Hubbard column: A calm David Stern is an effective David Stern

A note to readers: Mark Heisler is on vacation this week in Paris. Debuting in Heisler’s usual Monday slot is our newest contributor, Jan Hubbard, who has worked at NBA headquarters and in the media. He came aboard as a guest columnist, and that arrangement lasted about 45 minutes before we both decided it was best that he be permanent. Jan will be writing every Tuesday (in Peter May’s old spot), and he’ll be as enlightening of a basketball columnist as you’ve ever read.

By Jan Hubbard 

Imagine a hostile encounter between men less refined than David Stern and Dwyane Wade. Instead of utilizing words and gestures, they might resort to a physical battle. That would likely work against the 69-year-old NBA commissioner, who is far more skilled in the art of oratory than fisticuffs.
That’s not to say he is incapable of using his hands. It was one of those waving in the air with a finger extended that irritated the 29-year-old Wade, and we are to presume that it wasn’t even the middle finger.
Numerous reports from writers who have been credited on this site indicated that in a collective bargaining meeting last week, Wade objected to an animated Stern and apparently proved capable of raising his voice to Stern-like levels. Wade was described as admonishing Stern by yelling, “Don’t point your finger at me; I’m not your child,” or words close to that.
That had to be sobering for Stern because generally speaking, his yelling matches are one-sided.
Behind closed doors, Stern is comfortable in a high-decibel atmosphere, and his management philosophy is that screaming can be terribly productive, rather than simply terrible.
Wade made it clear, however, that if that was true in the past, it wasn’t going to apply to current negotiations – at least not while he is in the room.
And that was a great message from Wade, because it does seem that David Stern sometimes forgets that his greatest triumphs have been because of brains, not badgering. As someone who has known Stern for more than 30 years and worked for him for eight of those years, I can confidently say that his intellect has always been more impressive than his outrage.
Stern is of the opinion that he has been successful because of his combative management style. I believe he’s been successful despite it.
In the current stalemate with the NBA players association, Stern is challenged because in the past he has agreed to an economic system that the owners now say unfairly benefits the players. Teams are struggling, and whether it is 10, 15 or 20 of them, something has to give — players have to settle for less, owners who can’t afford the enterprise have to fold their teams . . . whatever.
So what is needed in this situation is leadership. And of all the people at the table – all the assistants, all the lawyers, all the well-meaning players and union executives, the man with the greatest leadership résumé is David Stern, NBA commissioner since 1984, a man who has presided over the phenomenal growth of the league.
If there is a solution to this insanely complex situation, he is the one brilliant enough to figure it out. But when he is out of control, shouting with arms flailing and fingers pointing, it accomplishes exactly nothing.
To gain a sense of control of the situation, Stern must control himself.
Stern did seem more subdued after the encounter, so it does appear that Dwayne Wade did him a favor. And along the way, Wade became the favorite player of at least 500 current and former NBA employees, maybe more. Getting reamed out by Stern and yelling back at him? Priceless.
To work at the NBA is to live with Stern’s volatility, and it can be a humbling experience.
The greatest problem is that Stern is so brilliant he can do every job in the NBA better than the people doing it. He is a better lawyer than the lawyers, a better PR man than the public relations department, more creative than the pros at NBA Entertainment, and a better businessman than anyone who works for him. He is such a micromanager that he has been known to blister the people in the apparel department when they took too long to get authentic jerseys on the shelf at the NBA Store after a player changed teams. And when you can’t do your specialty as well as the commissioner, well, you hear about it.
That suggests the obvious – that besides being a very gifted man, he’s a very driven man. And times have changed. This is no longer the early ‘80s when the first salary cap was $3.6 million per team and a franchise could be purchased for $12.5 million. This is the era of the $4.2 billion-per-year-in-revenues NBA, an enterprise with mega-wealthy and powerful owners holding Stern accountable for a bad system that he must change.
So it is somewhat understandable when an incredibly driven man, who puts pressure on himself and everyone around him, is faced with the greatest pressure situation in his career and reacts in an angry manner.
But, again, it accomplishes nothing. You could make a case, in fact, that Stern losing control is no different than LeBron James not performing in the fourth quarter. It is the commissioner equivalent of choking.
We’ve reached a very scary point for professional basketball.
Already, preseason games have been cancelled and revenues lost. Full-time employees have been laid off, including more than 100 at the league office. Thousands of people who work second jobs in concession stands or at the doors taking tickets, or mopping and cleaning up in arenas, stand to lose that income.
The season is in jeopardy. Obviously one man or one side can’t produce an agreement alone. But the situation calls for leadership — and that is part of the job description for the commissioner.
No one is capable of doing that better than David Stern.
But if he does create a solution, it will be because of his surpassing intelligence, not because he throws a fit.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976. He was with two newspapers in the Dallas area before going to Newsday in New York, then worked for the NBA for eight years, left in 2001, returned to Texas and still writes about the NBA on a freelance basis. He covered three Olympics, including the ascension of international basketball at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He is a part of the demographic that was moved by Beatlemania, and he covered the basketball version of it at the 1992 Olympics with the Dream Team. Follow him on Twitter @whyhub.


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  8. ignarus says

    Stern’s earned a lot of harsh criticism for this lockout, but a lot of that comes by way of contrast to the fantastic job he’s done growing the league to where it is today. Nobody has the ability to screw this up like he can and nobody’s got the track record to suggest that he probably won’t.

    If we lose games, he’s failed and it will be up to the players to convince people that it’s worth putting their hearts into a league whose owners’ greed will always undermine what they hope for on the court.

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    Great article, thanks for the insight. The way you beautified the control-freak commissioner is a piece of art. The future of any kind of business however has changed nowadays. It’s “sharing and expand” instead of “divide and conquer” and Stern’s leadership has to adjust or his reign will be abruptly over.


  1. […] That’s not to say he is incapable of using his hands. It was one of those waving in the air with a finger extended that irritated the 29-year-old Wade, and we are to presume that it wasn’t even the middle finger.” (Sheridan Hoops) […]

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