If David Stern is truly committed to the betterment of the NBA, he has to take a dose of humility and step down as league commissioner following the 2012-13 season.
This is not a commentary on Stern's tenure as a whole. It would be difficult to argue that any of the other three former NBA commissioners (Maurice Podoloff, Walter Kennedy and Larry O'Brien) presided over a more prosperous period in league history than Stern has.
Under Stern's watch, the NBA developed a presence commercially and internationally that no one could have anticipated when he took over as commish in 1984. Back then, the MLB and NFL were on an entirely different level than the NBA, Stern's league has bridged the gap. The thought of basketball someday becoming America's Game was once far-fetched; in the not-too-distant future, it could be the reality.
Presented with an established league with some potential for growth, David Stern exceeded every expectation. He stayed in power for 28 years because he was good at his job. However, it's highly questionable whether he's still the man for it.
Ever since 2005, Stern has been acting with a disturbing arrogance, the self-awareness that he built the NBA into what it is today and can therefore shape it in his preferred image. That was when the league enacted the controversial mandatory dress code, which the players perceived as an attack on their hip-hop style under the guise of professional decorum.
Though the players argued for the right to free expression, Stern turned a deaf ear. Even worse, he treated the players like children when he did finally acknowledge their concerns.
"If they are really going to have a problem, they will have to make a decision about how they want to spend their adult life in terms of playing in the NBA or not," Stern said.
That sort of rhetoric has been the norm for the commissioner; it's David Stern's league, and the players are privileged to be included. It's a tone-deaf approach that risks alienating the NBA's actual main attraction, and it has reared its head again in 2012.
Faced with the challenge of trying to cut down on the length of games, Stern decided to set a hard 90-second cap on pregame handshakes. He could have eliminated a few TV timeouts to improve the pace of the game, but shaving a minute or two of player individuality and camaraderie seemed like the more appropriate decision.
"I personally don't like it," Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant told The Oklahoman. "Every player in this league has routines they do with their teammates, rituals they do before the game and before they walk on the floor. The fans enjoy it. You see the fans mimicking the guys who do their stuff before the game. To cut that down really don't make no sense."
Yet again, Stern wantonly ignores that fans are coming to see the players, and that extracurricular fun is still fun. Though perhaps these issues are of little consequence. What if David Stern made them wear tuxedos to the arena and bow to each other before tip-off? Guys are still getting rich playing basketball, and they should be more grateful.
That's approximately the PG version of what Stern said in a labor meeting back in February of 2011, just a few months before the owners locked the players out. After former Player's Association executive director Billy Hunter stood up to Stern with an impassioned speech on players' rights, the commissioner responded. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports had the report:
So livid, Stern would barely even look at Hunter when Hunter handed him the microphone. And soon, Stern started reciting his résumé, his decades of labor fights and legal battles in the NBA. Here’s how much the NBA was worth and here’s where I’ve brought it, he said. Everyone could see the anger rising within him, but no one expected the words that tumbled out of his mouth.
Stern told the room he knows where “the bodies are buried” in the NBA, witnesses recounted, because he had buried some of them himself.
This is a man who considers his power unimpeachable because he has wielded it for so long. Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson are gone, as are all the others who rose against him, but David Stern is still here. That's why he'll gerrymander Chris Paul from the Lakers to the Clippers with impunity, conflict of interest be damned; just try to stop the commissioner from tampering with his league.
Stern's egotism has become a sideshow of its own, and there is no reason to expect it to let up. The good news is that Stern reportedly intends to retire in 2014, according to NESN. The bad news is that Stern will essentially hold the league hostage until he is gone. Knowing Stern, he'll want to leave his mark on the NBA before he leaves, and knowing Adam Silver, his successor, he won't betray his mentor by undoing any of Stern's me-first maneuvers.
The ideal scenario would be an announcement from Stern that he has already begun transitioning out and that Silver would take over following the 2012-13 season. This would be a novel recognition that he is not bigger than the league, and it would mercifully relieve the fans of any backdoor policy changes knowing that Silver has his hands partially on the reins.
Don't hold your breath, though. True to pompous form, Stern will pass Pete Rozelle as the longest-serving sports commissioner if he stays in power through 2014, his 30th season on the job. He's not going to pass up that chance. If we know one thing about David Stern, he's going to go out on his terms, and unfortunately, his terms are all about him.