After 30 years as NBA commissioner, David Stern handed the keys to Adam Silver on Feb. 1. In this week’s column, former-Raptor Mike James breaks down Stern’s influence on the global game and the game’s global icons.
I never ‘officially’ met David Stern and never shook his hand. Only draft picks shake his hand and, being an undrafted basketball player, I never got that opportunity. I met him at a party once, but it was very informal. I don’t even know if he knew my name. That said, it’s not like you have to know him to understand and appreciate his legacy.
Look at where the NBA was before he became commissioner and where it is now. There were only 24 teams then, and now there are 30; games were only being televised by two countries outside of the United States and now they’re televised world-wide. All that growth happened under his watch. He had a massive influence on the game going global, so he stamped his name on that aspect of the league.
Stern is also credited with building stars through promotion, but all you have to do to promote a sport or a professional athlete is put that athlete’s face on television. The more you do that, the more fans you’ll receive. So, I don’t know if he was the one that made Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and those guys who they are. When you think about the excitement players like that brought to the game, they placed the stamp of approval on themselves and the fans liked, or loved, those guys because of what they did and how they perfected their craft.
I agree with the idea that coaches don’t win championships, players do. So, the only way to become a great commissioner is to have great athletes to back you up. I’m not saying the job isn’t hard, but it makes it a little easier when you consider that basketball is the greatest game ever created.
Still, though, the job is hard and one of the hardest aspects for people to understand is that the players are adults. They have so much time to themselves, and if they choose to make negative decisions with that time, well, that’s a decision every adult faces.
You think of the issues the league had with recreational drug use in the past, well nowadays you read about HGH and testosterone—shooting steroids. Ultimately, it’s still up to the athlete to make responsible decisions, especially today, knowing that everybody is watching.
What Stern did to encourage players to make those responsible decisions was make the penalties stricter. He realized that best the way to an athlete is through their pockets. Even with something like fighting, he found that if you fine players enough you’re taking away something that they care about: their money. That’ll calm them down!
When you think about what Stern accomplished, though, it’s like they say, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” So, if I were commissioner today, my focus wouldn’t be on changing the league, it would be all about building, adding on.
There’s still a lot of talk about continuing to take the game global. They’ve been playing games over in Europe, but imagine an NBA franchise somewhere in Europe full-time. Obviously, you’d have to see whether taking a team to Europe really made sense—there’d be a lot more required in terms of travelling and scheduling—but I’d try to continue that global legacy and see if that could work.
I would also work more closely with the players and the NBPA to try to settle on a CBA that makes more sense—and not just for the owners. Once the players and owners both have the same understanding, the game will be better. That’s where the conflict is: Owners believe that the players should be more appreciative and the players believe that ownership should be more loyal.
There will always be different things you can try—changes and improvements. But for the most part, after Stern, the best plan is to keep on building.
I’ve heard that the trade deadline is a pretty scary day for a player. Is that true? —Jon, Montreal
Nah, it is what it is. We always need to understand that no matter how good we are, everybody is expendable. Anyone can be traded. It may not be fair, but it’s a business.