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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

David Stern has enduring NBA legacy

While labor talks are the drama du jour, NBA Commissioner David Stern does what he has for 27 years: Steer the league skillfully. And it isn't quite like Pete Rozelle and the NFL.

February 12, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • NBA Commissioner David Stern addresses the media during an announcement that the 2011 NBA draft will be held at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
NBA Commissioner David Stern addresses the media during an announcement… (Jim O'Connor / US Presswire )

No one disputes [David]

Stern is now the best

commissioner in sports ...

the equal of ... the NFL's

Pete Rozelle and baseball's

Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

— Sports Illustrated,

June 3, 1991

If no one disputes it now, NBA Commissioner David Stern doesn't get tributes like that on NBA.com.

Having endured to see the dawn of a new age, in this one his place in history doesn't come up as often as the latest perceived threat to the NBA's existence.

Nevertheless, even as he heads into next fall's Labor Hell, Stern will move within one season of NFL icon Pete Rozelle, the longest-serving commissioner at 29....

Assuming, of course, the NBA has a season.

If Rozelle now seems like a haloed presence in the luxury suites in the clouds, he spent his last decade in a draining battle with Al Davis as new-breed owners such as Jerry Jones, eager to make their own deals, aligned themselves with the sworn foe of Pete's "League Think."

Stern, who enriched a generation of former medicine show peddlers, is now under pressure from new owners and old hands.... like Donald T. Sterling?

It's true. The legendary Clippers owner had a memorable exchange with Stern in a 2009 owners' meeting.

According to myriad NBA and team sources, it went like this:

Stern: Donald, we'd like to hear what you think.

Sterling: You don't want to hear what I think.

Stern: Yes, we do.

Sterling: No, you don't.

Stern: Yes, we do.

Sterling: OK, I would fire you. You're great at marketing, but you're not tough enough with the union.

Sterling also reportedly flung up "Easy Dave," the nickname Stern gave himself in the 1990s when the NBA prided itself on its perfect labor record.

Dovish insiders worry Stern is at the mercy of his hawks, or an outright War Party with owners like Washington's Ted Leonsis who own NHL teams and think burning a season is the way to go.

Dire as it would be for the inmates to drive this, it's a scenario all involved are aware of.

Wrote NBA union head Billy Hunter in an e-mail last week:

"I've had people tell me David may find it easier to make a deal with the union than with some of his owners."

If this, like everything in this hyped-as-never-before labor story is over-dramatized, it comes to the same thing.

Before there can be a season, Stern has to walk the players and owners to the edge and let them stare into the abyss.

If Stern with an agenda is like Leonard Bernstein with an orchestra and he's hardly nonpartisan, here he is 27 years later, still on the firing line, still the NBA's last best hope.

Who, us worry?

By the way, Stern disagrees with the Rozelle-arc thesis.

If you ask what he'd call the last decade that started with record low Finals TV ratings, broadcast partner NBC offering a 50% cut, the Tim Donaghy scandal and Auburn Hills brawl, Stern's answer would be ...

No biggie?

As NBA counsel before becoming commissioner in 1984, Stern negotiated the first salary cap with union head Larry Fleisher, who was also a super-agent for stars such as Julius Erving and Walt Frazier.

In talks said to have been operatic in volume, the NBA opened its books, now standard practice, persuading players that teams were about to fold.

"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 said from New York.

"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 [in 1960], the NBA had eight teams [compared to its present 30].

"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."

Imagine that.

Stern was friendly with Rozelle, often seeking his advice or testifying alongside him in Washington, seeking legislation to control franchise shifts.

Sterling, supported by the Coliseum Commission as Davis was, moved the Clippers from San Diego in 1984, two years after the Raiders arrived.

Sterling was Davis' guest when the Raiders won the 1984 Super Bowl in Tampa and Rozelle had to grin and bear it, handing Al the Lombardi Trophy at the height of their enmity.

Sterling even began dressing like Davis in black pants, black leather jacket and, despite playing indoors, sunglasses.

The NFL spent four years in court getting the Raiders' $35-million damage award cut to seven figures ... as Rozelle's owners pressed him to settle.

Said newly arrived San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos of Davis:

"I, for one, would prefer to be his ally rather than his adversary."

It was a turbulent decade with NFL work stoppages in 1982 and 1987 — the latter with replacement/scab teams like the so-called Masqueraiders.

Then there was Baltimore's 1984 move to Indianapolis under cover of darkness, memorialized in a song written and recorded by the Colts' present owner Jim Irsay:

Daddy called me up

On the telephone

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