Adversity supposedly reveals character, but David Stern’s character is best revealed by his endless list of adversaries.
The NBA’s longtime commissioner, who died Wednesday at 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage last month, rarely shied from a confrontation. In truth, he often sought them out. Stern jabbed at politicians, owners, coaches and reporters, and he oversaw contentious negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association that twice led to work stoppages. For many, the iconic image of Stern came during his annual appearances at the draft. Before welcoming basketball’s future stars, he gleefully cupped his hand to his ear, goading the rambunctious fans in New York to boo him more loudly.
Stern will be remembered as a relentless, uncompromising leader during his 30-year tenure, a lawyer whose marketing instincts helped the NBA ride Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan — and later Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — to new heights of global popularity. At every stop, there were confrontations.
In the early days, Stern’s NBA grasped for relevance, television airtime and a seat at the table next to pro football and baseball. As Johnson and Bird emerged as household names and the faces of dueling dynasties, the league pushed for more endorsement opportunities, greater media visibility and better behind-the-scenes access. As Jordan became an international phenomenon, Stern charged on, taking the game directly to Chinese consumers and dreaming of international expansion. He settled on placing two franchises in Canada in the 1990s but kept hinting for decades afterward that the league would eventually conquer Europe. With the advent of social media, a league that couldn’t get its Finals on live television in the pre-Stern era began to eclipse its fellow pro leagues in follower counts and influence.
The NBA’s explosive growth since Stern took over in 1984 is a tidy narrative: The Portland Trail Blazers, as just one example, were sold for $70 million in 1988 and are now valued at $1.6 billion. Yet talk of Stern’s legacy must include the bumps and bruises, the pugnacious spirit that led critics to label him as a “bully” and a “dictator.”
Stern fought and fought and fought, delivering wrath with piercing media feedback and costly sanctions. Fame was no inoculant. He fined Jordan for sporting sneakers that violated the league’s costume code. He fined legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for daring to relaxation his gamers for a nationally televised recreation. He fined Dallas Mavericks proprietor Mark Cuban no less than 20 instances, together with six-figure punishments for running a blog about officers and sitting on the baseline throughout a recreation.
Remember, these targets had been the NBA’s crème de la crème. Jordan: the most well-liked and marketable trendy participant, a six-time champion whose banned sneakers become a billion-dollar enterprise. Popovich: maybe essentially the most revered trendy coach, a five-time champion whose group has pioneered every little thing from worldwide scouting to environment friendly shot distribution. And Cuban: a tech billionaire whose over-the-top investments in his group led to the 2011 title and helped elevate the bar for contemporary homeowners.
If Stern didn’t thoughts conflicts with valued companions, he had no drawback by any means eviscerating foes. Stern labeled Tim Donaghy, the disgraced referee, a “rogue, isolated criminal.” When Gilbert Arenas introduced a gun to the locker room, Stern banned him for the season and mentioned bluntly that the Washington Wizards guard “is not currently fit to take the court.” Even after stepping down as commissioner in 2014, Stern accused President Trump of “[ripping] the fabric of the republic asunder for narrow partisan gains” in 2018.
The NBA’s labor wars represented Stern at his most polarizing. In 1999, the NBA misplaced 32 video games to a lockout. In 2011, 16 video games had been misplaced. As Stern insisted on drastically remodeling the league’s monetary framework in favor of the homeowners, he accused participant brokers of being “greedy” and “trying to scuttle the deal.” During one heated negotiating session, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade reportedly informed Stern: “You’re not pointing your finger at me. I’m not your child.”
That lockout led HBO’s Bryant Gumbel to name Stern a “plantation overseer,” a nod to the plain divide between the NBA’s largely white homeowners and largely black gamers. Many of Stern’s noteworthy insurance policies on the league’s gamers — from the costume code to the age restrict on prospects getting into the draft to airbrushing tattoos from journal covers — already appear to be relics of a previous period. Stern, maybe, is lucky that his tenure predated cancel tradition.
Yet the alternative is true, too: Some of Stern’s ardour tasks proved to be forward of their time. The commissioner famously supported Johnson when he introduced he was HIV optimistic in 1991, and the Los Angeles Lakers star credited Stern as a “good friend who helped save my life.” Stern fined Bryant $100,000 for utilizing a homophobic slur throughout a 2011 recreation, then repeatedly offered public encouragement to Jason Collins, who turned the primary overtly homosexual energetic NBA participant in 2013.
While there have been squabbles on a thousand fronts through the years, Stern’s focus remained on rising and promoting the sport. His last act as commissioner — one he professed to take significantly — was to groom an in a position successor in Adam Silver, inevitably solid as the nice cop to Stern’s dangerous cop. In the years since their transition, the wage cap has risen considerably and the league has signed a profitable media rights deal. Silver faces challenges — from China to the NCAA to a altering tv panorama — however he was undoubtedly arrange for achievement.
Stern pushed, prodded, punished, insulted, chafed and charmed those that crossed or challenged him. He believed within the battle, and the battle was the purpose.
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