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David Stern was all business, and that was good for the game

Oct 25, 2012, 10:37 PM EDT

NBA Commissioner Stern holds a news conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals basketball series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat in Miami Reuters

David Stern said Thursday as he talked about stepping down as commissioner that he is not a big fan of the “L”word — legacy. So we’ll call it his story. It could make a good novel.

David Stern’s story is a uniquely American story. His is a story about a smart, savvy, businessman chasing the dollar on behalf of the other, richer men that hired him. He could be genial, he at times was ruthless.

David Stern was all business with the NBA.

The result features so much good — you can argue he saved the NBA and today players and owners prosper because of his vision. But there is a ying to the yang — two lockouts to start with, there are fans in places like Seattle left wanting. Good or bad, everything on his ledger is a result of him chasing money. He will tell you about the good of the game, but for him what is good for the game is seen through the prism of dollar signs.

Ultimately, how you look at Stern’s legacy speaks to how you look at America’s corporate culture. Above everything else Stern was he was a businessman. Adam Silver, the incoming commissioner when Stern steps down in 2014, both embraced and praised that about Stern.

“David has transformed an industry, not just the NBA, and he has done it over 30 years plus…” said Silver at a press conference Thursday, adding that Stern had been the NBA general council before he became commissioner. “I think David is the one who turned sports leagues into brands, if you want to speak business. As (Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor) pointed out, 40-fold increase in television revenue, all kinds of other business metrics we can look at that would define David as one of the great business leaders of our time.”

Stern was a great business and marketing mind, and what great business minds do is seize on an opportunity.

That opportunity came first in the form of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Michael Jordan after them. Those were transcendent personalities, people who made you want to tune in and watch basketball because it was fun and graceful and part work of art. Then they could sell the game afterwards.

But Stern knew how to market those men and to lift the entire NBA by doing so. In 1981 four of the six NBA finals games were shown by CBS on tape delay, but a few years later the NBA was must watch television. Stern knew how to market his stars and while some complain about the NBA being star driven not team driven, the bottom line is that stars drew eyeballs.

If it had not been for Stern and his vision for the television product, the NBA would not be close to what it is today.

He was a marketing man, and that made the NBA owners a lot of money. You don’t get to keep your job as commissioner for 30 years unless your bosses are happy, and the owners have been happy. Franchise values rose with those television deals, which led to new arneas, which led to more and more revenue streams. He grew the league by adding team. He grew the revenue by pushing the league internationally

And the players benefitted, too — they get a cut of all of that revenue. Players’ salaries are required to be a part of the league’s revenue.

But any chase for money has unpleasant consequences.

It was how share all that revenue which led to Stern’s darkest hours — the two NBA lockouts under Sterns watch. His rich owners wanted more money and Stern was happy to be their bulldog and get it from the players. To take that profitable league he built and say how owners couldn’t make money any more came off as condescending, but it didn’t slow him down.

Stern was good was finding rich owners and not really worrying about what they wanted — which led to Seattle being screwed out of a franchise, and the five other cities that saw teams move while Stern was owner.

Even down to the simple things — the NBA’s dress code of a few years ago was aimed at softening the hip-hop image of players and making them more palatable to the older, more conservative, more suburban people paying for the ever-more-expensive luxury boxes and corporate seats near the floor.

In the end, that chase for the almighty dollar may have hurt some but it left us with a better game. It’s a game we can now see for free on our HD televisions almost nightly. The NBA’s rule changes — like the no hand checking on the perimeter — opened up the flow of the game and made it more entertaining. Even things like taking the three-point line from the old ABA helped space the floor and has led to a better product. David Stern understood how to get a product that fans want and could be more easily sold.

The NBA and basketball in general are better off and more popular because of Stern. His legacy is not without scars and tarnish, but in the end the league was better off because of his nearly 30 years in charge.

And through it all, David Stern was all business.

  1. pshanks62 - Oct 25, 2012 at 11:33 PM

    Now that he’s retiring be was awesome…ah sports…

  2. mogogo1 - Oct 25, 2012 at 11:50 PM

    Sorry, but I disagree on several fronts. His marketing genius particularly early on definitely helped the league reach new heights, I give him full credit there. But “business” and “sport” is an uneasy marriage and backing the former totally over the latter never works out well. That’s why every great commissioner was respected for occasionally being the voice of the fan. If Stern ever had that, it was lost completely over the last several years. His legacy over the past few years includes moves that should never have been allowed (Hornets going to New Orleans only to now probably be headed someplace else in the near future), expansion teams born for no reason but to make up for the moves that shouldn’t have happened (Bobcats replacing the Hornets), horrible owners like the Maloofs going unchecked hurting the game, and Stern lobbying that the NBA’s biggest stars be banned from the Olympics because the owners are worried they might get hurt.

    Had he retired a decade ago, he would have went out universally seen as the best commissioner in sports. But today he looks like just an empty suit who has ceded all control and is now just a passenger in the league he once drove.

    • deadeyedesign23 - Oct 26, 2012 at 1:01 PM

      I def disagree about him getting full credit there. He was great at capitalizing on what the league gave him, but Magic and Bird were dropped in his lap. The 2 best players in the league, rivals in college and high school, playing on perennial finalists, in 2 major cities on each coast, one black, one white, wildly different backgrounds…. you literally could not have scripted a better story.

  3. tcclark - Oct 26, 2012 at 12:06 AM

    First of all it’s yin and yang not “ying” and yang.

    But to the important stuff. The game is not better because he chased the dollar. We’ve got maybe 4 teams with a chance for a championship not just this year, but for the next couple. We’ve got a league that is at the mercy of its players who dictate where they play and who they play with. We’ve got a league with a financial system that makes little to no sense with a soft cap and exceptions to every rule. We’ve got referees who show favoritism to star players and soften the game. We’ve got players who openly don’t work on their game and just go by on talent alone (see Jamal Crawford). We’ve got a league where only about half are actually trying to be good, the other half play their season for more ping pong balls. Speaking of which, we’ve got a draft lottery that does nothing but call into question its own process. We’ve got a league with a plethora of young talent that goes unused because of a lack of a minor league system. We’ve got a league with the least exciting playoffs in major sports. And yet, you have a league with fans so true that they come back year in and year out and are rewarded with a less than desirable product.

    The NFL is always the prime example league for other leagues to look upon. They have great parity, a team driven league, and they make more money than everybody. Why can’t the NBA do the same. By making a few changes to the system the product of the NBA would grow tremendously. Implementing a few fledged minor league system would give young players who aren’t ready for the NBA a chance to grow. Players would come into the league more prepared, thus creating more stars and a more competitive league. The NFl does not have a minor league system, they use the college system as their minor leagues. If the NBA didn’t want to implement a minor league, they could extend the age requirements like the NFL. it would give them the same benefits, plus College Basketball would be that much more exciting.

    They also need to do away with the soft cap. Soft caps limit roster flexibility and therefore, they limit growth. In order to do anything in the NBA you have to gut your entire roster. That’s not the way to promote parity in the league. Luck is more prominent in the NBA than any other league because of this system. Teams have to hope and pray on one or two players to work out or the next 5-10 years will be a complete waste.

    The NBA can be an amazing league, but people need to be willing to change it. David Stern was not. He focused too much on short term finances rather than long term gains. Here’s to hoping Adam Silver isn’t as much like Stern as we all know he is.

  4. trbowman - Oct 26, 2012 at 12:28 AM

    I’d say there’s only even three teams with a shot at a title, and really – everyone is expecting Heat/Lakers. The Bulls aren’t beating the Heat in a seven game series, Rose or not.

    The lack of parity is pathetic, but people still tune in big numbers to watch the super teams – so the NBA doesn’t care. You and I can whine and moan about the inevitable Heat/Lakers finals all we want. Reality is, that series is going to get absurd ratings. Record breaking ratings.

    The lottery needs to go. It’s rigged. It doesn’t curtail tanking, as teams still shamelessly tank just to get higher draft picks.

    The poster above me is right about the NBA playoffs being a snoozer, overall. The conference finals and finals are usually good, but the first round is the worst by far. Only in the NBA would teams rather miss the playoffs for draft position. In the NFL and NHL, every team has a shot at a championship if they make it.

    At the least, Silver’s never come off as the pretentious snob Stern always has. Still, I’m not holding my breath that he’ll be much better.

    • deadeyedesign23 - Oct 26, 2012 at 1:05 PM

      I agree about the playoffs…if the money was all the same they should cut out one round of the playoffs. In most yeras the 4 seed would still have an outside shot at the finals. In no way does the 5-8 seed even have a shadow of an opportunity to make the finals so just leave them off.

  5. rajbais - Oct 26, 2012 at 8:03 AM

    “David Stern was all business, and that was good for the game”????

    He was all business by being overly insecure, bothered by things that never mattered, and helped guide 2/3 of these NBA teams to lose money???

    How is that “all business” and “good for the game”???

    He did too little for the game!!!

    If he did more he would have had NO labor stoppage!!!!

    Bud Selig and Paul Tagliabue never had ANY labor stoppage!!

    He inherited the best athletes ever and still stunk!!! Enough of this sucking up to the mediocre Stern because he’s leaving!!!

    He did too little for the game when the end result for the league is “let’s make it about the few individual stars”!!!!

    Tagliabue got Commissioner of the Year by Sporting News (almost) every year!!! He can’t get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame!!!

    How can that be when he was better with his sport than ANYONE else????

    NBA analysis is at an all-time low because they kiss up and overpraise the undeserving!!! This stupid Stern tribute is a GREAT example of that!!!!

  6. hwatt - Oct 26, 2012 at 10:36 AM

    uh, these games aren’t “free” on TV. There are plenty of us who choose not to dump $60+ a month into a cable bill for financial reasons and content reasons (1 or two cable shows a week and sportscenter?… yeah right)

    Now the NFL guarantess we WILL see our home team for free every week. That is awesome. Meanwhile the Bulls own part of the local Comcast Sportsnet, so a huge chunk of local games are strictly on cable. I don’t know how many teams also own part of their local cable channel and do the same. That blows.

  7. hojo20 - Oct 26, 2012 at 10:10 PM

    The Celtics are strictly on cable except for the ABC games.

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