When the game was theirs, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird epitomized an era of basketball. They were the vehicles through which the NBA became a personality-driven league in the 1980s. Then, taking the NBA’s reigns from Magic and Bird, there was Michael Jordan, who to this day probably remains its singularly greatest icon. But as common as it is for the great players of their era to become the sport’s icons, there are occasionally a few other non-playing or non-superstar personalities who nonetheless become unavoidable. For in the NBA pantheon, for better or worse, there is also its commissioner, David Stern. (The two of them, Stern and Jordan, are pictured together above in what I believe is Stern’s rookie year as commissioner.)
Stern has more than once been called the best commissioner of any major professional sports league. Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, is a David Stern protg. It’s tricky to get to the heart of what it is specifically that gets you recognized as a truly remarkable sports executive. Stern, while being known as a harsh disciplinarian as well as a savvy businessman, is credited with using the cult of personality around Magic and Bird as a blueprint for how to market the NBA and the game of basketball to the general public.
Michael Jordan’s personal brand is the most successful the NBA has ever seen (even more than Jerry “The Logo” West). I think Stern gave both a skillful and meaningful answer when he was asked what was his favorite NBA memory. Stern picked the moment when Jordan knocked down a stupefying sixth 3-point shot during the first half of game one of the NBA finals in 1992, and then turned and shrugged his shoulders toward the announcers’ table, as if to say that even he had no idea how all of his shots were going in. Stern picked that moment as his favorite, he said, because it was Magic Johnson, sitting over at the NBC table that he supposed Jordan was really gesturing toward. It was a moment shared between two generations of the NBA. Like the superstars of the game, David Stern has a love for these iconic moments.
Recently, an ESPN.com article by Ian O’Connor suggested another similarity between Stern and superstar players like Magic and Jordan. And that similarity is a kind of difficulty with endings, specifically, not knowing when it’s the right moment to walk away form the game. Magic Johnson should’ve probably stayed retired after the all-star game he played in during the first year the league was without him (the same year that later featured Jordan’s shrug in the finals) because it was such a triumphant moment for Magic. Jordan probably shouldn’t have initiated his comeback (number two) with the Washington Wizards. Here in Toronto, we were witness, in Michael Jordan’s last ever game in our city, to a career-low 2-point performance. Obviously, not so amazing. David Stern, O’Connor believes, has also overstayed his welcome and should have retired and handed over the reigns of the league to someone else before the current collective-bargaining/work-stoppage evolved into the mess it is now.
I think that Stern might well consider his finest act, the true legacy-maker, to be bringing Yao Ming to the NBA and breaking into the Chinese market (as well as internationalizing the game of basketball). If Stern’s legacy as commissioner is in jeopardy now, because he should’ve walked away before the current lockout (which he doesn’t seem to know how to solve) became a reality, it’s a measure of his iconic stature in today’s basketball landscape. He’d have to be to have an important enough legacy to ruin. I can’t agree with most of the ways O’Connor characterizes the NBA lockout as Stern’s failure to simultaneously solve a problem and yet be willing to do anything it possibly takes to ensure that games aren’t cancelled, but I think it’s interesting to characterize David Stern as a kind of iconic figure in this way.
Personally, I’d have to say that Stern’s most legacy-defining moment came in 2001 when he handed the league MVP trophy to Allen Iverson. Iverson was always a troubled but exceptionally talented player, who probably best epitomized everything perceived to be wrong with the NBA. Iverson had the stereotypical look of thug. He was the embodiment of prejudices that the NBA was too black and too vulgar for it’s mostly mainstream and white audience. But Iverson’s success in the league came during a time when Stern was at his most disciplinarian (see the players’ dress code) and when his influence was defining the shape of the NBA. Stern made it possible to both challenge and change the image of the league and still make it possible for Iverson to achieve his greatest success. Both men just seemed bizarrely good at what they were doing. Game recognize game. Of course the night he was presented with his trophy, Iverson went out to scorch the Toronto Raptors for over 50 points in the pivotal fifth game of our playoff series against Iverson’s 76ers.
Maybe if Stern had stepped away before the lockout happened we would have been spared his strange (but entertaining) speech to the players during last season’s all-star break about knowing “where the bodies are buried,” or his sometimes patronizing attitude towards today’s players. (Of course, Stern has done and seen much more than today’s NBA players so it’s true that he knows things they don’t know, but that’s not always a recipe for success.) Then maybe the players, especially the superstars, wouldn’t be so emphatic in their resistance to Stern, so determined that today’s NBA is their playground.
I’m not saying that the NBA isn’t their playground. I just want to be able to watch some basketball. And to remember David Stern as the league’s iconic commissioner, a force to be reckoned with, and once upon a time a force for the good of the whole NBA.