SEVERAL OF THE disquisitions addressing the end of David Stern's reign have noted that the NBA will enter a kinder, gentler phase under the commissionership of Adam Silver. That is a low bar indeed since Stern, over the course of three decades, has made owners cave, players quake, union leaders kowtow, employees cry and reporters grovel. And that was all before 10 o'clock on a Monday morning.
This is an article from the Feb. 10, 2014 issue
But that is essentially a matter of managerial style. The key question is: Now that Vlad the Impaler has ceded sovereignty to Mahatma Gandhi, what difference will it make to the game?
The transfer of power went quietly—given the shadow cast by Super Bowl XLVIII—last Friday afternoon at the NBA offices in midtown Manhattan. Stern and Silver made a joint videoconference appearance to the NBA's 1,200 employees. True to the promise he had made in an SI interview a week earlier, the 71-year-old Stern did not get choked up. "I'm feeling too good about things to cry," said Stern. It is not known if any NBA employees wept, either from sorrow or relief.
Silver takes over a league that is in tidy shape thanks to Stern, who came aboard as the league's chief counsel in 1978 and took the reins from Larry O'Brien six years later. The charge for Silver is to continue to, in Stern's pet phrase, "grow the game" while maintaining the we-are-the-world mentality that has made the NBA the U.S. league of choice overseas.
Silver, 51, who has been in the league office for 22 years, the last eight as deputy commissioner, was Stern's hand-picked successor, which is proof either that the league's 30 owners (who had to ratify the choice) believe in Silver or that it was the last in a long line of power plays by Stern. A more sinister take would be that the owners were O.K. with Silver because they think he can be pushed around. Or does that thinking impose upon the owners a Shark Tank mentality they do not possess, discounting the fact that one of them, Stern antagonist Mark Cuban of the Mavericks, is one of the show's stars?
Almost everyone who has dealt with Silver finds him intelligent, confident and capable. And everyone (himself included) knows the size of the wingtips he has to fill. Over the last few weeks comparative metrics have been pouring out of the NBA office that demonstrate the transformation of the league under Stern. Consider:
• League revenue in 1984, the year Stern became commissioner: $165 million.
• League revenue in 2013: $5.5 billion.
• Gross retail merchandise sales in 1984: $35 million.
• Gross retail merchandise sales in 2013: $3 billion.
• Salary cap in 1984, when Stern instituted it: $3.6 million.
• Salary cap in 2013: $58.1 million.
On and on it goes. To a portion of the population, though, those numbers mean nothing. The NBA is still déclassé and destined to remain so. The NFL experiences referee labor unrest, bounty controversies, concussion litigation, racially charged nicknames and ongoing dialectics about player safety—but, hey, let's get together for wings on Sunday afternoon! The NBA walks a much thinner cultural tightrope; witness the fact that the Malice in the Palace brawl that took place in November 2004 stuck with the league for years.
From another perspective, though, a younger one perhaps, the NBA couldn't be healthier. TV ratings are better than ever; the power of its supernovas (LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, even a fading Kobe Bryant) outshines those in any other sport (with the exception of Peyton Manning); and the league is thriving on distant shores. And there was one D. Stern on a recent Letterman reading the Top 10 things he has learned as a commissioner. (No. 6: I'm the only guy in the league who was bar mitzvah'd.) His performance was hardly Emmy-worthy, but it's doubtful that Bud Selig will get that call when he steps down.
HOW MUCH Stern was responsible for all the growth remains an intriguing question, the boardroom counterpart to Is Phil Jackson a great coach or did he ride the Michael-Shaq-Kobe train to 11 championships? Both have no provable answers, though this one is hereby proffered:
Just as Jackson wouldn't have been as good without the alpha dogs, and the alpha dogs wouldn't have been as good without Jackson, so it is that Stern would not have done nearly as well without the supercharged impetus provided by the stars of the 1980s, and the NBA would not have done nearly as well without the hard-charging braniac business sense of Stern.
He was a commissioner along the lines of the NFL's Pete Rozelle, his sometime partner in tennis matches against Allie Sherman and Bob Tisch, the former coach and co-owner of the New York Giants, respectively. Like Rozelle, Stern got his hands dirty; when something needed to be handled, the commissioner's office weighed in. "We came to realize that your league gets defined in many ways by your events," Stern says. "We worked hard on the draft. We worked hard on lottery-ball night. We worked hard on the All-Star Game and then on All-Star weekend. It was important for us since we never had the seating capacity of the World Series or the Super Bowl. We used to joke that Pete got 20,000 tickets, [MLB commissioner] Bowie Kuhn got an infinite number, and I got 12, the length of one row."
Stern's greatest achievement was arguably the NBA's overseas incursions. While football and baseball dabble in travel, like mom and pop taking a cruise now and then, the NBA committed to an international lifestyle. It has 15 international offices, more than 300 employees spreading the brand, $500 million in overseas revenue and 92 international players on its rosters. Stern remembers a day in 1990 when he and his wife, Dianne, were traveling in Xian, the ancient capital of the Ming dynasty, to see its famed terra-cotta soldiers. Communication was difficult, but their guide was finally made to understand that Stern was some kind of basketball executive.
"Ah," she said through the interpreter traveling with Stern. "The team of the Red Oxen." It's a wonder she wasn't wearing Air Jordans.
Interestingly, in respect to international growth, Stern has benefited from providence as much as his own wiles. He played follow-the-leader as much as he led, at least in the beginning.
There was an existing template for international travel, since players who couldn't make it in the NBA have long been jumping to France, Italy and Spain. Coaches and players such as Red Auerbach and Bill Russell were conducting overseas clinics in the 1950s, and players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Larry Kenon made barnstorming tours to the Far East in the '70s. O'Brien sent Stern along on the trips, almost as a hall monitor.
When in 1984 the Suns and the New Jersey Nets announced they were taking their teams to Italy in the preseason, Stern, then the commissioner, said, "Wait a minute, you can't go without the consent of the NBA, so I hereby consent. And take me with you."
The idea that there were significant business opportunities overseas "evolved slowly," in Stern's words. There was a delicious innocence and even strangeness about the international forays. Stern remembers a meeting in the early 1980s with U.S.S.R. coach Alexander Gomelsky about setting up a series of games between the Soviet and NBA teams. Gomelsky, an operator of the first order, had two conditions: that the Soviet players receive a per diem, in cash, given directly to him (Stern reluctantly agreed), and that the NBA guarantee the U.S.S.R. at least one victory (Stern said no).
"That stuff in the early days was the fun stuff," said Stern, conjuring up the recent foray to North Korea by a Dennis Rodman--led squad, "not the buffoonery of Kim Jong-un and the Dirty Half Dozen."
By the late 1980s, Stern had normalized games between international and NBA teams. But the idea for the event that catapulted the league into the international stratosphere—the 1992 Dream Team—did not germinate in Stern's brain. It came from FIBA executive Boris Stankovic, and Stern has never said otherwise. "Giving me the credit for the Dream Team," says Stern, "is the most often pronounced lie in sports."
Even so, Stern brought to the enterprise a kind of ambassadorial joy. He loved the travel, reveled in being El Commissar of the World's Best League, delighted in chatting up the locals, made TV deals in a hopelessly broken Berlitz, suggested—nay, mandated—that NBA players at least make a pretense of enjoying themselves on trips.
ONE OF Stern's great joys is in recounting the prominent people he has met on the job. Every American president since Ronald Reagan. Nelson Mandela. Prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin (Israel) and Tony Blair (Great Britain). Madame Wu, a vice premier of China. French president Jacques Chirac. While all of his glad-handing, back-slapping and photo-taking burnished the brand of Stern, he always knew that his superstars held far greater appeal, and he leveraged them for maximum international exposure. Games beam to 215 countries and territories in 47 languages, and the NBA is so far digitally advanced (445 million likes and followers worldwide on Twitter and Facebook) that comparisons with the other American pro leagues are meaningless.
Stern was usually engaging but prone to soliloquizing. Eyes would close and brains would shut down at press conferences when he droned on about the WNBA and the NBA Cares social programs. Which only means that some of his most significant accomplishments occurred in areas that the media tired of hearing about. And his support of Magic Johnson and his forthrightness in dealing with HIV and AIDS should never be forgotten. He set a tone of acceptance that, with a few exceptions, was a model for all of sports.
Stern didn't win them all (remember the Tim Donaghy scandal), and lately the argument could be made that he has lost something off his fastball. A five-month lockout forced the 2011--12 season to begin two months late. His veto of the trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers was heavy-handed, even by Stern standards. His recent suggestion that our Olympic team become an under-23 aggregation was met with widespread ridicule and finally defeat, even though he is loath to admit it. "It's off the table for now," he says, "but you will see our Olympic team, in my view, get somewhat younger as the old guard cycles off."
But all in all, no commissioner, with the possible exception of Rozelle, has had a run like Stern's, and nobody knows that better than Silver, who will be tested by a band of owners tired of hearing that Stern routinely picked their pockets even as he was filling them with cash. "He ruled by consensus, but he always made sure he had a consensus," Heat owner Micky Arison told Sports Business Daily.
It's much the same with the players, who often protested fines and dress codes to little avail. James has already requested a meeting with Silver to, as he told ESPN's Brian Windhorst, "throw out some ideas where I hope the league can be better."
Silver will doubtless accept, providing an early litmus test of his reign. Will LeBron emerge flashing a sly I've-got-this smile? Because during Stern's stint, visitors usually left with a look of what-the-hell-just-happened-in-there? Players, coaches, owners, referees, TV execs and NBA employees won't miss that part of the Stern experience. But Stern's job was to provide prosperity, not tranquillity, and in that he succeeded mightily.
For more of Jack McCallum's interview with David Stern, go to SI.com/mag