David Stern will step down as NBA commissioner in 2014. (Erick W. Rasco/SI)
By Rob Mahoney
David Stern, as tends to be the case with the commissioner of any major sport, stands as something of a caricatured villain. He's seen as a glib smile across a press conference podium, or a master puppeteer teasing strings from behind a curtain. He is the face of the NBA's regrettable lockouts, and the stock-photo representation of every ill-advised policy change that the league has enacted since 1984. In a league that so often needs a manufactured villain, Stern is the man in the black hat, and the assumed mastermind behind every scandal and conspiracy theory that floats the NBA's way.
But in light of the announcement that Stern's lengthy tenure as league commissioner will now be approaching its close, it seems more apt a time than ever to reflect on an fundamental truth of the commissioner's role in all of professional sports: it is, by nature of the position, virtually predestined for this kind of assumed villainy.
There's no way around it. Stern could spend his entire time as a commissioner fighting for NBA Cares initiatives and small-market advantages, and he would still be held culpable for every blown call in every close game and shackled with the weight of every mistake made by the NBA in a 30-year stretch. That's the rub that comes with running the office of rule-makers and disciplinarians; with so much focus on what has been taken away (be it fashion options, pre-game rituals, or months of the 2011-12 season), Stern is left with no other alternative but to be hated. He's held responsible for every one of the league's failures in the same way that a president or prime minister is tasked with the workings of the global economy, and he's charged with transgressing each and every fan who has ever seen their team done wrong.
There's nothing wrong with that level of accountability. It's precisely what Stern signed up for, and based on what we know of the man, it's likely what he wants. But that doesn't mean we can't all engage in discussions of league affairs with a fuller understanding of how the game behind the game is actually played. The man is no demon -- and though he holds considerable influence, he's no Machiavellian manipulator, either. He's smug and flawed, but also put in a position where the most important decisions he'll ever make are bound to either be completely unpopular or go wholly unnoticed. The NBA wouldn't be the NBA without Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson and Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James, but it also wouldn't even approach its current scope if not for Stern's cultivation. Like it or not, Stern laid the groundwork and grew the game; he positioned the entire league to thrive financially long after the first wave of transcendent stars made the NBA a commodity.
Most basketball fans prefer to think little of the NBA as a business enterprise, but that distaste shouldn't distract from the fact that Stern has run his league prudently, if not always transparently. He parlayed the careers of a few remarkable players into a machine with infinitely sustainable momentum. One star begets another, one myth merges into the next -- all propelled forward on live, national broadcasts, and bound with an intrigue that began with the league's willingness to exploit the superstar model. This level of prosperity was never a given, even when the general direction of the league made it seem far too easy.
Yet any other legacy that Stern eventually leaves should be overwhelmed by his -- and the league's -- sheer invincibility. Two lockouts, a devastating referee scandal, a violent brawl that breached the sacred line between athlete and fan and the ridiculous pseudo-ownership of one of the league's own teams have come and gone, each with the potential to deal the NBA irreparable damage. Yet somehow, the league rolls on. That Stern somehow kept this runaway train on-course won't be praised as his crowning achievement, but it damn well should be; the NBA has powered through near-disaster after actual disaster, making some semblance of consistency (much less growth) a miracle in itself. Appeals were made and changes instituted, but how Stern ran that gauntlet to keep the NBA afloat -- all without losing control or command -- is beyond explanation.
All we know for sure is that Stern can be credited with the league's PR-savvy survival, even as he's blamed for nearly everything else.