Ever since David Stern announced his retirement, effective February 1st, 2014, we have been hearing a lot of opinions about his time in office; they are usually composed of praise, if not respect, for a man who will have reigned over the NBA for 30 years (to the day) upon his retirement. However, a lot of the analysis I have seen is coming from NBA people; writers, insiders, analysts, and former players and coaches who have interacted with David Stern, and as is the case for me, have no memory of the NBA being run by anybody else. So let’s get a few things straight.
As an outsider, and someone who generally lumps the NBA as the third most important sport in his personal sporting life, I can speak to the image of David Stern that I see often; a strong-willed man, who wants his sport to be the best it can be, but often fails to achieve that because of egos and money. During the NBA lockout, many owners wanted to squeeze the players out of much the money they were making, and that was not what David Stern wanted. David Stern wanted to control the discussion, and these young gun owners shot their mouths to “sources” and wound up kick starting the discussion.
David Stern was not solely responsible for either of the major lockouts that plagued the NBA, nor was he solely responsible for their duration. The NBPA and the ownership bear much of the responsibility as well. However, as someone who wielded a great hammer and became the face of the NBA to many, he received the brunt of the criticism, as Roger Goodell did during the player’s lockout in the NFL a few years ago. Stern was not solely responsible for the outcome of the lockouts either, the latter of which involved a substantial amount of concessions from the players.
Unlike Roger Goodell, though, Stern’s authority has never really been overtly threatened, either by ownership or the players. After the melee in Detroit several years ago, no one blinked an eye when he sat there, and calmly read aloud “Ron Artest is suspended for the remainder of the season.” In that moment, it was impossible to imagine Artest getting anything else in terms of punishment. Even Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) accepted it. The other players received substantial suspensions as well; none of them appealed it either. In that moment, Stern was smooth, cool, calm, collected, and in command.
However, his seemingly arbitrary punishments for actions which he viewed as detrimental to the NBA, either by players, executives, or even owners, has led to him being viewed as the “Angel of Stern,” passing judgment and executing punishments on an arbitrary basis. Stern, however, seems to enjoy using fines and suspensions to make his point without having to say anything; just ask Mark Cuban.
Stern has been described as a bully, but to be honest, I don’t think that’s entirely fair, for two reasons. First, a true bully eventually gets his comeuppance, and he’s retiring long before that will ever happen, and secondly, before that, he usually gets what he wants. Did Stern really get what he wanted in the last two labor deals? No. Yes, it was owner-friendly, but like most labor agreements coming out of a work stoppage, it ultimately leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. He obviously doesn’t want to be around when the union opts out of the deal in five years.
Like Bud Selig, David Stern is dealing with an issue that threatens the integrity of the game. Unlike Commissioner Selig, it has nothing to do with performance enhancing drugs, but rather flopping, and the union’s response to the NBA’s anti-flopping policy probably pushed Stern over the edge on his decision to retire. He saw the opening to retire at the precise 30 year mark of his reign, and the owners, putting their faith in Adam Silver, Stern’s heir apparent for the past few years.
So, to answer the question raised: Stern’s legacy is one of strong-willed leadership, often walking to the line and putting his foot over it to see if people are watching; he didn’t always get what he wanted, but maneuvered to make the league better, more accessible, and spread the game to create new markets that the NBA could expand into. For many of us, though, his legacy is literally every game of basketball we have watched in our lifetime, every draft pick we cheered or booed, and every championship trophy we have seen raised; he was there for all that.
Enjoy your retirement, Commissioner. You’ve earned it.