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What’s with the overpraise for pro basketball commissioner David Stern?

NBA Commisioner David Stern

Twenty-five years ago this month, Larry O’Brien —having decided that it was quite enough for one lifetime to have shepherded a Catholic through West Virginia’s Democratic primary and the Great Society through Congress; modernized the postal system; twice chaired the Democratic National Committee; had his Watergate offices burglarized by the first celebrity unlicensed plumber of the crackpot right wing, G. Gordon Liddy; and, almost as an afterthought, rescued professional basketball from tape-delayed oblivion —stepped down as NBA commissioner and eased into his emeritus period as the man who, in the words of one owner at the time, made you feel “good about the league.”

Appointed the NBA’s third commissioner in 1975, O’Brien had done nothing less than drag the business of pro hoops into the modern era. He brokered the ABA-NBA merger, began eyeing the international markets, helped to midwife an equitable system of free agency, handled the inevitable round of drug hysteria with a remarkably deft touch, and turned what had been a fractious and litigious league into something on which cable networks lavished millions of dollars. He had done his job, and done it well, and even in an increasingly open-shop America, it should count for something that Marvin Miller, the founder of the baseball players union and an occasional adviser to the NBA Players Association in its early days, considers O’Brien perhaps the most progressive commissioner the sports world has known. (Of course, next to Kenesaw Mountain Landis, even Bud Selig looks like Mother Jones.) After O’Brien announced his retirement, the Washington Post’s Ken Denlinger wrote, “[T]he league really is, to use the phrase O’Brien uttered so often during his 8 1/2-year tenure, ‘in the most stable condition in its history.’ “

It has been David Stern’s NBA ever since, and that has been more than enough time for people to forget everything O’Brien had accomplished. This is basketball, where a pair of throwback Air Maxes counts as a sense of history. Now, on the occasion of Stern’s silver anniversary, the hoops world has taken it upon itself to deliver toast after giddy toast to the man’s achievements, each one more ignorant of O’Brien’s legacy than the last. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that without Stern, the NBA would be on the same level with equestrian or water polo. Or worse … the NHL,” went one recent assessment. And in an interview with the Associated Press, Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof dropped the following history on our heads: “The NBA was headed for disaster, and he saved the league. The league had a lot of problems. There was disinterest, there was no fan interest, no big TV contract. I mean, David single-handedly saved the NBA.”

This is the sort of insight one would expect from a frat-boy dilettante who counts Tara Reid a close associate: Among other things, Maloof fails to acknowledge Magic and Bird (who debuted during the late O’Brien years) as one ingredient in the NBA’s revival. And yet this is a fairly accurate representation of a conventional wisdom that credits Stern with everything short of nailing up the first peach basket. O’Brien’s NBA may not have been the neon wizbang thing it became on Stern’s watch, but it was certainly a league on the make. The day the owners agreed unanimously to install the 41-year-old Stern, then an executive vice president for business and legal affairs, the vote didn’t even appear on the agenda. There were more pressing issues to attend to, among them the purchase of the Seattle SuperSonics for $21 million, a sum that, while a pittance next to the bribe Clay Bennett recently paid to smuggle the Sonics into Oklahoma, did not bespeak a league headed for disaster.

If you don’t see that the roots of the modern game lie in O’Brien’s tenure, then you aren’t looking. It was O’Brien who, not long after taking the job in 1975, negotiated a settlement to Oscar Robertson’s six-year-old antitrust suit, thus doing away with the reserve clause and removing barriers to both free agency and the ABA-NBA merger, not to mention empowering the very black athlete Stern would market heavily a decade later. Sports Illustrated hailed his first collective-bargaining agreement as “the most progressive in sports.”

In 1983, within a six-month period, O’Brien, along with his lieutenants (among them Stern and current NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman), reached two landmark agreements with the union that at last steered the league out of rough weather. One was the drug program, which has been overpraised for taking a hard line on players caught with prohibited substances (originally a lifetime suspension, with reviews every two years) and underpraised for offering anonymous treatment and counseling to players who voluntarily come forward.

The other was a salary cap, a necessary expedience, the NBA argued, in a time of financial uncertainty around the league. In 1981, 16 of 23 teams reportedly lost money, and four were up for sale. At the time, the agreement supposedly offered smaller teams a chance to compete for players, though later, in the fat years, the cap began to look more and more like a kind of lampshade collar, designed to protect the owners from themselves. In 1985, with two-thirds of the teams turning a profit, Stern told the Washington Post: “The adoption of the salary cap, together with the drug program, will some day be looked at historically as the turning point in the history of the NBA.”

The collective-bargaining agreements of those years created the chimerical impression of an eternal management-labor partnership in league affairs. Marvin Miller suggests now that the cooperation had more to do with the specific personalities involved. O’Brien, he recalls, “would seek me out and talk to me about labor-management problems. He was always very knowledgeable, always cooperative. It was never on a hostile basis. … Stern was cut from a different cloth.”

It’s little noted that Stern has presided over three lockouts in his time, only one of which cost the league any games. In this, as in everything else, his timing has been impeccable. He took over the NBA at a cultural moment when public figures were judged by the quality of their salesmanship, and a league once run by lawyers has slowly given way to a league run by marketers. (His deputy and presumptive replacement, Adam Silver, once headed up the NBA’s entertainment division.) And he has used his marketing savvy to great advantage over the years, most notably in spreading the hoop-ish gospel to all corners of the globe without much chest-thumping, a smiling sort of soft imperialism. (Stern now receives almost exclusive credit for the globalization of the game, which ignores the early inroads laid by O’Brien and even NBA Players Association General Counsel Larry Fleisher, whose sons Marc and Eric, both agents, took up the cause in the late 1980s after their father’s death and imported Vlade Divac and Sarunas Marciulionis from overseas. It could also reasonably be argued that the collapse of the Soviet Union and its sports system cracked the game wide open, which means that Vaclav Havel is at least partly to blame for Nikoloz Tskitishvili.)

It’s Stern’s keen instinct for marketing both himself and his policies that have kept him from the public shaming you’d expect to greet a three-lockout commish. During the labor strife of the 1990s, which centered on the league’s efforts to close the myriad loopholes in the salary cap and wrap its arms around the galactic piles of TV and licensing money that few could have envisioned in 1983, Stern and the owners devised a public relations strategy around the twin Selig-ian ideas that the league was hurting for money (it wasn’t) and that its players were a bunch of loutish and entitled greedheads with little stake in the game itself (“Nasty, Brutish Athletes,” as a Wall Street Journal op-ed put it). This was an easy sell so soon after baseball’s vaporized 1994 season. “If a young player blows off practice, he knows the worst that can happen is that the club will fine him. … But what if he makes so much, he doesn’t care?” Phoenix Suns executive Cotton Fitzsimmons toldSports Illustrated, which seemed to appreciate the notion of bringing “to heel … the league’s whining young players.”

The league emerged from that lockout holding one of the more absurdly management-friendly CBAs in sports, on the strength of such collusive provisions as the maximum contract (something is seriously amiss when you have both Stephon Marbury and the Sherman Act arrayed convincingly against you). The cost-saving mechanisms built in to the 1999 agreement have cosseted Stern from criticism that he has failed to diversify and modernize the NBA’s revenue streams much beyond ticket sales and Dazzling Dunks and Basketball Bloopers, the way Major League Baseball has with its wildly successful digital media arm.

The NBA commissioner has a uniquely difficult job. Nowhere else in sports does a commissioner have to hawk his game to the very suburban reactionaries who would turn it into a straw man for their own demographic nightmares. There has been a lot of glib talk in recent weeks that Stern has removed race from the conversation. In reality, he has merely sent it underground, where it burbles beneath everything from an official NBA magazine airbrushing out Allen Iverson’s tattoos to the Pacers-Pistons brawl to the league’s cynical and patronizing minimum-age rule.

Stern is by all accounts one of the few real liberals in the industry, and he has expressed misgivings over the shabby treatment of his players in the public square. But he has also implicitly accepted the premise of these retrograde grumblings about the NBA. We’re now in the third season of the league’s dress code, which mandates that players wear “business casual” attire whenever engaged in league activities and which the New York Times identified as part of “the NBA’s latest push to look a little less gangsta and a little more genteel.” This was pretty transparently a response to what everyone innocently called, in the wake of the Pacers-Pistons fight, the league’s “image problem,” as if it had sprouted organically from the floorboards of the Palace of Auburn Hills.

“We have a minimum standard that we set that reflects on the professionalism of our sport,” Stern told reporters, presenting his plan as the harmless sort of policy any company might adopt. Behind the scenes, he enforced the code with almost creepy vigor—the league initially determined compliance by photographing players as they entered and left the arena, fining them as warranted. It was vintage Stern. He had pandered to the wide reactionary streak in basketball’s audience that his handling of the lockout doubtlessly exacerbated. And he was rewarded with yet another piece of player autonomy, something that basketball’s authorities have felt, in the 25 years since Larry O’Brien left the boardroom, has been theirs to take.