Talk about David Stern’s genius invariably begins with his business acumen, having made a too-black, too-drug-infested sport wildly popular with white corporate America and global TV viewers, thereby transforming the National Basketball Association into a billion-dollar empire.
If it were that simple, though, his run as commissioner might not be ending. But he’s being moved on because the league now is less about creating something and more about exploiting what has been built.
No, Stern is exiting stage right after an inimitable 30-year run because under that dark suit and power tie, he was an artist and a preacher—or rabbi, in his faith of choice—and that’s simply not what his current congregation is seeking.
Oh, he was shrewd enough in a board room to convince millionaires to buy his franchises, TV executives to televise his games and corporate leaders to build his arenas. But the task originally needed something more than a clever lawyer who knew the art of making a deal. When he took over in 1984, kindly sports anchors would notify viewers to turn down the sound if they didn’t want to know the outcome of that day’s NBA Finals game before getting a chance to watch it. That’s because the games were televised on taped-delay after the 11 o’clock news.
More than anything, the league was a run-down vacant and desperately needed someone who could paint a picture of a futuristic mansion and then inspire those around him to help build it.
“He was the perfect evangelist for the league,” said Rick Welts, an executive VP for the league from 1996 to 1999 and now COO of the Golden State Warriors. “It was a broken property, and he got everybody to buy into that vision. Now he’s had to evolve from evangelist to CEO. That hasn’t been an easy transition for David. He has had to re-invent himself more than once.”
When Stern talks about the early days, there is a notable pleasure in his voice, even though it was a time when he was everywhere doing everything merely to get the league noticed. Trade shows, foreign TV programming conferences, even moving a caterer’s table away from the wall so the media could serve themselves from both sides—if something had to be done, Stern wasn’t afraid to do it.
“If I didn’t, we didn’t have anyone else,” he said. “Now there are literally casts of hundreds to take care of all that.
“In 1983, when we were negotiating the collective bargaining agreement that had the first salary cap, the revenues that we were working with were $118 million and $60 million in player salaries. The 2012-13 season, it will be $5 billion and $2.5 billion, roughly. Back then, the market was virtually all domestic and now we’re in 215 countries and 43 languages.”
The league office was small enough, and Stern had enough energy, that he could be both good cop and bad cop with everyone. “You could have an unpleasant conversation at the office but then you’d get a call at 10 p.m. that night,” Welts said. “And after 45 minutes I’d be ready to run through another brick wall for him.”
Not everybody had Welts’ resilience. As Stern’s unquestioned authority has deteriorated, his enemies have been emboldened to strike back.
“I just think David has beat up people in your profession and our profession,” said one NBA team executive. “I’ve seen articles going at him like never before. His power base, God rest their souls, are gone. Who does he have now? The new owners feel he’s milked them for money.”
The expectations have certainly been raised. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis is among the new group of young, hungry lions who have succeeded the old guard. He told business associates before the last lockout that Stern had promised them an ‘NHL-like’ deal, which, among other things, was supposed to reduce existing contracts by 25 percent. Another owner confirmed that the biggest element that Stern failed to deliver was the rollback on existing deals. Pistons owner Tom Gores, a source said, told friends that the owners received about 40 percent of what Stern promised to get them.
“These aren’t the good ol’ boys that paid $10 million for their franchise and were in lockstep with him,” said one GM. “These guys are more, ‘What has the commissioner done for me lately?’”
During the lockout, Stern had to deal with more oversight than ever. That became clear when the league negotiated a new labor pact with its referees, a warmup session for getting a deal with the players.
“When we negotiated with them, David and the negotiating committee needed to go out of the room to caucus more about what their owners wanted done,” said one member of the officials’ negotiating committee. “The NBA front office is reporting to someone else more than ever before. You also overheard owners saying, ‘We don’t do this for people that work for us in our own companies. This should not be any different.’ There’s definitely a change.”
Of course, Stern has had to deal with the impact of the AAU-minded stars that now populate his league. While the bottom-line new owners have expressed skepticism that creating an overseas division would be worth the investment, superstars strong-arming their way from one team to another also put a crimp in a vision that Stern has long entertained.
“You depleted Cleveland, Toronto, New Orleans and Orlando,” one agent noted. “So what would stop a player from doing this in London? You’re trying to convince investors overseas to buy a team, but you can’t control your players? How’s that work? It would embarrass the league globally.”
The task of being the NBA commissioner is so different today than it was three decades ago when Stern arrived on the scene, Welts doubts Stern would even want it. “Starting today as the 42-year-old commissioner, I don’t know if he’d be as good,” Welts said. “I don’t know if the job is as fun for him. He’s got a tougher group of bosses than he’s ever had. It’s a less homogeneous group that’s harder to lead.”
While Stern takes issue with most of the above positions—he says this wave of new owners is no more challenging than any of the previous waves of owners, that he enjoyed his job as much as ever—he did admit that he considered stepping aside several years ago.
“Lockouts are not my favorite topic,” he said. “In fact, there was a part of me ticking around saying, 'Should I—why don't I just go out on top before we shut it down,’ but I thought that I owed it to the enterprise to be the person that…”
He didn’t finish the thought. It's unlikely, though, that he would’ve said “I owed it to the enterprise to be the person that balanced the ledger one last time.” Yet that seems to be the role that he played in these last labor talks. Making it even worse, Stern, at the owners’ bidding, ripped hundreds of millions out of the players’ grasp and still felt they should’ve gained more.
But Stern’s gift was his vision and charisma, not his accounting. He wasn’t a bookkeeper. If anything, he was an author. The current NBA is a manuscript, gold-leaved and leather-bound. Now it’s all about spinning off pieces to the highest bidders. A clever lawyer who understands the art of the deal will do.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.