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David Stern: Littlefinger of the NBA

Former commissioner's impact on NBA impossible to deny


Perhaps unfairly, I consider the cunning manipulator from the “Game of Thrones” series a proxy to David Stern. The longtime NBA commissioner lacks Petyr Baelish’s brazen amorality, but resembles him in that he leans on a supreme intellect and a ruthless devotion to his goals to foster an aura of intimidation that belies his 5-foot-7-inch stature.

I would call what drives Stern some form of the Napoleon complex, except Stern would definitely kick Bonaparte’s derriere in collective bargaining negotiations. Love or loathe Stern and Littlefinger, you have to respect their importance.

In a transition buried last weekend by the Super Bowl hype machine and college basketball’s becoming more ludicrous than the last 30 minutes of “American Psycho,” Stern relinquished control of the league he helped build into a multi-billion dollar empire during 30 years at the helm. By most quantitative measures, his reign counts as a resounding success, one that saw player salaries jump from an average of $330,000 to $5 million and the game grow from a niche American sport to a global powerhouse. In qualitative terms, his legacy is more muddled.

For an exhaustive account of Stern’s tenure, refer to David Aldridge’s excellent oral history on or Tom Ziller’s highlight reel at SB Nation. What follows here is a discussion of how his term as commissioner shaped our generation’s relationship to sports today.

More than anything else, Stern’s career is defined by his unyielding quest to market the NBA experience as a ubiquitous consumption good, a product with appeal to as diverse an audience as possible by highlighting the star power of its players. His NBA became necessary thought-fodder for all athletes and sports fans.

Though the league has changed radically since Stern assumed control in 1984, he never really stopped trying to fix the most pressing problem that confronted him upon succeeding Larry O’Brien. He had to take a league beset by rumors of drug use and a steady undercurrent of racism and make it palatable for a world audience.

Again, the evidence tells us he pulled it off. From the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry to the Jordan era to the Yao-driven Asian explosion to LeBron, Stern’s league has gained worldwide traction by stressing a simple but powerful mantra: “These players are freaking amazing, and you should pay money to experience them in any way possible.”

I admit my evidence for this is mostly anecdotal. But I contend that this transformation of the league into a stage for its brightest stars shaped the way our generation understands sports. Take Michael Jordan, the easiest example but certainly not the only one. Jordan seemed to live on a separate but somehow attainable plane of existence. By combining preternatural skill with an alluring charisma and unprecedented commercial exposure, he rendered athletic pre-eminence both a superhuman quality and an achievable goal. Bestowed upon a handpicked few, it was an honor earned through hard work nonetheless. Even while we marveled that Jordan was accomplishing the impossible, our constant interaction with him as a person — a shrugging, tongue-wagging, Hanes-wearing bald dude — offered a faint glimmer of hope that we too could be Like Mike in whatever sport or discipline we chose. Though not universally liked, perhaps, Jordan did seem universally relatable.

Stern’s relentless emphasis on enhancing the NBA’s brand played an invaluable role in establishing the basketball star as someone for an inner-city kid or a suburban brat or an adult from Shanghai to appreciate and consider.

It also rendered him a tyrant.

Because nearly all his actions stemmed from his desire to maximize the league’s appeal, the integrity of the game has too often taken a backseat to selling tickets, jerseys and airtime to a diverse audience. This helps explain why Stern came down hard on recreational drugs in the 1980s — banning players such as Micheal Ray Richardson for life — to counter criticism of the league’s culture, but has implemented a performance-enhancing drug policy with all the stringent enforcement of the legal drinking age on Boy’s Bid Night.

It accounts for why he treated shoddy officiating with a shrug and empty rhetoric for more than two decades, and still employs mopes such as Joey Crawford and Bennett Salvatore.

Even his pioneering campaigns in educating people about HIV, introducing the game to other nations and building the WNBA — noble undertakings at face value — can be cynically characterized as ploys to protect Magic Johnson’s transcendent star-power and cater to new customers. Throw in errant crusades such as the dress code and his penchant for doling out fines and punishments without real hope of appeal, and a villainous portrait of Stern emerges. He was a capitalist who dedicated his energy to optimizing his product as he saw fit, often disregarding dissenting opinions and moral reservations.

Still, though a bully in many ways, calling him the evil mastermind of the NBA distorts his impact. He did not engineer Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in a lab. He did not bless MJ with an almost sociopathic competitive streak. He did not slip a young Yao Ming human growth hormone to ensure he would develop into a 7-foot-6-inch beast. And he certainly had no hand in developing this current crop of superstars — LeBron, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul among a few — into an absurdly talented but thoroughly decent-seeming group of league ambassadors.

For all his effectiveness as a micromanager, Stern’s most important contribution to the world of sport is as an exhibitionist. By focusing on the superstar, he highlighted basketball’s function as compelling human drama — the most intimate expression of the interplay of physicality, intellect and emotion which governs all sports. Not everyone likes Stern’s NBA. But people from everywhere feel some way about its players.

Whether you cherished the beautiful aspects of Stern’s tenure, detested its grotesque elements or struggled to reconcile the conflict between the two, the little commissioner’s league remains worth thinking and talking about for anyone remotely interested in sports. Under Stern’s watch, basketball stars became both larger than life and familiar — people to revere, emulate, revile or simply discuss. His league showcased sport not only as a mode of entertainment or recreational activity, but as a pathway to a form of immortality any of us could theoretically reach.

Love it or loathe it, you have to respect the NBA’s importance.