David Stern: Out of the Bushes, Through the Fire, Into the Pantheon

Jan 28 2014, 7:10am CST | by

David Stern: Out of the Bushes, Through the Fire, Into the Pantheon

Legendary commissioners aren’t born, they’re made the hard way. There have been but two in U.S. leagues in the last 50 years (no, Bud Selig isn’t one), the NFL’s Pete Rozelle and the NBA’s David Stern. As venerated as Rozelle is and Stern will be next week when he’s out of the line of fire, neither went out to the sound of cheering but of incoming.

Rozelle, received as a wunderkind in 1960, retired in 1989 after an exhausting decade, wrangling with his owners over his refusal to settle Al Davis’ suit. NFL lawyers wound up knocking the Raiders’ $35 million award down to chump change, but not before new breed owners like Dallas’ Jerry Jones and San Diego’s Alex Spanos had begun embracing the once-isolated Davis.

The NFL lost games to work stoppages in 1982 and 1987. As Rozelle stepped down in 1989, the NFL Players Assn. was preparing to decertify so its former members could file an anti-trust suit.

Stern taking over in the ’80s, an NBA golden age, was hailed by Sports Illustrated in 1991 as the “best commissioner in sports… the equal of [Rozelle] and baseball’s Kenesaw Mountain Landis.” Now you can’t bring up Stern’s name without hearing about Tim Donaghy, the crooked referee; stars like LeBron James joining Dwyane Wade in Miami, making themselves bigger than the game; incessant replays, suspensions, et al., in what the New York Times called Stern’s “long, storied, occasionally polarizing tenure.”

On the other hand, you no longer hear the old charge that the NBA works only for rich teams. Nor is there a trace of the self-loathing in what was once dismissed as a “YMCA league,” that reached its highest expressions with Wilt Chamberlain’s “My Life in a Bush League” Sports Illustrated cover in 1965.

A distant third behind the NFL and baseball through the 1980s, the NBA is now a behemoth. With the owners slicing the players’ 58-42 share of revenue to 50-50 in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, profits and franchise values are ramping up. In an eye-popping bequest to his successor, Adam Silver’s first major piece of business will be to negotiate new network TV deals amid projections that rights fees could double from their current $930 million a season.

The 2011 labor talks were a masterpiece for Stern, despite the fact he was no longer the absolute ruler he had been for 20 years, when Bulls/White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a force behind the scenes in baseball, didn’t attend NBA meetings, saying everything was already decided.

Two sources in the room described an exchange between Stern and the Clippers’ Donald Sterling at an owners meeting in Las Vegas in the run-up to the lockout. Pressed by Stern for his opinion, Sterling demurred, then blurted, “I would fire you. You’re great at marketing but you’re not tough enough with the union.”

If Sterling was a loner, there was real pressure from new breed owners like Dallas’ Mark Cuban and an insurgent small market coalition. Stern adeptly made their draconian demands his and delivered, staying well away from a January drop-dead date by sheer sleight of hand. With the players looking at seven weeks of lost paychecks, counting start-up time, Stern offered to make three of them up if they settled in time to start on Christmas. They did.

(Of course, negotiations between millionaires and billionaires have a lot of room for compromise. NBA players remain the highest paid at an average of $5.2 million annually. Minimums, starting at $490,000 for a rookie free agent, are also the highest.)

This ended a 12-year odyssey, in which Stern sailed his ship through the perfect storm of the post-Michael Jordan era that began in 1999 hen Mike left Chicago, ending the NBA’s heyday. TV ratings cratered. Players rumbled with each other–and fans–on the floor and in the stands in the 2004 Auburn Hills Riot. Worst of all, a 2007 FBI investigation turned up Donaghy, who admitted giving information to gamblers, insisting he hadn’t fixed games—but claiming that other referees had, at the league’s direction. If none of Donaghy’s charges were corroborated, they left the NBA all but radioactive.

With the economy struggling and ad budgets slashed in 2001, the NBA was in the wrong place at the wrong time to start talks for a post-MJ TV deal. NBC’s Bob Ebersol, who had walked away from the NFL four years before, offered a 33% cut from $1.8 billion to $1.2 billion–going that high only because Stern had invited the Walt Disney Co. into the process. Noting Disney’s losses from televising NFL games at sky-high rates, media analyst Brian Schecter told the New York Times, “If David Stern pulls this out of his hat, he’s a true magician of TV rights negotiations.”

Stern pulled a six-year deal averaging $767 million out of his hat–with Disney paying $485 million of it, 50% more than NBC offered–taking the bulk of his package to cable with ABC airing fewer games and only two rounds of the playoffs and the rest on ESPN and Turner. Daring as it seemed (“Cable is said to muscle out NBC for NBA rights,” said the New York Times headline), it carried the league to the brink of a better day.

Having dodged so many cannonballs, Stern saw NBA fortunes turn up, starting with the miracle revival of the dormant Laker-Celtic rivalry in the 2008 and 2010 Finals. James’ unpopular decision to leave Cleveland turned Miami into the most hated team in NBA history, boosting Finals TV ratings which have now beaten the World Series in five of the last six years.

If this was more like tripping blithely on crocodiles’ snouts than walking on water, Stern, true to his unapologetic nature, resists my commissioners-under-fire story line (and most others I ventured in 24 years covering him), as if Auburn Hills, Donaghy, et al, were inconveniences.

“Maybe it helped me to grow up in a time when we were going to go out of business because there were too many black players,” Stern told me in 2011. “They were alleged to have sniffed too much cocaine. And they were wildly overpaid–at $250,000 apiece. We had meetings talking about folding franchises, combining franchises….

“When Pete Rozelle became commissioner of the NFL, the NBA had eight teams. I can talk about an arc but to me it’s always one challenge after another because this is a challenging and fun job.

“I don’t buy your premise is what I’m saying.”

No, the NBA isn’t likely to see another David Stern. In his greatest gift to the league, it may not need one.

Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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