When David Stern travels around the NBA, he is often met with boos. For better or worse, many basketball fans see Stern as working against the fans in representing the owner’s interests. He is often blamed for perceived poor officiating and something resembling an unfair playing field skewed toward the big markets.
These accusations are not new against league commissioners. Red Auerbach always thought the commissioner favored New York over Boston… even while he was winning championships with ease.
The commissioner is representing a lot of interests as the face of the league.
There have only been four commissioners in the league’s history. David Stern has certainly stood on the shoulders of giants, but he has also taken the NBA to new heights. Many of his accomplishments have a negative to stand against it. And for Stern ‘s impact on the league to truly receive veneration from league historians and fans, he may have one more thing he must accomplish:
Avoid losing the 2011-12 season.
Stern has already lost the majority of one season in his tenure as commissioner of the NBA. And he cannot afford to lose any part of another one. Not if he cares about his legacy as the NBA’s commissioner. And by all reports, he does. If you believe Ian O’Connor of ESPN New York, it is something he cares very deeply about.
Stern has fought off a lot of bad in his time as commissioner. As much as Larry O’Brien (who had to clean up a league decimated by constant fighting and drug abuse), Walter Kennedy (who had to expand the league and simply keep it alive) and Maurice Podoloff (who negotiated the merger between the BAA and NBL to form the NBA in 1949), Stern’s issues have been more complex and have sent the sport to unprecedented highs as well as some pretty deep lows.
The 1998-99 lockout was an embarrassment for the league which featured spoiled players and recalcitrant, hard-lined owners. the league was heading south in the years after Michael Jordan as a new wave of players from a materialist culture took over.
This is not to indict that generation of players and their style of play, but it was not a brand that connected with fans. It took nearly a decade for Stern to get the league back to a status of popularity that equaled the Jordan years — or at least came close.
Even that time was marred by controversy. The vicious brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills in November 2004 changed the way the league regulates its players and the relationship between fans and the players. The Tim Donaghy scandal took an especial toll on Stern and his office as the league’s very credibility was questioned in the public more than just in conspiracy theories.
There is no denying Stern’s successes.
He helped spearhead the globalization of the game and opened the league to international stars. The Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona made basketball an international sport. Now it is like the second most popular sport in the world and certainly the most popular American sport (sorry soccer) in the world.
He was the commissioner that helped usher in a new way of doing business. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped save the NBA and cement a consistent TV deal — no more tape-delayed Finals games — and Michael Jordan with his excellence and charisma took the league to another level. Stern helped usher that forward.
Much like now he has to usher the league to a new labor agreement.
Stern has done a lot of good, and fought a lot of bad. His legacy in NBA history may very well be tied to how these labor negotiations go. This will be Stern’s biggest job in keeping the league together.
The commissioner’s job is often misconstrued. He is a representative of the owners charged with caring for the league as their representative. His job in these collective bargaining sessions is to represent the interests of the owners (and the league) to the players. In these collective bargaining sessions, there is some disagreement between the owners on whose interests need to be served.
As just about every NBA writer has said, there are going to be a lot of hard days ahead. Stern knows that. The question will become how willing is he to fight those he represents to save the season? And how much does he really care how his tenure as commissioner goes down in NBA history?
Photos via DayLife.com.