The league is growing in popularity around the world, Stern said. It will feature exhibition games pitting the Houston Rockets and center Yao Ming against the Sacramento Kings in Beijing next fall. Television ratings are up on TNT and ESPN.
LeBron James has been as good as advertised and more mature than anyone could have hoped. So far. "We think, the pendulum is moving in a very nice direction," Stern said. "Our job is going to be to continue to move it."
But Stern did have something to say about other leagues. If Stern were the judge or jury, Ohio State football star Maurice Clarett would not be part of the NFL draft this spring. And Stern said he believed the NFL would prevail in its legal battle to enforce rules preventing teams from drafting players until three years after their high school class has graduated.
"The Clarett decision was wrongly decided as a matter of law and will likely be reversed on appeal," Stern, formerly the NBA counsel, said Saturday at Staples Center. "The sort of uniform history on cases like this in the Second Circuit court, where the case was decided, and the United States Supreme Court, we think the judge's decision will be reversed."
It is also not a great thing, despite the performances of teenagers such as James, that the NBA has no age restrictions, Stern says.
"It would be a good thing to somehow use ourselves to focus attention on the fact that a youngster who thinks he's coming to the NBA is, as Arthur Ashe pointed out, much more likely to become a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon than an NBA player," he said.
"I don't mean to cast aspersions on either the maturity or the basketball capacity of 19-year-olds. I just think it would be a good idea as a league if we were not associated with the prospect of pulling kids who are now 10, bouncing the ball and telling their parents they are going to be the next LeBron James. Because everybody in this room knows they are not and then they will be left with virtually nothing."
Stern also suggested that NHL owners and players should pay close attention to the report issued last week by former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt, which said the 30 teams combined for $272.6 million in operating losses last year. Levitt said he would not advise anyone to invest in the league under its current contractual obligations.
"I can't imagine a person of more reliability on economic matters than Arthur Levitt," Stern said. "If he says the industry makes no sense to invest in, then the union and the owners should have a very strong incentive to make that sport economically rational. Because the alternative is going to be horrendous."
It was because of the likelihood the NHL would shut down for a long time next season, Stern said, that the NBA decided to extend its collective bargaining agreement through the 2004-05 season.
"We didn't think the negotiation around that time of two leagues would be a good idea in light of what was coming," Stern said.
Billy Hunter, executive director of the players' union, said the union "would make every effort to reach an agreement between now and the end of the summer.
"I would anticipate that if we don't reach an agreement within the next year, there's a strong possibility we might be locked out again. We've both been down that road. It's not very comfortable."