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David Stern's NBA Legacy: Growing the Game and Growing Fan Discontent

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David Stern's NBA Legacy: Growing the Game and Growing Fan Discontent
Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

NEW YORK — When the clock strikes midnight Saturday, David Stern will cease to be the NBA commissioner, and authority will quietly pass to his protege, Adam Silver, the first such transition in 30 years.

It is a time for reflections and tributes, for thoughtful appraisals of a figure often regarded as one the greatest commissioners of all time.

And in some quarters, it is a time for outright, unbridled, raucous celebration.

"For us up in Seattle, we're just so happy to see the reign of David Stern come to an end finally," said Jason Reid, a lifelong SuperSonics fan whose respect for Stern disappeared when the Sonics did, in 2008.

It's not just Reid, and it's not just Seattle fans, who feel this way. There are large swaths of fans across the nation who view Stern through a jaded lens, the embodiment of every NBA sin: the protracted lockouts, the skyrocketing ticket prices, the over-commercialization of the game, the promotion of individual stars over teams.

The conspiracy-minded view Stern in more villainous terms: as some sort of master puppeteer who orchestrates games and draft lotteries and referees. The theories are ridiculous, but Stern's imperious persona and penchant for condescension only encouraged the myth-making.

There is a "Fire David Stern" page on Facebook, where the hatred and conspiracy theories rage. A sterncountdown.com page, launched last year—by a Sonics fan, naturally—has been tracking the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Stern's departure.

Much of the criticism of Stern is misguided, oversimplified or simply fictional. But there is no disputing his failure in Seattle.

The NBA let the Sonics leave for Oklahoma City after years of contentious arena talks broke down. The move devastated fans across the Pacific Northwest and left a gaping hole in the nation's 12th-largest market. It stands as one of the deeper stains on Stern's otherwise-glowing legacy.

As he steps down at age 71, Stern leaves the NBA in excellent shape, economically and otherwise. The league is bigger than ever, exponentially more popular and more profitable, all testament to Stern's brilliance as an executive.

Yet the gaudy spreadsheets mean little to broken-hearted Sonics fans, who had their team ripped away after 41 years, through no fault of their own.

Reid, a 35-year-old filmmaker, channeled his anger into a documentary, the award-winning Sonicsgate. Stern's retirement will not heal the still-festering wounds, but there is hope that his departure could hasten the Sonics' rebirth, as an expansion team.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Silver may be Stern's chosen successor, but he assumes the role unencumbered by Stern's baggage.

"For us, it's a thing to celebrate, David Stern being gone," Reid said. "It's an opportunity for new leadership there, to reevaluate the situation, reevaluate expansion and hopefully come to the conclusion that all of us have come to—which is we deserve an NBA team back in Seattle. We deserve these wrongs of the past to be righted."

We generally evaluate a commissioner's tenure in cold metrics—in television ratings, attendance figures and revenue growth. Under Stern's leadership, the league expanded from 23 teams to 30, with revenues increasing more than 30-fold, from $165 million in 1984 to $5.5 billion today. The NBA is now televised in 215 countries, in 47 languages. Basketball is now the second-most popular sport in the world, after soccer.

Stern has earned the glowing tributes that filled newspaper columns and blogs these last few weeks. But his legacy is more complicated.

We also expect commissioners to act in the best interests of the game, to paraphrase Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's original commissioner. The teams may belong to a fraternity of mega-rich owners, but the game belongs to the fans, who are irreparably harmed when franchises move.

On this count, Stern has sadly failed. Four NBA teams have uprooted in the last 14 years, leaving heartbreak in Vancouver (2001), Charlotte (2002), New Jersey (2012) and Seattle. (Admittedly, the historically weak support in New Jersey probably justified the Nets' move to Brooklyn.)

Sacramento fans were tormented for two years with the threat of losing the Kings, first to Anaheim and then to Seattle, before the league stepped in last spring and pushed through a sale to local investors.

Franchise instability is as much a part of Stern's legacy as the Dream Team, the salary cap and the WNBA. No other North American league has had as much movement in the last 15 years.

While Silver inherits a generally healthy league, the specter of franchise relocation continues to hang over some markets, most notably Milwaukee, where Silver—in a vague echo of Stern's onetime threats to Seattle—has already issued verbal warnings about the Bucks' outdated arena.

Weak attendance continues to undermine teams in Milwaukee, Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia. Yet Seattle, home to one of the NBA's most passionate fanbases, remains vacant because of the failings of league officials, team owners and politicians.

The next time a feckless owner decides to uproot his team, perhaps Silver will heed these sage words:

"You spend so much time encouraging teams to make investments in their communities. If you say, 'OK, that's it, we're going on to the next market,' then your pleas don't ring true. I'd really rather hold the owner responsible in the market than blame the fans."

That was David Stern, in 1996.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

The tale of the Charlotte Hornets is instructive. Charlotte fans were just as fiercely loyal as those in Seattle, but their bond with the Hornets was permanently damaged when owner George Shinn was charged with sexual assault. The eroding support paved the way for Shinn to relocate to New Orleans, with the NBA's blessing. It was a case of the league, and Stern, siding with a disgraced owner over its most ardent fans.

The consequences have been extensive. New Orleans, the league's smallest market, could barely support the team. Shinn, tired of losing millions, decided to sell. When no viable investors emerged, the NBA took temporary ownership.

That decision directly caused one of the other great blemishes on Stern's resume: His 2011 veto of a blockbuster trade sending the Hornets' Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers. Stern was acting as team custodian, not commissioner, but that subtlety is lost on most of the public, and the saga only gave more life to the image of Stern as a meddler and manipulator.

Had Stern sided with the fans over Shinn back in 2002, the Hornets might have remained in Charlotte. The attempted Paul trade would never have happened. And when it came time to add a 30th team, the NBA could have awarded the expansion franchise to Seattle, instead of Charlotte (which got the Bobcats in 2004).

The creation of the Bobcats was an overt admission that Charlotte never should have lost its team. The decision to keep the Kings in Sacramento, although viewed as a blow to Seattle, was in fact further evidence that the league has learned from its mistake there.

Perhaps Silver will find a way to right that wrong and return the NBA to Seattle.

"We'd love to throw him a parade if he can make this happen," Reid said. "Not sure if David Stern will be invited, though."

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. A newly edited version of "Sonicsgate" will air on ESPN Classic on March 14.

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