Stern Leaves Gold Mine, But New Buzz Needed

He was an S.O.B., certainly. David Stern intimidated and bullied anyone intruding on his paradigm, particularly at the negotiating table, where he was a tyrant and all others — including the cash-cow stars who popularized his league — were pissants. This was a bad look for the NBA at times, a Jewish commissioner browbeating the league’s predominantly black player base, and tensions grew palpable enough that many grew to loathe him as he departed.

“His efforts,” HBO’s Bryant Gumbel once said amid contentious labor discussions, “were typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer treating NBA men as if they were his boys. It’s part of Stern’s M.O.”

Yet when pressed, each of those detractors will concede that Stern also was the most transformative commissioner in American sports history. That is a fact even when the NBA and every other league has been overwhelmed via all measuring sticks by the NFL colossus, a $10-billion-per-year monster that somehow lured a U.S.-record 112.2 million viewers to keep watching a Super Bowl that was over in the first dozen seconds. The current commissioner, Roger Goodell, was quick last week to anoint the biggest NFL thinker, predecessor Pete Rozelle, as “the greatest commissioner ever.” And there can be no debate over Rozelle’s transcendent role in using television-and-marketing acumen to push football past a stagnant Major League Baseball, a former national pastime that stood still as the times moved faster, and into the entirety of the national consciousness. Rozelle attached himself to an unstoppable speed train and rode it into an era of unprecedented prosperity.

What you need to know about Stern is that he was dealing with a corpse. Everything you’ve heard about a drug-addled league, with cocaine the high of expensive choice, was true. Everything you’ve heard about mass apathy and vague interest from the TV networks, which aired the Finals on tape delay, was true. When I was a 21-year-old pup fresh out of college, my newspaper boss gave me the NBA beat because no one else wanted it. There, in Detroit, I fell upon Isiah Thomas, who immediately became one of the league’s prime stars — star being the operative word. Pro basketball always had been blessed with great players, but unlike his forerunners, Stern understood how to elevate them into compelling figures in the cultural mainstream.

He did so with power marketing, blitz exposure, mass saturation. Realizing fans actually could see the faces and bodies of players in the most athletic and breathtaking of sports, he took advantage of his New York home office and educated Madison Avenue and the TV networks about what they were missing. Before you knew it, Stern was sitting at games with NBC’s Dick Ebersol, who melded sports with entertainment as well as anyone who ever lived, and the mechanism was in place for a sonic popularity boom. First it was Magic vs. Bird and Lakers vs. Celtics in the ’80s. Then it was Jordan in the ’90s. I knew the NBA had arrived as a global spectacle when, jet-lagged, I crossed a street in Barcelona before the 1992 Summer Olympics and saw a nine-story mural of Michael Jordan on the side of a building. The Dream Team stamped the NBA as a tour de force.

And branded Stern as the most important figure in the sport’s history — larger than any player and owner and coach and even founder James Naismith, he of the peach basket. Without Stern, might the league have fizzled away? It’s not a crazy question.

“David Stern is the No. 1 force, the No. 1 reason why this league is where it is today,” said Miami Heat president Pat Riley, in a USA Today interview. “That’s not disrespectful to any one great player in any one era or any owner. This has to do with the leadership of one man. Over that span of time, things don’t change because they’re coincidences. They don’t. There’s somebody at the top who is going to eliminate what is bad and market what is good. He was a very forceful, very pragmatic visionary.”

“David is one of the top business leaders of his generation,” said Silver, who was beside Stern through most of his major decisions. “His legacy will be that he brought modern business practices to sports leagues. He was a CEO/commissioner who, while focused on growing a major business, also preached that there’s nothing more important than the game. He was always concerned about the health and welfare of every club and recognized how important it was to create a partnership with our players and their union. He also realized that as stewards of the game, we’re ultimately responsible for ensuring that it prospers and that it keeps pace with modern technology.”

He leaves the sport, after 30 years, in optimum financial and labor health. That isn’t to say issues aren’t on the horizon. A league dependent on starpower needs new conversation pieces for mass consumption, and it’s fair to ask whether any Jordans or LeBrons or Kobes are out there to create 15 more years of potent narratives. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Boston are vital to the NBA’s buzz quotient, and at the moment, only one of six teams in those markets — the Clippers, maybe — are positioned to make serious postseason noise.

The quantum surge of Kevin Durant has been a joy to watch, but he plays in a small market and has shown little interest in becoming an all-encompassing showman. The Pacers might be the league’s best team, led by Paul George, but they are based in Indiana while only sports fans know Paul George from Boy George. The Clippers are trying to catch on nationally, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in heavy commercial rotation, but first they have to catch on in L.A. Steph Curry is fun, but he’s one step beyond the bright lights in the Bay Area. The Knicks’ run with Carmelo Anthony isn’t working. The Bulls, haunted by Derrick Rose’s knee crisis and dissension within, haven’t achieved much since the Jordan dynasty was prematurely wreckingballed. The Lakers are in transition and need a marquee player to first accompany and then replace a fading Bryant. James might not win another title in Miami because of Dwyane Wade’s chronic injuries, which may force LeBron’s opt-out and departure … did somebody say L.A., where he can conquer Hollywood with his increasing show-business interests while recruiting Durant to be his teammate after Bryant retires in 2016?

The one-and-done kid model hasn’t helped the NBA or college basketball, and Silver needs to work with the Players Association and the likes of Mike Krzyzewski to fix it. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker dueled for magazine covers last year, yet Wiggins hasn’t looked like much more than the next Ben McLemore while Parker may stay a second season at Duke. Maybe someone will shock the world and ascend to megastardom. The NBA needs him.

The best tribute I can give David Stern: He turned a disaster area into America’s second-leading professional sport. When people ask me which sport I most like to write about, I say the NFL because it affords me the most readers. But which league do I enjoy the most?

The National Basketball Association.

Thanks to the dictator who never let anyone blur his vision.