What's David Stern and the NBA's Worst Nightmare?

Marshall ZweigContributor IIFebruary 8, 2013

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 30:  (L) NBA Commissioner David Stern greets  (R) LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat as the Miami Heat are given their 2012 NBA Championship rings at a ceremony prior to the game against the Boston Celtics at American Airlines Arena on October 30, 2012 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Now I don't want you to get the wrong impression. The image of David Stern lying in bed is not one that comes to my mind, I swear to you.

But I am curious: What wakes David Stern up at night?


Financial concerns

Stern's most basic worries when he took over the league in 1984 were financial—and he righted that ship in spades.

In 1984, the league's 23 teams were worth $400 million—collectively. Now, the Chicago Bulls alone (purchased for a mere $16 million in 1985) are worth $600 million. And the league's 30 teams are together worth more than $12 billion.

Further, when Stern took over in 1984, CBS was paying a mere $22 million a year for NBA games. By contrast, in 2008, Stern negotiated an eight-year, $7.44 billion dollar deal.

So I'm saying he sleeps like a baby when he's contemplating numbers. In fact, he probably falls asleep counting millions instead of sheep.



OK then. What about another lockout, immediately on the heels of last year's debacle, which cost the league hundreds of games and untold millions of dollars in lost revenue?

I don't think this causes Stern any lost shuteye either. Despite franchises' tales of woe, and the sometimes-incredible promotions teams have taken to in hopes of luring more fans, attendance has in general has returned since last year's lockout.

To wit: pre-lockout average attendance per NBA game was 17,323. This year's mean attendance per game is right around 17,200.

Simply put, the minute the lockout ended, the fans wanted back in. So when it comes to causing Stern insomnia, another lockout is out.


Another rogue referee

Personally, I think the league's second-worst nightmare already happened in 2007 when Tim Donaghy pled guilty to accepting money in exchange for inside information.

Given that the game's integrity was called into question, and given the hundreds of millions of dollars wagered on basketball every year, I figured that scandal would be a more stunning blow to the league.

But it seems people want their hoops no matter what. Looking back, it made hardly a dent in attendance.

Today's NBA referees make a comparative fortune—this CNBC article states that 2007 salaries ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 per year. I've heard estimates that put the current low end at $150,000 and the high end at $550,000. If so, Stern did the right thing in increasing their compensation.

In my research, I could uncover no evidence that the league implemented psychological profiling tests since the scandal, though such a test was rumored to be under consideration at the time. But I am certain that there is more vigilance put into NBA referee screening post-scandal than there was pre-scandal.

And it wasn't easy becoming an NBA referee to begin with. In other words, the bank teller who's willing to put in 20 years at his branch before he pulls an inside job is tough to spot.

Bottom line: There is no stopping an individual who decides out of greed to go rogue. Moreover, I get the sense that most fans believe—or choose to believe—that Donaghy was a lone gunman. I'm sure this caused a few sleepless nights for basketball's head honcho, but I would say time has healed this wound quite fully.


Steroid usage

Unquestionably, the MLB is the league most devastated by drug enhancement—unless you count bike racing. People take it as a given that NFL players juice. But what if it were revealed that PEDs were widespread in the NBA? Would that give Stern night sweats?

I say no. First off, players like O.J. Mayo and Rashard Lewis have been caught, and fans paid little attention. Second, the NBA's PED screening process is notoriously lax. And third, even though PEDs would help with healing from injury, in general they add bulk. And bulk on an NBA player means more pressure on the knees. That's anathema to a pro baller.

The perception in general is that an NBA player is probably the athlete who would be helped the least by PEDs. So even if it were found out, my guess is people would be less outraged and more puzzled.


Big-name injury

What about losing a star player to injury? If Kobe goes down, does Stern stay up all night?

I say no. Not only has the league survived its share of devastating star injuries (including Derrick Rose and Dirk Nowitzki this year alone), but Stern has shown he's not even afraid to sideline stars himself. He revoked Gilbert Arenas' NBA passport after the loaded-gun incident in 2010. Granted, Arenas' star was fading, but it was still a bold move.

Don't forget lengthy suspensions to stars like Carmelo Anthony, Dennis Rodman and Ron Artest, too. No, as much as the league has made the NBA a star-based league, Stern believes his charge can function quite nicely without a star or two.


Star bias being proven

Speaking of stars, what about the NBA's alleged bias toward star players? What if it came out that Stern had been ordering referees to give star players calls for years?

Personally, I think this bias is absolutely real, and I think if documentation to prove it surfaced, the revelation would cause no more than a ripple—because everybody knows it's real. Even a casual fan can see star bias—ticky-tack foul calls, extra steps allowed on drives to the rim—simply by watching the games. It's an observable occurrence.

Personally, I don't think fans care much about the star bias, because they want their favorite heroes to light up the scoreboard.


Big-market franchise fixes

What about star franchises? What if it came out that Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals was indeed rigged in the Los Angeles Lakers' favor? What if it were revealed that the fold in the New York Knicks' 1985 draft envelope really was part of a Stern-engineered plan to send Patrick Ewing to the NBA's No. 1 market?

If I were Stern, and this were true, this is one of the two eventualities that would wake me up screaming. Because it might be a death knell for the NBA and for Stern himself.

The league would lose all credibility, so it's not beyond the realm of possibility to see the government stepping in and perhaps disbanding the NBA, on charges of misleading the public. Further, it's likely Stern would face a fine and jail time for some kind of criminal malfeasance.

But if it's true, why hasn't proof come out?

The toughest thing about a conspiracy is keeping it quiet. Edgar Allen Poe wasn't wrong when he wrote The Telltale Heart. Human conscience, consciously or subconsciously, has trouble keeping a secret when wrongdoing is involved.

However, while there could easily be one or two sociopaths involved in a conspiracy, who would not be compelled by their conscience to tell the truth, it would be difficult to imagine dozens. And I would think dozens would have to be involved in something as high-profile as this rigging is rumored to be.

For example, some of the calls in that 2002 Sacramento Kings-Lakers game were so suspect, one would be hard-pressed to convince me they were unbiased.

And yet, how many people would have had to have known about a fix?

The referees for sure. Stern would have probably given the order, and certainly he doesn't talk to the referees directly, so some kind of chain of command would have been necessary to pass along that order. We're probably talking about half a dozen men and women at minimum to pull off this alleged fix.

This is not Richard Nixon's Watergate or John Grisham's The Firm. There's a reason David Stern bears no resemblance to Marlon Brando in The Godfather; it's because he lacks the power to rub people out if they talk.

What, then, is keeping those half-dozen or more people quiet ten years on? Pure greed? Heck, if that were the case, one of them could make NBA max-contract-type money by selling their story to the Enquirer and subsequently selling book and movie rights. No one has. So greed wouldn't seem to explain away the silence.

It flies in the face of logic that men who are hired to oversee justice on the court would so easily be given over to cheating. Is it possible? Yes. But no one has come forward—other than Donaghy, who had every reason in the world to want to implicate his bosses.

That makes me question the rigging conspiracy concept, even if as a fan it sure crosses my mind over and over again. (Show me that foul on Bill Laimbeer in Game 6 of the 1988 Finals, and I'll show you a bridge near the Barclays Center that has your name written all over it.)

Since the veracity of this rigging has not been, and seemingly cannot be, proven, there is only one other scenario that would have Stern popping Ambien like they were Pez.


Major-market team relocation

Can't happen to the NBA? It happened to the NFL. The Los Angeles market, unbelievably, is about to celebrate a one-decade anniversary without an NFL franchise. 

What if the Lakers got a sweetheart deal from Tampa Bay or Mexico City? Or if the Knicks got an offer they couldn't refuse from Montreal?

The NBA can't just deny such a request outright. The league would send a study of the relocation request to an appointed Board of Governors, made up of one person (usually the owner) from each of the 30 NBA franchises. What if the owner in question persuades 16 of his fellow owners to vote yes?

The franchises I mentioned are about as likely to relocate as Stern is to be voted People's Sexiest Man Alive. But stranger things have happened. And if a franchise did manage to get approved for relocation, it would wreak havoc with rivalries, scheduling, merchandising and broadcast deals.

Stern can control a lot of things. But he doesn't own the NBA. He's just the commissioner. And he's an owner's commissioner. If an owner decides to make a move, the mighty Stern himself has very limited power to do anything about it.

That makes him close to helpless.

I'm guessing given the control freak Stern has shown himself to be, from fining a team $250,000 for resting players, to sports' most stringent dress code, nothing has a chance of keeping the commish up at night more than feeling helpless.

Unless Stern starts thinking about his ultimate state of helplessness. That would be Feb. 1, 2014—the last day he'll have power in the NBA.