The Complicated Legacy of David Stern

Today, David Stern is retiring from his job as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association after 30 years on the job. Stern is leaving the NBA in a much better position than he found it, and he has done more to grow the game of basketball than any of the other three current league commissioners have for their respective sports, but David Stern’s NBA has a lot of room for improvement.

For one thing, this graphic from a game the other night does a great job of quantifying Stern’s impact on the NBA. The games were aired in two countries in 1984 (U.S. and Canada, I’m assuming) while they can be seen in 215 countries today. Under David Stern, the NBA has passed the NHL and MLB to become the second most popular professional sports league after the NFL, and the game of basketball has given soccer a legitimate run for its money internationally. He took a league with a serious drug problem and image problem and has transformed it into one with more marketable stars than any other. Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kevin McHale. Robert Parish. James Worthy. Julius Erving. Scottie Pippin. Isiah Thomas. Clyde Drexler. Charles Barkley. Karl Malone. John Stockton. Hakeem Olajuwon. Patrick Ewing. Kobe Bryant. Shaquille O’Neal. Gary Payton. Reggie Miller. David Robinson. Tim Duncan. Chris Webber. Dirk Nowitzki. Steve Nash. Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett. Ray Allen. Jason Kidd. LeBron James. Dwayne Wade. Carmelo Anthony. Yao Ming. Pau Gasol. Dwight Howard. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Kevin Love. Steph Curry. And the list goes on. On one hand, he caught lightning in a bottle when he inherited the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird rivalry, which had already revived college hoops and was about to created a showdown for the ages with the 1984 Finals, but Stern deserves a lot of credit for keeping that momentum going for three decades.

Allowing NBA players to participate in the Olympics is perhaps the biggest factor in growing the game. The 1992 USA “Dream Team” is the greatest basketball roster ever assembled, and their dominance in Barcelona inspired a generation of international stars. In the 2012 Olympics, the United States still won Olympic Gold, but the competition was much stiffer because basketball has grown so much in countries like Spain, Germany, France, Argentina, and Turkey.

The NBA’s star power is also part of the NBA’s flaw. Too much emphasis is placed on the achievements of the individual in what is supposed to be a team game. David Stern’s NBA is a league where star players get the benefit of the doubt from referees, because an awesome dunk won’t get played on SportsCenter if he gets called for traveling while driving to the hoop. If star players foul out, they won’t be able to make it exciting at the end. The disparity between the stars and the guys who have to work hard to get the last spot on the bench is greater in the NBA than it is in every other sport. Months after becoming commissioner, he got his first conspiracy theory in the 1984 NBA Finals. Larry Bird told Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe that David Stern wanted a Game 7, so the officials called Game 6 in the Lakers’ favor. That’s a pretty harsh accusation, and Stern would later develop a reputation for fining player and coaches who question the integrity of the officiating (which happens all the time), but Larry Legend was never fined for those comments.

The C’s ended up winning Game 7, but David Stern’s NBA has gone on to have more conspiracy theories than the NFL, NHL, and MLB combined. In the 2010 playoffs, the officiating was awful. The NBA was still only a few years removed from a serious betting scandal involving a referee, and it seemed that every other day, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, and Stan Van Gundy, the three best coaches in the tournament, were getting fined for second guessing the officiating. It seemed like Stern and the NBA had something to hide. The other three leagues have their flaws, but sometimes it seems like the NBA is trying to be more like pro wrestling than a real sport. At least pro wrestling is honest about what the product is, and not trying to be a legitimate sports league.

Less than a third of the teams in the NBA won championships in the 30 years Stern was at the helm. The other three leagues have all had at least half their teams win in that same time span. It’s become a league where you need at least two or three Hall of Fame caliber superstars to win a title, and those guys don’t grow on trees. Every year, there are maybe five or six teams with a real chance to win it all. Those odds make it hard to stay interested in basketball. Even in Boston, where the Celtics had been a contender for the last six years, fans saw the Bruins and Red Sox build championship teams and the Patriots reach a Super Bowl since the Celtics last reached the Finals in 2010. Rebuilding in the NBA can take decades, and there’s not guaranteed formula for success. I would like to see an NBA with a greater emphasis on the team, a more level playing field, and more exciting competition.

Now it’s Adam Silver’s turn to run the NBA. David Stern did some great things for the league, but it’s time for a new voice for the future. I don’t know much about Adam Silver (in fact, I have to consult Google a lot because I frequently get him confused with Nate Silver), but I’m excited to see what direction the NBA takes in the coming years. David Stern built the NBA into a powerhouse, but now it’s time to legitimize the business.

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