Right field: Contemplating the legacy of David Stern
His departure date is set, but the legacy of the NBA's all-powerful commissioner David Stern remains up for debate
There will never be another commissioner like David Stern. Never. The NBA owners will make certain of that. A few weeks back we wrote about how the dictatorial behaviour of the commissioners of the NBA, NHL and NFL were behind the recent shutdowns of their game and Stern was identified as the archetype of the non-accountable league boss. He has ruled the NBA more by royal decree than consensus. But unlike most dictators, Stern surprisingly has a plan of succession. This week he announced that he would retire in February 2014, exactly 30 years since he assumed the post, and that his deputy commissioner Adam Silver would take over.
Stern has come under intense criticism the past few years on a number of issues and there have been rumblings that some of the owners were actively trying to curtail his vast powers, a move unthinkable five years ago. So instead of answering the growing criticism concerning his tenure, Stern will spend the next 15 months personally defining his legacy and gladly accepting the numerous tributes. According to Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski, thanks to his very premature retirement announcement Stern has "changed the conversation from people ridiculing his petty, self-centred management style to people exulting his vision."
No other sports league in North America has been viewed as suspiciously as the NBA under Stern. Accusations range from rigging draft lotteries to dubious refereeing calls to ensure big-market teams make the finals. Some actually have credibility. Referee Tim Donaghy was arrested for fixing games and proceeded to expose the double standard NBA refs employ towards certain stars and teams, some of it directed by the league office. Through it all Stern would smile in a condescending manner. The accusations were not even worthy of a denial, he would say.
But there was one thing no one could deny: under Stern's leadership the NBA became massively successful in the US and arguably the most popular professional league in the world. Here in Asia Stern's legacy resonates. Long before Major League Baseball or the English Premier League had a presence on the ground in Asia, the NBA opened an office in Hong Kong. Not only were they the first professional league to set up out here, they were by far the most professionally run and this was all because of Stern. His people would also bombard our e-mail boxes with endless, inane press releases concerning their corporate partners, which led one to assume that the business end of things was more important then the sporting end to the NBA. The NBA also became the first league to hold games in Asia when they started doing exhibition contests in Japan before morphing that into regular-season games.
Over the years I had the opportunity to interview Stern a number of times and he was always accommodating and jovial. He loved Asia, especially the economic potential of it, and was very much at ease here. His China infatuation dated back to his first visit in 1987. Today they have 140 employees spread out through a number of offices in China and a few weeks back the NBA China Games 2012 in Shanghai and Beijing - featuring reigning champions the Miami Heat against the Los Angeles Clippers - were pandemonium.
In a couple of days the NBA regular season will tip off with the Heat hosting the Boston Celtics. The championship banner will be raised in Miami and the players will get their rings and for me this, more than anything, will be Stern's most enduring legacy. Almost 30 years ago he took a forlorn league whose championship broadcasts were on tape delay and unabashedly transformed it from a league of teams to a league of stars. It worked remarkably well and soon the league coffers were overflowing.
But like the monster Dr. Frankenstein created, the Heat are merely a collection of three superstars, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh who decided they wanted to play together. These days star players are following their lead and cherry-picking where and with whom they play. Team cohesion, in fact team play and principles, have been replaced by clearing out space on the court for the superstars to do their thing. I really like the game of basketball, I just don't particularly care for the way it is currently played in the NBA. But it seems I am in the minority because showbiz on the hard court sells. TV ratings are great and business has never been better. And for Stern that really is all that matters.