NBA commissioner David Stern hasn't run the league for almost three decades without knowing how the public perception game is played.
David Stern has been around the NBA at some level for 45 years, serving as an outside legal counsel for the league in 1966 and rising through the organization until he was named commissioner in 1984. He's generally credited with helping shepherd the association through the glory years of the mid-1980s, the height of the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson days, and through the Michael Jordan dynasty years of the 1990s.
He's helped the league grow to unprecedented heights abroad. NBA rosters today looking like a veritable United Nations of hoops as the influence of the original Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 turned the eyes of an entire generation of international basketball standouts toward the NBA.
You don't run a league for nearly three decades without having a strategy in place to navigate the potential public relations landmines, though, and this week Stern showed how masterfully ruthless he can be when trying to get what his owners want.
When Stern stood on the sidewalk on Manhattan's Upper East Side Monday to announce that the first two weeks of the 2011-12 NBA schedule were being cancelled -- not postponed, mind you, but cancelled -- he knew the fans would ultimately react with vitriol ... and most of it would be directed at the players.
The National Basketball Players Association didn't help itself, either, not with its ill-advised plan to have the players take to the Twitterverse with ridiculous slogans even while the talks in New York were ongoing Monday. The overwhelming response from the fans that interacted with the players who Tweeted "Let us play" was along the lines of, "You want to play? Take the deal on the table and quit crying."
Many of the actual responses, of course, were peppered with language that one shouldn't repeat on a Web site designed for a general audience.
Some players didn't take kindly to the criticism. Kenyon Martin, in particular. began to berate and challenge those who dared mock his position, going so far as to ask posters for their home addresses and posting that he hoped his detractors would die of "full-blown AIDS." Martin denied making the post and deleted his Twitter account, according to USA Today, but not before the damage had been done, either by Martin or someone posing as him.
If the NFL lockout taught us anything, it's that a lot of fans love the game but hate the players. Most fans don't even see the players as real people but rather as characters in entertainment, akin to their favorite sitcom actor.
The players were never going to be seen as sympathetic figures and it was foolish—hell, some might go so far as to say moronic—to think that a spam campaign on Twitter was going to do anything to change that perception.
The players would be much better off to shut up, forget about the fans for now and get something done. The fans don't care which side wins... they really don't. We hear things like "basketball-related income" and figures thrown around like 57 percent or 53 percent or 47 percent and think, "Really? Just get something done, damn it."
We don't care who's right or who's wrong—to us, both sides are wrong. We may express a stronger identification with one side of the other, but ultimately most fans really don't care about the whys in these negotiations.
We just want them to get a deal done, get back into camp and start playing ball.
Some basketball player I'll never meet may only make $2 million a year instead of $5 million a season once this is over?
Trust me when I tell you that I can live with that.