Monday, March 21, 2011

Kommissar Stern is Zeke of the NBA

By Bob Ekstrom

Dwight Howard's one-game suspension two weeks ago began a war of words between Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and NBA Commissioner David Stern that was ended within a week by a STFU order sent Van Gundy's way. The incident is eerily similar to one involving his brother Jeff six years earlier, and offers a frightening look into the oppressive regime Stern has built in 27 years on the job.

From elementary school to work place to retirement center, bullies are everywhere, and professional basketball is not spared. In the absence of wealth or physical size, sheer longevity can empower the bully in the front office of your NBA, just as it can for the one on your neighborhood playground. I learned that from a guy named Zeke, who had neither riches nor size but nevertheless climbed to the top of his neighborhood playground simply by out-squatting everyone else.

It was during my first job out of college. We'd go down into an Italian enclave not far from the office to shoot hoop after work, changing out of our suits in the car and taking on the locals. These courts were ruled by Zeke. Even then, most of Zeke's contemporaries had moved on, but the upstart kids idolized him. They would all line up in hopes of getting picked for his team. It never seemed to matter that the ball had to go through Zeke with every change of possession.

He was heralded without challenge — or any objective supporting statistics — to be the all-time leading scorer in the neighborhood. Hell, he was pushing 30 and had been playing on these courts since his pre-teens, so no one really needed to call in STATS for verification. There were whispers that he could have played in the NBA were it not for some mystery surrounding his high school days. He had perfected this Dr. J driving layup that mesmerized the short kids of his neighborhood, but wasn't much of a challenge for a long-limbed Swede like me, and I was never once on the NBA's radar.

Zeke would come to the courts laden with gold chains and crosses and rings, none of which he ever paid for. Some evenings, he was high, others drunk. Once, he came with a black eye, apparently the result of being jumped by three guys after sleeping with each of their girlfriends. The locals high-fived each other with this tale, then relentlessly fed him in the low post, where his quick-spinning power ups inevitably smacked into the palm of my hand, prompting his minions to close in and stare me down. Zeke, of course, would call a foul.

These days, 645 Fifth Avenue seems a lot like those courts we played on after work. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Commissioner David Stern, the Zeke of the NBA.

The highest basketball office in the land is filled with minions that Stern has chosen for his team, players like Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who upholds his mantra that team personnel should be exploited at every opportunity and subscribe to the doctrine of Der Kommissar's infallibility. And when out-of-turfers like the Van Gundy brothers reject it for the low-post garbage it is, what is the fitting reaction? Like Zeke, David Stern calls a foul.

NBA officiating is the least credible among the four major sports. Judges, refs, and umpires in the MLB and NFL are, at times, as incompetent, but they call them the way they think they see them, not the way Bud Selig and Roger Goodell tell them to. Moreover, their front offices are increasingly looking to technology to at least cast an upstanding appearance. The NBA, on the other hand, looks to deny, to suppress all challenges, to punish the source rather than the target.

Come on. The chances of Howard having never been flagrantly assaulted in any of the last 593 times fouled are as slim as going through 10 seasons of American Idol without even one contestant covering a Nirvana song. Not happening. It's small wonder the big guy has already picked up 16 technicals, and smaller wonder that Stan Van Gundy should smell a conspiracy. After all, protecting their big men from the wrath of Stern and his refs is something Van Gundys do.

In 2005, while coaching the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference opening round playoff series, younger brother Jeff claimed an anonymous official told him the front office wanted Yao Ming kept in check. The Rocket center's constant foul trouble in that series had just pushed Houston to the brink of elimination, and, for what it's worth, Van Gundy's allegation was later substantiated by former referee Tim Donaghy. Nevertheless, Stern became enraged and hit Van Gundy with a record $100,000 fine, along with threats for continued retribution after the Rockets' season ended. Van Gundy later apologized and the conflict blew over with Stern, by necessity, the winner.

No such apology was coming from Stan last week. Only a gag order stemmed the barbs between Fifth Avenue and Orlando, with the last word going to Stern. “I would render a guess that we won't be hearing from him for the rest of the season,” he told ESPN Radio last Thursday, while brother Jeff defended Stan and called the comments “godfathery-like.”

And with the Magic center shooting only 58% at the line, Hack-a-Howard rages on as a prime in-game strategy. Opponents can continue to count on one-for-two at the line, no flagrants, and repossession of the ball in short order. Heading into Sunday, Howard is far and away the most-fouled player in the NBA and has attempted 36% more free throws per game than Blake Griffin, the next in line, who, by the way, has been awarded a league-high eight flagrants.

In the meantime, the NBA's credibility is eroding faster than Zeke's driving lay-up. Each suggestion of referees being the executors of Stern's orders that is met with bullying rather than with investigation will further dislodge public trust. There is a problem in today's NBA; just don't tell that to Commissioner Stern.

Falco had it right when he said, “If he talks to you then you'll know why; the more you live, the faster you will die.”

Don't turn around, uh-oh. Der Kommissar's in town.

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