There was a time—a long time in fact—when David Stern was easily the smartest and best commissioner in sports. He was the first to understand the NBA’s international popularity and wisely began taking advantage of the league’s rapidly expanding global reach. For years Stern’s vision for the NBA was much clearer and more focused than the commissioners of other sports.
But this year Stern’s clumsy pronouncements during the lockout, and his even clumsier handling of the aborted trade of All-Pro guard Chris Paul, have exposed dangerous flaws in his leadership and for the first time suggest that the NBA might be better off without him.
David Stern is 69 years old, and he is not as magical in his moves as he was when he took over the league in 1984. Time seems to be moving faster than he does these days. And his near dictatorial stewardship no longer serves the NBA very well.
I say this with all due respect to Stern’s accomplishments. When he became commissioner the NBA was perceived very poorly by much of the public. But Stern’s leadership changed that, and helped create a climate that allowed players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to thrive and become icons.
What I’m saying is that since the league’s beginning over 60 years ago there have always been great players, but not all of those players had the benefit of David Stern’s shrewd leadership. But still there are challenges ahead that must be overcome.
I believe that whoever is selected as the next commissioner must alter the dynamics of the league and find a way to promote to the public all 30 of the league’s teams and not solely rely on the pull of select stars who seem to be located only in the major markets.
The NBA’s current star system leaves the league open to wild speculation that games are fixed and that only certain teams have a chance to win a championship.
It also leads to inequities in TV ratings and interest. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, who've won more than 30 NBA championships collectively, draw strong ratings during the playoffs. But smaller market teams like San Antonio, that have also been successful and won multiple titles, not so well. That shouldn’t be.
Further, the recent lockout exposed the gross financial inequity among most of its teams. Like baseball, revenue is not shared in a manner that ensures financial success for most NBA teams. That problem needs to be a top priority for a new commissioner.
While I think the time has come for David Stern to retire, whoever succeeds him will have some enormous shoes to fill. That person, however, will have even bigger challenges to overcome.