Some of the greats, mostly because of ego, stick around a few years beyond their amazing skills. Michael Jordan with the Wizards, Karl Malone with the Lakers, Larry Bird with the bad back -- they all tried to squeeze out a bit more, often making us wince and wonder what they used to be.
So why should commissioners be any different?
Many years from now, David Stern won’t be remembered for a mud-slinging lockout last summer that shortened the season to 66 games, and for nixing a New Orleans trade, and for a handful of PR-backfiring rule enforcements, no more than anyone will hold The Rockets Years against Charles Barkley. It's not like Stern erased an entire season, and besides, who was thinking about the lockout six months later when Miami and Oklahoma City played in the Finals, with LeBron James and Kevin Durant going head to head?
History will judge Stern as whole rather than a soiled segment; his body of work shows more muscle than flab, and that will be -- or at least should be -- reflected. He oversaw tremendous and unprecedented growth across the board for the NBA, made the owners doubly rich and ruled a league where even mediocre players made millions.
For the most part, the NBA was trendy and edgy on Stern’s Rolex, a league that enjoyed smooth public relations until recently, crossed racial and social lines, blew up internationally and became part of pop culture. That makes it even more unusual to see the shape the league and Stern are in today, both enjoying financial success but suffering from a fair measure of scorn and suspicion.
And so he announced Thursday he will step down on Feb. 1, 2014, giving him exactly 30 years on the job, making him the longest-tenured commissioner in American professional sports. He knew how to make an entrance, back in 1984, when a troubled league begged for fresh direction. But his exit doesn’t have the same sense of pop and perfect timing, as Stern’s image with fans and players took a beating, somewhat deservedly, during and after last fall’s labor fight.
The right moment for Stern to make way for Adam Silver, the loyal deputy who’ll be the next commissioner, was two years ago, right after the Celtics and Lakers reached Game 7 in the Finals and before LeBron James made a decision. He had a narrow window in which to pull off a clean escape. This would’ve spared Stern the ugliness of another lockout that saw public opinion side with players and turn nasty toward the man who helped symbolize massive change in the ’80s.
But in a sense, the stubborn side of Stern helped pave the way for the next guy in charge. By taking all the labor bullets, Stern spared Silver from any backlash. Can you imagine the pure hell of starting a job under that kind of pressure? Silver would’ve instantly been lumped with Roger Goodell or Gary Bettman, two commissioners under siege. Instead, in the spring of 2014, he’ll have labor peace and a league that’s doing well, if not great, financially.
Stern’s responsibility for the NBA’s surge in popularity is up for debate. Exactly how much should he be credited for that? Again, timing was Stern’s best friend: He came into the league when Magic and Bird were squaring off in June, and when Jordan began to take off, and when Nike enhanced the image of players through sneaker ads and sales.
Stern’s legacy is mainly tied to money. In the last quarter-century, franchise values soared before stabilizing; the Mavericks cost $10 million in 1980 and, according to a 2012 report by Forbes, are now worth nearly $500 million. Forbes also estimates the collective value of all franchises is $12 billion. Average player salaries are now $6 million to $7 million, with their guaranteed contracts the envy of basketball players elsewhere. The NBA playoffs were tape-delayed in the early ’80s; now games are on three networks in a near-billion-dollar TV package.
He pushed for expansion, with mixed results. The league failed in Vancouver and now, with 30 teams, seems bloated, with some small-market franchises either breaking even or losing money, and there’s scarcely enough top-shelf talent to go around.
There’s a big international market for the NBA, thanks to Stern, adding more money through merchandizing, while the league enjoys sponsorship deals with major corporations, tapping into another revenue stream.
Stern approved rules designed to improve the game's appearance, even if they weren't universally accepted. There were awkward developments in his tenure: the dress code for players, the microfiber basketball and, most damaging, the conspiracies. They began with the "frozen envelope" that put Patrick Ewing in New York, and amped even higher with the Tim Donaghy referee scandal that shook the game's credibility. Suddenly, fair or not, almost everything the league and Stern did was considered sneaky and a way to help the glamour markets and players.
In summary, here’s the NBA under Stern: Owners are richer, players are richer, fans are … well, depends who you ask.
“Our game is very, very popular,” Stern said, citing season-ticket renewal rates. “The game is just in a terrific state.”
Well, sure, on some levels, he's right. TV ratings and merchandise sales are at historic levels for the league. But do those numbers tell the entire story? Not really, because in terms of image, the league receives more complaints about quality of play than it ever did in the Golden Age of the ’80s, when there were fewer lousy teams and more transcendent stars. Maybe that's more due to Jordan's retirement, but the league won't be in the same overall condition when Stern leaves.
There won’t be any tears shed for Stern, if only because few commissioners are truly missed. They’re like referees: If you’re spending time discussing them, it’s usually not for good reasons. And Stern, unfortunately, found himself trending a lot last fall and winter after the league’s fourth player lockout under his command.
History will look beyond the last lockout and say he was a good commissioner, not great. He helped market the game and the stars globally and invited change. He didn’t introduce any innovations and the NBA remains No. 3 among the Big Four sports. Most of all, his last four years weren’t as wonderful as his first four.
As he prepares to leave, a portion of the basketball world will say thanks, while another more cynical segment will add, “for nothing.”