The National Basketball Association has experienced unprecedented growth under the leadership of its current commissioner David Stern.
That doesn't mean he's perfect. Far from it, in fact. David Stern has amassed a long list of critics over the years.
It wasn't always that way.
When Stern took over as NBA commissioner in 1984, he stepped into a league that was on the cusp of rapid improvement. Talent such as Larry Bird and Magic Johnson was already in place. The 1984 draft brought Charles Barkley, Akeem Olajuwon and, of course, Michael Jordan to the league as well.
From 1984 until the end of the 1997-98 season, the NBA experienced unprecedented international growth.
The star-studded league became a cultural phenomenon. The 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team showcased the league's brightest stars on an international stage.
The television ratings were high, marketing and merchandising were on the upswing and the league seemed to have a never-ending stream of stars to showcase to the world.
Then the Jordan era of dominance ended, and even worse, the 1998-99 season was impacted by the league's first major labor conflict.
That lockout cost the league almost half of the 1998-99 season and dramatically altered the public's perception of Stern and the league as a whole.
From that point on the league battled cynicism, and Jordan's departure as the face and persona of the NBA didn't help matters.
The lockout ended, but the league's struggles did not.
On Nov. 19, 2004, the NBA's defending champion Detroit Pistons hosted their bitter Eastern Conference rivals the Indiana Pacers in an early-season showdown.
With the game all but decided and time running out, a fight between Ben Wallace and Ron Artest changed the course of NBA history.
The conflict appeared to be nearing resolution when a Pistons fan threw a cup of beer at Ron Artest. Artest reacted by charging into the stands after the fan. The brawl that followed may have been one of ugliest incidents in the history of major professional sports.
The resulting suspensions had a dramatic impact on the entire league. The Indiana Pacers were an NBA Finals contender before the brawl. After it the team was crippled by the unusually long suspensions of Artest and Stephen Jackson, as well as Jermaine O'Neal.
In the end the suspensions did little to negate the negative impact the brawl had on the league. As O'Neal told Grantland's Jonathan Abrams for an article published on Feb. 29, 2012:
[Everyone] decided to talk about the negative things. I honestly believe that's why the dress code came into play. Because all of a sudden now the league is "out of control." I watched the analysts, the so-called analysts, on national TV say the NBA is too hip-hoppish. And it really blew me away that supposed analysts would even first of all say that. Your choice of music doesn't dictate who you are as a person. Right after the brawl, the dress code came into play.
Dr. David Leonard is an Associate Professor and Chair of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University. He is also the author of After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Leonard on this subject.
Leonard feels that Stern has been unwilling to stand up to deep-seated racist sentiments within American culture throughout his tenure as commissioner.
According to Leonard, that failing has impacted Stern's popularity among NBA fans, particularly African-American fans.
"I think have been several instances throughout his tenure where his own decisions and that of the league were impacted by race," Leonard says. "The desire to appease fans in 'middle America,' to convince fans that the players are 'good guys,' all operate through racial ideologies, and these decisions impact society as a whole."
Leonard is far from alone in this sentiment.
On July 1, 2011, the NBA locked out its players for the second time under Stern's watch. The dispute would last into the regular season. Training camp was eliminated; regular-season games were canceled.
By late October the two sides were in what appeared to be an intractable standoff. With the rhetoric on both sides becoming increasingly contentious, once again it was Stern's tone that became a lightning rod for criticism.
The labor dispute was eventually resolved, but it didn't take long for Stern to reinsert himself into a negative light.
The New Orleans Hornets were looking to trade Chris Paul, and the Los Angeles Lakers were looking for an upgrade at the point guard position. On Dec. 9, 2011, the two teams along with the Houston Rockets put together a massive trade that would ultimately land Paul in purple and gold.
Until Stern nixed it.
Stern's meddling in the trade was almost universally unpopular. Sports columnist Bill Simmons was particularly galled by Stern's interference:
By blocking the trade, David Stern was willingly creating his own Watergate and validating every critic who ever claimed, "That guy stayed too long." ... This was Big Brother stuff. This was one of the biggest conflicts of interest in sports history. This was a league intentionally jeopardizing its own credibility. This was a scandal popping out of thin air, self-created, almost like a man-made lake or something.
Stern's popularity, or lack of it, is not unique to a race or a particular team's fans. His handling of numerous adverse situations since Jordan's retirement has even led some to logically question the amount of credit Stern deserves for the first 14 years of his reign.
As Leonard says, "[Stern] has overseen the golden age of the NBA, which cannot be seen apart from his leadership, but at times the league's greatness has been in spite of him, not because of him."
Therein lies one of Stern's major obstacles with fans from all walks of life. He is viewed as having waltzed into an ideal situation, with Bird and Magic already in the league and Jordan arriving. Stern did an admirable job of taking advantage of that situation, but when it came time to administer the real heavy lifting, Stern seemed to falter in the eyes of the public.
He's overseen two work stoppages, an ugly brawl that involved spectators and of course the controversial meddling in what appeared to be a legitimate NBA transaction.
It's enough to have whittled away at any of the capital Stern may have built up with fans back in the days of Magic, Larry and Michael.
Those days are just a distant memory for many NBA fans, just like the positive feelings they may have had for David Stern.
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