Post-publication preface: On Friday, January 3, it was announced that NBA players & referees will wear black bands on their uniforms for the rest of the season to honor David Stern. This symbolism keeps all the actors ethereally tethered to that great basketball commissioner in the sky.
The puppet master of the NBA just passed away yesterday from a brain hemorrhage at age 77. David Stern was the manipulator responsible for bring Patrick Ewing to the NY Knicks; allowing Shaquille O’Neal to travel & brutalize opponents at will for a decade; and always had Joey Crawford ready to fix a crucial game of a play-off series– to make sure the “right” team won. David Stern led the NBA to new financial heights with a leadership style comparable to a mafia don.
I’m the only one writing this in the media, but I’m not crazy. The near-universal praise for David Stern posthumously is from those players, coaches & sportswriters who were taken into his confidence, and always knew how to obey & get in line when “requested” it.
Let’s start with what you know about basketball. Here’s a quick quiz to prove. Who’s the greatest basketball player ever? The correct answer is Wilt Chamberlain– the most dominant player ever: 30 points, 23 rebounds & 10+ blocks per game for his career. Blocks weren’t kept as a NBA stat until after Chamberlain retired, but 10-12 blocks per game is a fair estimate for his career. Those are silly numbers, and no one else is comparable. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is probably the second greatest basketball player ever (it’s all about the big man in hoops), and he was dominated by Wilt Chamberlain in their few match-ups in the 1970’s.
Wilt didn’t win championships like Bill Russell, because the Boston Celtics were an elite franchise with Red Auerbach as coach & GM, the best of his era, and basketball is a team game. The Big Dipper played on lesser teams, until he joined the LA Lakers for the final 5 seasons of his 14-year NBA career. Chamberlain never fouled out of a NBA game, which is impossible for anyone else.
Wilt Chamberlain still holds over 90 NBA records, 45 years after retiring. He was a Harlem Globetrotter before joining the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959, and he had handles. Wilt Chamberlain led the league in assists, while also leading in scoring & rebounding– another impossible feat accomplished only by The Record Book.
The rule for opponents was, “Don’t get him mad.” If you tried to disrespect, trash-talk, cheat or trip-up Wilt Chamberlain, then you unleashed the beast– which no one could handle. Chamberlain then goes for 60 points, 40 rebounds & 25 blocked shots; which means he totally dominates the game and his team wins 98-57. That happened a few times, and opponents afterwards humbly apologized & promised to never disrespect him again.
If they were sincere & Chamberlain believed them, then he would go back to 30 points, 23 boards & 10 blocks next game, and everybody was happy. Just let him do his thing and prove to everybody that he’s the best, and he’ll let you play too. That was Wilt Chamberlain. There’s never been another player like that, and there never will be. If you didn’t know this already, then you REALLY need to listen to me on what I’m saying about David Stern, because you don’t know hoops.
The rise of the NBA came about because of Magic Johnson & Larry Bird entering the league in 1979-80, and then Michael Jordan’s arrival in 1984. The original 1992 Dream Team was the NBA’s zenith era, as far as quality of play & level of competitiveness. When Shaq bolted from Orlando to LA to join Kobe, and Phil Jackson was brought in to manage them in the late-1990’s, the NBA became a different league.
In this “new school” era, high school players declared themselves eligible for the NBA draft after their senior year. The money had gotten so big, that you had to do this if you were Kevin Garnett, LeBron James or Dwight Howard. The “one & done” NCAA standout becomes commonplace after David Stern institutes an age requirement for the NBA, ending the era of high school players from entering the draft.
Shooting percentages, offensive efficiency, and ratings have all declined since Micheal Jordan retired from the Chicago Bulls after winning their 6th NBA title in 1998. The great players of his era had all retired, or were about to, and the new school game was here to stay. New school means a different attitude, which allows young players who haven’t earned the respect of their peers to act like prima donnas, because they are paid like superstars and have endorsements on television. The term “coach killer” enters NBA lexicon.
In this new era, players are now paid on potential, because all the existing talent has been scooped up. Anything young with basketball potential attracts everyone’s attention, and that’s when the bidding war starts. The latest incarnation of this phenomenon is Zion Williamson, the “one-and-done” Duke Blue Devil, who became the #1 pick last June. He hurt himself early, and still hasn’t made his NBA debut with the New Orleans Pelicans. His contract pays him $9,757,440 for this season, and it’s considered a bargain in the industry. This is the progress David Stern brought.
So the questions are: Is the NBA better because of David Stern? Was Stern the “smartest man in the room,” or a manipulative master of puppets? How much damage did he do to the game from an integrity standpoint? These questions were never seriously raised when he was commissioner, as he squelched all NBA dissent with a wry smile to the media & an iron fist behind closed doors.
This was a powerful, well-connected individual, who acted the role of mafia don, because that’s what he was. The NBA was under his commissionership from 1984 to 2014, and he ruled absolutely. He was there for the greatest explosion in popularity in league history, which was due to its great stars– primarily Michael Jordan, and the advances in technology such as cable & satellite TV– and then the internet. That’s the real reason for the massive increases in revenue for the NBA.
David Stern was the tough-minded businessman who always took the considerations of the owners, sponsors & networks as primary. The players, coaches, & fans came to be treated as tools for manipulation to extract more money.
Many new arenas were built (& re-built) in the David Stern era. Each time the seats became more costly. For those who couldn’t afford front row on the floor, they became more distant & cramped. The games got noisier during time-outs, at halftime, and even during the game. The David Stern approach was the classic business theory of catering to the “casual fan,” which always diminishes the game.
Either you like basketball, and want to see a NBA game, or you aren’t interested. Today, there are enough fans to fill any arena, but if the product has been diluted & degraded by NBA greed & malfeasance, then fans will turn elsewhere– as they have choices. Appealing to the “casual fan” who is more interested in his/her cell phone, than the action on the floor, while delivering an inferior & boring product doesn’t help grow the game.
This is what happened at the end of David Stern’s reign, and it defines many of the NBA franchises today. There are only 4-5 teams that can win a championship in any given season. Since the break-up of Shaq & Kobe in LA, stars group together to form super-teams which can make a run at multiple titles. It was LeBron James going to Miami, then Kevin Durant to Golden State. Everyone else is fodder.
In all of the official sportswriters obituaries, there is no mention of NBA betting scandals & rigged officiating in the playoffs. The Kings/Lakers series in 2002 was the most blatant fix in NBA history– the point where many “old school” basketball fans quit watching. Ridiculous.
The LA Lakers winning titles means better ratings, and this is a large part of how league revenue grew so much under David Stern’s watch. NBA players & coaches can’t criticize the officiating without getting huge fines. This is the ugly, unreported legacy of David Stern as NBA commissioner. The money got bigger than ever, while the game became unwatchable due to this corruption. ESPN and all the rest looked the other way, and took their cut.
When it comes to true power, it’s the one pulling the strings that matters. Despite the greatness of every NBA superstar from Bird, Magic & Michael to Shaq, Kobe & LeBron; all of them were/are puppets compared to David Stern. It’s the one manipulating the action, deciding which match-ups you will see, and ultimately who wins– that has the the power.
As a society we are fascinated by powerful people, but that doesn’t mean they deserve blind admiration. The fake corporate media censors what you read & hear about the ugly underbelly of the NBA, because its “caretakers” know the depth of this cynicism & corruption. It’s considered “bad for the game” to discuss any of this openly & honestly, because ratings may go down even further. Little-to-no consideration is given to open admission of guilt & sin, allowing the game to heal itself and restore its integrity. These ideas were always an anathema to David Stern & his sycophants.