7 Most Controversial Moments of David Stern's Reign as NBA Commissioner

Curtis Harris@@prohoopshistoryFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2012

7 Most Controversial Moments of David Stern's Reign as NBA Commissioner

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    David Stern has been the NBA commissioner since February1, 1984.

    Over this nearly 30-year reign, much has changed for the league.

    The defending champs when Stern took control were the Philadelphia 76ers with their reigning MVP Moses Malone. Current MVP LeBron James had yet to be born. Even the current NBA champion Miami Heat weren't "born" yet. They didn't come into existence until the 1988-89 season.

    But Miami's franchise is one of the success stories for Stern. Including the Heat, seven franchises have been added during Stern's tenure as commissioner. The NBA has also seen a significant influx of foreign players to buoy the league's talent. After all, the No. 1 overall pick in his first draft as commissioner was Nigerian-born Hakeem Olajuwon.

    With Olajuwon and Michael Jordan joining a bevy of existing stars like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving, Stern certainly had a good base for success over the ensuing decades.

    However, if anyone does anything for nearly 30 years, that person is bound to make some mistakes. And for all that success, Stern has certainly made his share of downright controversial decisions.

    From dress code violations to microfiber basketballs to greasing the wheels of franchise theft, here are the seven most controversial moments of David Stern's reign atop the NBA.

No. 7: The Dress Code

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    In October of 2005, David Stern was apparently fed up with lackadaisical, "unprofessional" dress of NBA players on the bench.

    The poster child of this supposedly awful sight was  Allen Iverson. When not playing due to injury, The Answer would sit on the bench in over-sized T-shirts, baseball caps and blue jeans.

    Commissioner Stern put an end to such unseemly sights with his dress code edict.

    The edict mandated that inactive players on the sideline must sport a sports coat, a collared shirt, and dress shoes or boots with socks. Mustn't forget the socks. In addition to these requirements, the dress code explicitly forbade the following during games and team functions:

    1. Sleeveless shirts
    2. Shorts
    3. T-shirts, jerseys, or sports apparel
    4. Headgear of any kind 
    5. Chains, pendants, or medallions
    6. Sunglasses (but only while inside)
    7. Headphones

    Unsurprisingly, many players were incensed over this dress code, the first of its kind in professional sports. Recalling the code's five-year anniversary, Kevin Burke of The Hoop Doctors quoted Andrei Kirilenko and Allen Iverson on their opposition to the rule.

    At the time, Allen Iverson said, “I think it’s wrong. You shouldn’t judge a person from what they wear.” Andrei Kirelinko added “I don’t think it’s quite comfortable…”

    Other players expressed support, not that Stern needed their support. The commissioner, as reported by ESPN's Darren Rovell back in 2005, expressed little concern over the dress code being instituted:

    [Stern] did say that the league "will use a broad range of authority" to enforce compliance...

    "If they are really going to have a problem, they will have to make a decision about how they want to spend their adult life in terms of playing in the NBA or not," Stern said.

    This controversy did eventually blow over and players have found new ways to express themselves within the confines of the dress code. Whether Kevin Durant's or Dwight Howard's attire are following the code of common decency is another subject.

No. 6: Microfiber Basketballs

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    On June 28, 2006, the NBA and Spalding unveiled the future of NBA basketball, literally, to the world!

    "Spalding’s continual efforts to advance basketball technology have yielded the optimal ball, one that is worthy of the new Official NBA Game Ball designation,” said Spalding Group President and CEO Scott Creelman. “We are honored that the NBA collaborated with us to make this change.”

    This newfangled microfiber basketball would eliminate the need for a "breaking-in" period that the old balls needed. All of the balls would be game-ready the moment they rolled off the assembly line!

    Only one problem: the players hated it.

    Leading the charge against the new ball was point guard Steve Nash and center Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal likened the new microfiber ball to "one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store, indoor-outdoor balls." Nash expressed his disgust at the ball's gluey nature: "I certainly won't have to lick my fingers. The ball sticks to your hand. It's a big transition. It's extremely sticky."

    Amazingly, the player outcry during the first one-and-a-half months of the 2006-07 season caused David Stern and the NBA to reverse course. In mid-December 2006, Stern announced that the NBA would revert back to the leather balls on January 1, 2007. To this day, the leather balls continue to be used.

    This is that unbelievably rare controversy in which the players got their way with David Stern.

No. 5: The Age Limit

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    High school basketball players have had a long history of joining the professional ranks.

    Joe Graboski signed with the BAA's Chicago Stags in 1948 at the age of 18. In the 1970s, Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone (pictured) joined the NBA and ABA, respectively. Finally, the flood gates opened in 1995. Over the ensuing years marquee players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal and others came straight from high school to the pros.

    Unfortunately, there's also been a long history of the NBA stymieing players joining their draft at will. David Stern came down on the side of this labor restriction in 2006, apparently having enough of the blight caused by Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.

    The 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates the following:

    L. Draft Entry Age
    Beginning in 2006, the age limit for entering the Draft will increase from 18 to 19 years of age. U.S. players must be at least one year removed from high school and 19 years of age (by the end of that calendar year) before entering the draft. An international player must turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft.

    Proponents like Stern advocated that this age limit would allow teams to save resources on unproven players, allow players to enjoy a collegiate experience and come into the NBA better prepared to handle its rigors. Detractors like Tom Ziller in 2009 pointed out the real benefits of the age limit:

    The NBA age limit helps two groups, and two groups only: NBA executives and the NCAA oligarchy. Supporters of the age limit may claim some greater interest in the sanctity of basketball as a key tenet, but come on. This is about money. Not education, not better basketball, not the salvation of misguided youth. It's about money, the elimination of some small slice of financial risk for NBA owners and the enrichment of the high-powered athletic programs of American college sports.

    Nothing makes for better controversy than when NCAA officials are involved.

    Yet, somehow we're just at No. 5. Stern has plenty of quarrelsome moments up his sleeve.

No. 4: Teamless in Seattle

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    After 41 years, Seattle's first and most beloved sports franchise left for Oklahoma City. Although Oklahoma oil baron Clay Bennett was at the heart of the heist, David Stern was in many regards driving the getaway car.

    Before Bennett entered the picture, Stern in 2006 was issuing threats to the good people of Seattle to show a stronger commitment to their team.That commitment, like any in life, was tied to how much money the state and city were willing to fork over for a new stadium  or renovations to Key Arena:

    I would say that the city is making it pretty clear of what they want us to do, and we'll accommodate them...

    What I mean is they're not interested in having the NBA there. We understand that, we understand that there are competing issues, and the mayor is free to make whatever decisions he needs to make and I support that.

    But that's a pretty strong signal and I think that the existing ownership has said they don't want to own a team that's not in Seattle, so I know what they're in the process of doing. So we'll just see how this play ends.

    Well, as we now know the play ended in a tragedy befitting Shakespeare. The Sonics ownership indeed didn't want to own a team outside Seattle, so they sold the club to Bennett. Bennett's farcical negotiations for a new stadium went nowhere and Stern gleefully approved the move from Seattle to Oklahoma City.

    In typical Stern fashion he was magnanimous in his twisting of the knife in Seattle's heart back in July 2008:

    We are pleased that the Sonics and the City of Seattle have settled their litigation. While the decision has been made to relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma City, the NBA continues to regard Seattle as a first-class NBA city that is capable of serving as home for another NBA team.

    As we await the NBA's reemergence in Seattle, I fear that the return will be as controversial as the departure. Stern may right one wrong with the Sonics by precipitating heartache in Sacramento.

    He still has one year to get that job done.

No. 3: The 1985 Draft

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    From time to time, there are murmurs that the NBA draft may be rigged.

    No single draft produced as much murmuring as the very first draft lottery in 1985. Prior to the lottery, the worst team from each conference flipped a coin and the winner received the No. 1 pick. The Houston Rockets had won back-to-back No. 1 picks in this fashion and the lottery was touted as the solution to this problem.

    As it so happened in 1985, a franchise-changing center, Patrick Ewing, was entering the draft. Meanwhile, the New York Knicks had lost Bernard King to a devastating knee injury and limped to 24 wins. With the third-worst record in the league, the Knicks in previous seasons would have been guaranteed the third pick. But with the lottery system, they had a shot at No. 1.

    And wouldn't you know it, they won!

    Just watching the video of the 1985 lottery taking place is unfathomable. Selecting giant envelopes out of a giant spinning drum was the best system for this to take place? The lottery is most likely not rigged, but simply not handing the top overall pick to the worst team record-wise opens the door to conspiracy theories. And conspiracy theories open the door to controversy.

    Nonetheless, we've seen over 25 years now of draft lotteries and I doubt it's going anywhere.

No. 2: The Chris Paul Trade Veto

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    Taken in a vacuum, David Stern's veto of a trade should hardly rise to No. 2 in a countdown of his reign of controversy.

    But with context, this veto turns into a firestorm of drama and outcry.

    With the NBA lockout of 2011 barely over, the New Orleans Hornets agreed to trade Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-way swap with the Houston Rockets. David Stern intervened and squashed the deal before it could be officially consummated. In delivering the veto, Stern revealed a quagmire of untenable positions he had allowed to fester in New Orleans.

    Firstly, the Hornets under the ownership of George Shinn had become financially unstable. After unsuccessfully seeking a private buyer, Shinn sold his franchise to the 29 other league owners. This move was unprecedented in NBA history. Stern promised that day-to-day basketball operations would remain in the hands of the Hornets staff.

    Secondly, the NBA lockout had just ended and fans were already grumpy with Stern's dramatic ways. Declarations of "nuclear winter" and "enormous consequences" tired the patience of many a fan.

    Thirdly, word of the trade broke quickly and wildly with everyone believing it was a done deal. Stern's veto didn't merely appear to be nixing a proposal. It seemed to be the outright reversal of an agreed upon, sealed deal.

    Taken together this conflagration of conflicting interest, exasperated public, and instantaneous media communication created wails of a commissioner gone mad and drunk on power.

    Stern wasn't perturbed in the least and defended his actions nearly one year ago:

    Since the NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets, final responsibility for significant management decisions lies with the commissioner's office in consultation with team chairman Jac Sperling. All decisions are made on the basis of what is in the best interests of the Hornets. In the case of the trade proposal that was made to the Hornets for Chris Paul, we decided, free from the influence of other NBA owners, that the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.

    This moment of controversy was largely self-inflicted, and Stern had himself to blame. However, our No. 1 controversy was not of Stern's making, but it certainly fed into a perception of Stern running a rigged league.

No. 1: The Rogue Offical

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    The words David Stern spoke during his July 24, 2007 press conference on the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal summed up how awful this was for himself and the league:

    I have been involved with refereeing, and obviously been involved with the NBA for 40 years in some shape or form. I can tell you that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or a commissioner of the NBA.

    Donaghy's subsequent conviction for gambling on NBA games he officiated impugned the integrity of the NBA. But what really shook Stern to the core was the accusation that Donaghy wasn't a "rogue" official acting on his own.

    After serving his prison term, Donaghy leveled fresh criticism that other officials in the league were just as corrupt as himself. Their corruption, he contended, was in support of the league office:

    It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series. However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew referees A and F to be 'company men,' always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA's interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6.

    Donaghy, obviously, was alluding to the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. The infamous Game 6 in that series was one of the worst officiated in NBA history.

    Perhaps Donaghy used the reputation of that single game to concoct a believable story to feed the public's suspicion—a suspicion borne out of Stern suggesting his dream NBA Finals would be "the Lakers vs. the Lakers." It's comments like that which have made David Stern's reign as commissioner frustrating, interesting and certainly never boring over the last 30 years.

    Hopefully his tiff with Gregg Popovich over player rest is the last we hear of the controversial Stern. But with a year to go in his tenure, I doubt we've seen the last inflammatory moment from David Stern.

    PS—what a great photo of gambling extraordinaires Michael Jordan and Donaghy.


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