Monday, January 20, 2014

David Stern, Model Commissioner

By Corrie Trouw

In the next two weeks, NBA Commissioner David Stern will step down after 30 years in that position. Such milestones often spur nebulous discussions of legacy, as if a person's work can definitively be reduced to a single moment of significance.

However, if Stern's legacy includes one thing, it is the curiosity that a league commissioner has a legacy at all.

Through three decades, Stern drew notoriety through his outsized personality, a part he seemed to relish at times. But this was more than just the whim of a narcissist or lack of self-control of a helpless theatric. This was pure strategy.

The greatest service Stern provided to the NBA was acting as a lightening rod to draw heat away from the individual owners. In theory, our professional sports leagues are separate entities that grant franchise status to their member teams. But unlike typical franchises where a dollar spent at the Burger King down the street doesn't help my Burger King much, teams in the NBA and other leagues need to beat their fellow franchisees while keeping them in the game.

Sure, the NBA would love to see the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston teams dominate. But those teams need competition, viable competition, to keep the public interested.

When Cavs owner Dan Gilbert protested the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers two years ago, he cited the Globetrotters/Generals relationship. Gilbert's example is comically extreme hyperbole of predetermination, but his point is valid.

In his commissionership, Stern was able to sell a product played mostly by African American players to mostly white ticket-holders in less cosmopolitan cities. But more than that, he managed to make all of the stakeholders in those teams believe they were as much a part of the league as their bluer-blooded competitors.

At times, a figurehead will appear self-promoting or vain. I won't argue those traits were complete fabrications of Stern's post. But through his willingness to take a visible and vocal lead on issues like free agency, labor negotiation, and the rookie age limit, Stern managed the balancing act of serving a pool of owners whose defined goal is to beat each other up.

In fact, Stern's most public and vehement discussions often surrounded conspiracy theories surrounding rigged Draft Lottery scenarios, ranging from the Patrick Ewing-Frozen Envelope theory to whatever commandeering of the ping pong balls the public would believe today. Always direct and occasionally vitriolic, Stern was never playful about refuting the notion that some franchises held places of higher esteem within the league than others.

Stern's relatively low-key departure from his role strikes an especially graceful chord when compared to news of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig's wildly delusional or hysterically self-centered 30-city victory lap (take your pick, though each angle is equally unflattering).

Through the years, Selig has pleaded helplessness in his failure to promptly address PEDs, revenue disparities, and the waning popularity of his sport. My lasting image of him will always be his furrowed brown of confusion at the 2002 All-Star Game (in his home park in Milwaukee!) as the managers and umpires explained why they hadn't rationed their pitchers in case of extra innings. Selig always struck me like a parent whose unsupervised child just destroyed a museum piece, desperately trying to find a satisfying solution to a problem he should have thwarted through anticipation.

Stern, on the other hand, has made it his job to know the layout of the room and which artifacts his troublemaker would be drawn to. There are dozens, probably more, individuals qualified to dole out punishment and clean up messes in the sports world after the fact. The real skill is in never having to use that power.

Current Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver will succeed Stern next month. According to many reports, Silver wants to explore unique ideas and embrace the changing economic landscape sports leagues face today. This would be a welcome shift in the NBA's agenda.

And yet, every commissioner going forward must remember the role Stern crafted. Sometimes a punching bag, sometimes a mouthpiece, being the commissioner of a sports league means preserving unity and the facade of open competition above all else.

But a little personality doesn't hurt.

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