ORLANDO, Fla. -- NBA commissioner David Stern has always insisted that business was upbeat, even when his owners were claiming losses of more than $1 billion in the three-year march toward the recent lockout. But this time the news really was good. As Stern reported Saturday night during All-Star weekend, NBA ratings and attendance have gone up in spite of the lockout and inconsistency of play enforced by the condensed schedule.
And the moment of relative calm led to talk of the inevitable succession: From 69-year-old Stern, who became commissioner in 1984 when the NBA was in danger, to 49-year-old Adam Silver, the current deputy commissioner who is likely to take control during the labor peace of the next half-dozen seasons.
Stern said he will discuss his future with NBA owners "very soon." "I'm not going to be here when it either is or isn't reopened in six years,'' said Stern of the hard-earned collective bargaining agreement that was signed in time for this season to open on Christmas Day.
It used to be that Stern was joined at these annual State of the Game news conferences by Billy Hunter, the head of the players' union. That Hunter had essentially been replaced by Silver on the podium was a signal of how the core issue has changed from an argument over money to this succession of power.
"I guess I would say that one of the things that a good CEO does, and I try to be a good CEO, is provide his board with a spectacular choice for its successor," Stern. "And I think I've done that, and that's Adam. If I had the decision, if I were doing it myself, he would be the commissioner. But as I said before, the board [of NBA owners] will make that decision."
"Thank you," said Silver with a big smile.
Stern had long insisted that he wouldn't retire while the league's future was unsettled, which was why he submitted to the last three years of bargaining negotiations that opened him to enormous criticism. Whether Silver takes over in one, two or three years, he will be inheriting a business that is on the up and yet hard to figure. The league took a public beating over the last year -- games were canceled and the resulting level of many teams' play has been inconsistent from game to game. But none of that has seemed to matter as fans appear to be paying more attention than ever, thanks in part to the unpredictable emergence of Knicks guard Jeremy Lin.
Both Stern and Silver tried to leverage the importance of the D-League by connecting it to Lin, who played 21 games for Reno and Erie over the last two seasons. "But for the NBA Development League, there would probably be no Jeremy Lin in the NBA right now," Silver said.
Lin's worldwide impact shows how the NBA has grown up to become an entertainment industry from the late 1970s and early '80s, when Stern was deputy commissioner and the NBA Finals weren't shown on live television. The next phase of growth is likely to come globally as a media property, and Stern endorsed Silver's knowledge of entertainment and international issues. Silver himself had nothing to say about his future, comically sliding the microphone in front of his boss.
It says much about the complicated nature of professional sports that very few of the questions asked of Stern and Silver had anything to do with basketball. The commissioner insisted that the rate of injuries hadn't been influenced by the reduction of practice days in training camp and during the season. "The number of injuries, as we get it from the reports of the trainers and the discussion with the doctors, is about the same as the same period last year," Stern said. "The number of games lost is up slightly because teams are being smarter in their own ways, and competitively, by perhaps keeping a player out of a game that might have been an off-day in past years."
Stern insisted once again that the proposed three-team trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers was never officially consummated and, therefore, had not been vetoed by him in his role as caretaker owner of the Hornets. He expressed no concern with the tenuous relationship between the Magic and Dwight Howard, who has requested a trade in anticipation of opting out to become a free agent this summer. "I'm old enough to remember Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and assorted others who desired to go someplace else," said Stern. "But I'm sure Dwight will make a good and wise decision for him."
The rest of the talk involved the arena talks in Sacramento, negotiations to sell the New Orleans Hornets (pending negotiations with state government to invest $50 million-$60 million to upgrade the arena) and the unlikelihood of further expansion domestically.
"I just don't see a North American addition," Stern said. "We're at 30 [teams], and we've got teams that we are working hard to keep in their cities, to make strong through revenue-sharing in our system, to grow their value, their fan base and the like. If you want to talk about Europe over the next 10 years ... Adam?"
By sliding the microphone in front of his deputy, Stern was suggesting that Silver will indeed be the man to make such decisions in the years ahead.
Silver looked at the microphone. "We'll see," was all he could say for now.