David Stern has enduring NBA legacy

No one disputes [David]

Stern is now the best

commissioner in sports ...

the equal of ... the NFL‘s


Pete Rozelle and baseball’s

Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

— Sports Illustrated,

June 3, 1991


If no one disputes it now, NBA Commissioner David Stern doesn’t get tributes like that on

Having endured to see the dawn of a new age, in this one his place in history doesn’t come up as often as the latest perceived threat to the NBA’s existence.

Nevertheless, even as he heads into next fall’s Labor Hell, Stern will move within one season of NFL icon Pete Rozelle, the longest-serving commissioner at 29....

Assuming, of course, the NBA has a season.


If Rozelle now seems like a haloed presence in the luxury suites in the clouds, he spent his last decade in a draining battle with Al Davis as new-breed owners such as Jerry Jones, eager to make their own deals, aligned themselves with the sworn foe of Pete’s “League Think.”

Stern, who enriched a generation of former medicine show peddlers, is now under pressure from new owners and old hands.... like Donald T. Sterling?

It’s true. The legendary Clippers owner had a memorable exchange with Stern in a 2009 owners’ meeting.

According to myriad NBA and team sources, it went like this:


Stern: Donald, we’d like to hear what you think.

Sterling: You don’t want to hear what I think.

Stern: Yes, we do.

Sterling: No, you don’t.


Stern: Yes, we do.

Sterling: OK, I would fire you. You’re great at marketing, but you’re not tough enough with the union.

Sterling also reportedly flung up “Easy Dave,” the nickname Stern gave himself in the 1990s when the NBA prided itself on its perfect labor record.

Dovish insiders worry Stern is at the mercy of his hawks, or an outright War Party with owners like Washington’s Ted Leonsis who own NHL teams and think burning a season is the way to go.


Dire as it would be for the inmates to drive this, it’s a scenario all involved are aware of.

Wrote NBA union head Billy Hunter in an e-mail last week:

“I’ve had people tell me David may find it easier to make a deal with the union than with some of his owners.”

If this, like everything in this hyped-as-never-before labor story is over-dramatized, it comes to the same thing.


Before there can be a season, Stern has to walk the players and owners to the edge and let them stare into the abyss.

If Stern with an agenda is like Leonard Bernstein with an orchestra and he’s hardly nonpartisan, here he is 27 years later, still on the firing line, still the NBA’s last best hope.

Who, us worry?

By the way, Stern disagrees with the Rozelle-arc thesis.


If you ask what he’d call the last decade that started with record low Finals TV ratings, broadcast partner NBC offering a 50% cut, the Tim Donaghy scandal and Auburn Hills brawl, Stern’s answer would be ...

No biggie?

As NBA counsel before becoming commissioner in 1984, Stern negotiated the first salary cap with union head Larry Fleisher, who was also a super-agent for stars such as Julius Erving and Walt Frazier.

In talks said to have been operatic in volume, the NBA opened its books, now standard practice, persuading players that teams were about to fold.


“Maybe it helped me to grow up in a time when we were going to go out of business because there were too many black players,” Stern said from New York.

“They were alleged to have sniffed too much cocaine. And they were wildly overpaid — at $250,000 apiece.

“We had meetings talking about folding franchises, combining franchises....

“When Pete Rozelle became commissioner of the NFL [in 1960], the NBA had eight teams [compared to its present 30].


“I can talk about an arc, but to me it’s always one challenge after another because this is a challenging and fun job.

“I don’t buy your premise is what I’m saying.”

Imagine that.

Stern was friendly with Rozelle, often seeking his advice or testifying alongside him in Washington, seeking legislation to control franchise shifts.


Sterling, supported by the Coliseum Commission as Davis was, moved the Clippers from San Diego in 1984, two years after the Raiders arrived.

Sterling was Davis’ guest when the Raiders won the 1984 Super Bowl in Tampa and Rozelle had to grin and bear it, handing Al the Lombardi Trophy at the height of their enmity.

Sterling even began dressing like Davis in black pants, black leather jacket and, despite playing indoors, sunglasses.

The NFL spent four years in court getting the Raiders’ $35-million damage award cut to seven figures ... as Rozelle’s owners pressed him to settle.


Said newly arrived San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos of Davis:

“I, for one, would prefer to be his ally rather than his adversary.”

It was a turbulent decade with NFL work stoppages in 1982 and 1987 — the latter with replacement/scab teams like the so-called Masqueraiders.

Then there was Baltimore’s 1984 move to Indianapolis under cover of darkness, memorialized in a song written and recorded by the Colts’ present owner Jim Irsay:


Daddy called me up

On the telephone

‘Son, is there

Anybody listening


Are you alone?

It’s goin’ down

Tonight around 9 p.m.

The trucks are on


Their way as soon

As I say when.’

Rozelle retired in 1989 with two years left on his contract, the union about to decertify and years of suits and countersuits yet to come.

Cue the challenges


If Stern looked hot in 1991, his league was about to ride Michael Jordan’s breakout appeal to new heights.

In 1980, the World Series’ record 32.0 TV rating was four times the NBA Finals’ 8.0 with Lakers rookie Magic Johnson jumping center in Game 6 in Philadelphia.

In 1993, 1997 and 1998, the NBA Finals out-rated the World Series.

In a perfect storm after Jordan’s 1999 retirement, the East swooned, the West won five titles in a row by a combined 20-6 and NBC’s lowball offer prompted Stern’s widely criticized (now regarded as trend-setting) move to cable.


Then came real calamities, the 2004 brawl at Auburn Hills and the 2007 Donaghy scandal.

Stern tosses it off, but he assessed millions in fines, combating fighting, referee-baiting, conspiracy theories and the notion his players were gangstas.

If decisiveness was what was called for, Stern had it.

If decisiveness wasn’t all that was called for, Stern had it.


Phoenix’s Amare Stoudemire was suspended for the pivotal Game 5 of a 2007 series against San Antonio for leaving the bench after Robert Horry knocked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table.

And then, sunrise in the NBA!

A surprise Lakers-Celtics reprise in 2008 started a renaissance as the Finals out-rated the World Series for a fourth time and in 2010 for a fifth.

And then, poverty hit the NBA.


Stern and Hunter will decide how broken the model is, however many forecasts of doom it takes.

In a best-case scenario, they won’t make a deal before Sept. 1, after the players have been locked out for three months ... of their vacation.

As symbolic in the NBA as the NFL — where a lockout is only weeks off — in today’s worst-case-friendly press, it will look like The End of the World As We Know It (cont.).

At the end of his tenure Rozelle was a worn-down living legend.


At 68, Stern looks as cherubic as he did at 41. His hair is now silver but without a strand missing or out of place. Friends say he’ll go on for years.

Stern’s salary is thought to be in the $15-million range ... less than the NFL’s Roger Goodell and baseball’s Bud Selig ... and was reportedly also thrown up to him by Sterling.

Without commenting directly, Stern says the angry-owner thesis is wrong too.

“Oh no, absolutely not,” said Stern. “They’re a terrific group and we get along very well.


“I enjoy their company — and if it’s too quiet, I poke them. ...

“I would say in the last five or six years, we have entered into what I’d call the new golden age.

“It’s a good time and a fun time to be commissioner of the NBA. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges, but there always have been challenges.”

Go ahead, challenge him. Make his day.