can opt-out of the current CBA. I agree with Berger that we won’t hear the same rosy picture about the NBA when it’s time to collectively bargain.

Chris Sheridan, Sheridan Hoops - The former ESPN writer has built up the best independent basketball site on the ‘net. I would say his coverage rivals that of anything you will find on ESPN. Sheridan shares his personal experience with Stern, showing a softer side the public may not be familiar with. The main point is that Stern had to take stands on certain issues that may not be popular, but were necessary to move the league forward.

As Howard Cosell once said, “what is popular isn’t always right and what is right isn’t always popular.”

***

I believe that David Stern will go down as the best commissioner in the history of sports. Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue saw the NFL explode into the nation’s pastime. Sure, football is an event but the nature of the sport (once a week), and the ability to integrate gambling and alcohol allows it to cross-over into multiple demographics. Not capitalizing on this would be a business crime. The NBA doesn’t have those types of advantages.

Bud Selig? Selig is the ultimate committee commissioner. He waits for public opinion to sway before he makes a move. That isn’t a good leader by my definition.

An extra Wild Card? The original Wild Card concept should have been implemented in the 80s. It probably came a decade too late. Instant Replay? Fairly obvious it was needed years ago. Steroids? If not for the embarrassing congressional hearings Selig would still would be doing a great impression of an ostrich. Baseball was an untapped oil field that Selig did a hostile takeover of in the early 90s. I could have built the sport to what it is today. I probably could have done it much sooner.

Stern actually took on a lot of Selig characteristics in his later years. The NBA’s involvement in preventing ESPN from hiring Stan Van Gundy is a perfect example of the power of Stern during the latter part of his tenure. He fought to get the league to a point where he calls the shots and wants to clear the field of any dissenters- front office, media or otherwise. The key will be whether his protégé, Adam Silver, can take on the upcoming challenges in a way where he does what is right, not what is in the league offices best interest. Silver doesn’t have the resume or equity to behave like Stern.

How many commissioners could take over a league that’s over 70% African-American, riddled with drugs and had its championship game played on tape delay? Not many. Principled and aggressive leadership was needed to build the brand into the global force we see today.

The NBA had potential, but it wasn’t setup for success like the NFL and MLB. Those were untapped resources; the NBA was the ugly duckling that needed to be turned into a swan. Who is to say that others would leverage Magic, Bird and Jordan? Magic and Bird were already veterans when Stern took over and the league hadn’t taken off quite yet. Stern saw an opportunity and leveraged it to the hilt. He took the sport global in 1992 with the Dream Team. The NBA is probably the only North American sport poised to be successful with European expansion. It’s a flawed league, but it’s unrecognizable when you compare it to his first year on the job. I became a fan in the late-eighties and it’s night and day from when I started watching it.

David Stern was able to do what many probably couldn’t imagine back in 1984.

You can’t take that away from him; his personality notwithstanding.

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Mike Silva has hosted sports shows on 107.1 FM Champions ESPN Radio Long Island ,1240 AM WGBB , Blog Talk Radio and live from Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. He’s also built and maintained two popular social media hubs: New York Baseball Digest and Sports Media Watchdog. Mike has broken national and local stories, as well as been mentioned on the YES Network, SNY.tv, WFAN, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NY Daily News, New York Magazine, Journal News and the NY Post. Contact Mike professionally at mikesilvamedia.com

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