After 30 years and countless successes, NBA commissioner David Stern will call it a career, officially, on Feb. 1.
And on the long list of most valuable players in league history, a chubby, graying, five-foot-something grandfather may rank at the very top. Just as long as we aren’t talking about what Stern did in Canada.
The NBA has transformed itself under his command as commissioner; some argue Stern is the greatest commissioner in all of sports. What was once a financially precarious 23-team league rife with drug problems and one that struggled to be taken seriously by network television, is now a 30-team league valued at nearly $20-billion, up from about $250-million when Stern took the top job.
After soccer it is the next closest thing to a global sport, thanks to efforts Stern made to bring the game to Europe, China and beyond. To be an NBA superstar today means being mobbed in Singapore and having a fanbase in Turkey. But if there is one country where Stern’s legacy is mixed, it’s the one directly north of the US border, the one that still represents the league’s only true international partner and yet it’s also where Stern has been more of a taker than a giver.
With the 20th anniversary of the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors debut seasons around the corner in 2015-16, and one of those teams now in Memphis, it’s hard to argue Stern delivered in Canada the way he has elsewhere.
“As far as I’m concerned you’re either a partner of the league or you’re not, and when we paid our $125-million expansion fee, we weren’t made full partners,” says Arthur Griffiths, the Grizzlies original owner. “The league made us play basketball with our hands tied behind our back and standing on one foot.”
Stern admitted he could have done a better job with the Canadian expansion.
“As it turns out, I wish we hadn’t had the Vancouver experience… ,” Stern said in a podcast with ESPN.com in 2008 on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as commissioner. “Great city and we disappointed them and we disappointed ourselves… I think that was a great city, and I think we just didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.”
Stern isn’t a big one for saying “I’m sorry” – his boardroom reputation is more tyrannical than gentle – so his Canadian mea culpa is significant.
“The toughest guy I ever worked with,” says Richard Peddie, whose relationship with Stern dates back to his role with The Palestra Group, the Toronto expansion bid that eventually finished second to the group headed by John Bitove that eventually landed the Raptors franchise in 1993.
As an iron-fisted leader, Stern deserves credit for being a visionary regarding globalization and a champion on issues like race, AIDS awareness and on-court fighting, which he virtually eliminated with uncompromising suspensions and – NHL take note – punishing the intent of a foul rather than the outcome.
But when it came to the Canadian experience, Stern was more cold-hearted shakedown artist than international pied piper.
Peddie says when Palestra launched their bid they figured an expansion fee of $80-100-million would be workable. In the end Stern squeezed both the Grizzlies bid and the Bitove bid for $125-million. The added cash was a windfall for NBA owners but an anvil for the winning bidders as both winning parties eventually had to sell their interests in the teams.
Worse is that each winning bidder was saddled with a onerous expansion agreement. For the first four seasons of their existence neither Canadian team could get the No. 1 overall pick, no matter how bad their record was or even if they won the draft lottery.
The Grizzlies were an NBA-worst 14-68 in 1996-97, but ended up picking fourth, selecting NBA journeyman Antonio Daniels while the San Antonio Spurs lucked into Tim Duncan with the No.1 pick. History may have been different if those choices were reversed.
Of course Vancouver did themselves no favours when then general manager Stu Jackson failed to draft local star Steve Nash when he had the chance in 1996, or trade for him later on in Nash’s career. Jackson was also embarrassed when he drafted Steve Francis No. 2 overall in 1999 only to be forced into trading him when the eventual rookie-of-the-year cried at the prospect of playing in Canada.
The sale of the Raptors to MLSE eventually stabilized the Raptors as they were able to benefit from the leverage created by the Toronto Maple Leafs — fans who wanted suites or premium seats to Leafs games had to take on the Raptors as well. When Vince Carter arrived it gave Toronto a true superstar, which combined with wealthy ownership and a new building, demonstrated that the Raptors were viable in their own right. There have been some uneven years since, but the Raptors are now a fixture on the Toronto sports landscape and valued by Forbes at $525-million in 2013.
The Grizzlies in Vancouver never got that chance.
As the Raptors were making the playoffs, the Grizzlies were floundering, running up a 101-369 record in six seasons. There were assurances when the team was sold to Michael Heisley for $160-million in 2000 that every effort would be made to keep the team in Vancouver, but they seemed hollow at best. The Grizzlies were gone a year later and Heisley has been a villain ever since, although the fact the Canadian dollar was trading at roughly 67 cents compared to the US dollar at the time helps his case.
Stern blew it, according to Griffiths.
“Are you telling me that even then Memphis was a better market than Vancouver? Come on,” says Griffiths. “The reality is Heisley had every intention of bankrupting the fanbase, alienating people, not marketing the team, presenting the argument that basketball didn’t work in Vancouver and Stern bought it. He pulled the wool over the eyes of the NBA, which was hard to do.”
Griffiths believes the NBA could still work in Vancouver given the market’s growth and with an MLSE-like pairing with the Canucks, but with Stern leaving it will fall in the hands of his successor Adam Silver to make things right.
As he heads into a well-earned retirement Stern has three decades of triumphs on his resume, but his foray into Canada – taken as a whole – isn’t among them.