Hubbard column: David Stern needs to rediscover the magic of David Stern

In February, David Stern will – pardon the term – celebrate his 28th anniversary as NBA commissioner. It seems doubtful that he will be honored in a halftime ceremony anywhere, although the optimists among us are hoping there will in fact be multiple NBA halftimes.

If that is to happen, Stern will have to venture into territory that he hasn’t visited since – well, who knows? For the sake of discussion, let’s settle on the early ’80s at a time when he was the No. 2 man in the league and was on the way to becoming commissioner.

It was a kinder, gentler David Stern who charmed CBS executives at the time and convinced them to stop showing weekday NBA Finals games on tape delay after the local news. It was, to be precise, a humble David Stern who managed to get his championship games on live TV and lift his sport to a level of legitimacy that a major sport deserved.

That David Stern left the building long ago. That David Stern was not present at any time during the last two and a half years of collective bargaining negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association.

That David Stern was certainly nowhere to be found last Thursday when the current commissioner announced negotiations were over and if the players did not accept the owner’s last offer, the next one would be much worse. The current commissioner even mocked the players by telling’s Steve Aschburner, “It’s never a take it-or-leave it offer at 47 percent with a flex cap. It could still be 46.5 [percent].”

If words were actions and Stern displayed that sort of behavior on the floor, he would get a technical foul for taunting. Off the court, it was much worse.

So now, David Stern must find his inner commissioner and somehow recapture a quality that has become foreign.

To save the NBA season and his league, Stern must find humility.

And that may be the biggest challenge of his career, because Stern’s relationship with the NBA is unique to him. He has been commissioner since 1984, but he first began working with the NBA in 1966 as an outside counsel for the law firm employed by the NBA.

So think about that. This was to be the NBA’s 66th season. David Stern has been a part of that in some capacity for 45 years – almost 70 percent of the league’s existence. A­nd for 28 of those years, he’s been the boss.

So it is with some justification that David Stern views the NBA as his league. And that’s OK as long as he treats the ancillary parts with respect.

He has not done that.

Stern fell into a trap that is feared by coaches of great teams. During negotiations, he played to his level of competition and became so disdainful of it that he felt all the comfort of a 300-pound bully picking on a 96-pound weakling.

What he refused to believe is that the 96-pound weakling would say, “OK, guess what? I’m not gonna play,” and walk away from a couple of billion dollars.

There is no doubt that Stern is 100 percent correct when he pointed out Monday, “Their timing is not good.” That’s true. The disclaimer of interest tactic chosen by the union would have been a good play in July.

But even after the union appeared to blow up the season, Stern couldn’t help himself. On an ESPN interview, he said, “Their rhetoric is almost humorous.”

Another insult that served exactly what purpose?

And Stern contradicted himself. He had been very public in saying that negotiations had ended, but at the end of his ESPN interview, he said of the union’s strategy to disband, “And now there’s no one to negotiate with because the union is not there.”

How can anyone complain there is no one to negotiate with when that person has already announced there would be no more negotiations?

As poorly as Stern handled negotiations in the end, the union’s strategy is idiotic. Had anyone of consequence taken Public Relations 101 in the freshman year of college, it would have been apparent the correct tactic would be to say, “We need the following three (or four, or five) tweaks to the offer. We will accept the money. If the tweaks are made in the system, we will have an agreement today and we will look forward to begin playing on Dec. 15.”

That would have shifted the burden to Stern. He would still have had to sell the tweaks to his owners, and that would have been a huge challenge for him because it does seem many of the newer owners have lost confidence in him. At one time, Stern issued orders to owners, told them what do and if necessary, he would scream at them the way he screams at any employee who is not performing to Stern’s satisfaction. When you have a history of turning tape delay into live TV and an enormous number of other extraordinary accomplishments, you can get away with that.

But no longer – not in the era of 10 figures in revenues and nine figures in losses. It was interesting watching Stern’s press conferences during negotiations and hearing the number of times he mentioned the labor relations committee. He continually pointed out the involvement of that group of owners. In previous negotiations, Stern was the sole face of the league. Any committee was secondary.

Still, despite that, from the perspective of a basketball purist, I would have bet large bucks on David Stern succeeding had the union given him one last chance. Perhaps that is naïve, but his history of achievement, to say the least, is pretty good. Even if it went to a vote with significant opposition and a final agreement was passed by a simple majority of owners, David Stern could have gotten it done. He would have pressed for unanimity, but at this point, he would have taken a narrow victory.

But the players did not let him try.

Now, perhaps unfairly, the burden again reverts to Stern. The reality at this point is he is the only one who can salvage a season.

How? That’s something he has to figure out. That is part of the job description of commissioner. It is something the David Stern of the ’80s– the kinder, gentler, more humble commissioner – could have done. My only suggestion would be that if he gets a chance, instead of taking a sledgehammer to the next meeting, he should take kid gloves.

Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. His columns appear every Tuesday on Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.



  1. says

    Jan, that was excellent. When I read the ” Had anyone of consequence taken Public Relations 101 in the freshman year of college…” part I literally said “YES! THANK YOU!” out loud. It absolutely stuns me that the players think they can take the PR hit that this will give them. They aren’t like the owners…public perception (read: fans, players. You know, those poor chumps who used to come to your games?) actually matters to the athletes, which is why uninformed NBA fans still believe that nobody in the NBA plays defense. They could have made this whole mess into the owners problem…and they took it all on themselves? Just not smart, and everyone with half a brain sees that it’s not smart.

    Great work writing this.

  2. says

    Jan, this might be the most salient piece I’ve read since the lockout began (and I’ve read volumes). Thank you for pointing out not only the silliness of the parties’ current positions, but also the responsibility that they — especially Commissioner Stern — should feel to the game. It’s truly sad that this has spiraled into a morass of immature insults and one-upmanship while the game we all love lies in a mangled heap on the side of the road. While the game should have been the primary concern of every soul involved, instead it has become collateral damage. The players, agents, union leaders, attorneys, owners, and league officials should all be ashamed of what they’ve allowed to happen on their watch.

    My brother wrote a letter to Commissioner Stern and Billy Hunter expressing many of the same sentiments that you so brilliantly articulated in this article.

    It’s both infuriating and heartbreaking that no one seems willing to listen.

    Thank you for writing this piece!

    • Jan Hubbard says

      Nicest note I have ever received. Thank you for the compliments and lets hope these guys can figure it out. They should be smart enough to do it. — Jan

  3. Sham says

    1. What folks are forgetting is that the take it or leave it was there to allow for the 72 game season and that is how exactly Stern will position it.
    2. The reason to go to BRI of 47 if deal rejected was because the amount of loses that will incur from rejecting the offer.
    3. Players will not recoup that money under any circumstances. I don’t think they will get 6 billions as I read in other articles from the antitrust lawsuit.
    4. Season is history…NHL players lost, NFL players lost and NBA players are next…
    5. They can go to Europe and play zone and practice 5 times a week and make 800k a month instead of 17 millions a year…and watch Disney land in Turkish ….

  4. sully00 says

    The increase in the salary floor is a joke no offense you need to just pull out you calculator. So the increase in the salary floor is 5 mil and only one team was there Sacramento. So the players give 300 mil and in theory the owners give back 5.

    The 40 mil annuity was the fifty first percent the players were asking for.

    This an awful deal for the players as plenty of breakdowns show that the true amount of revenue that goes to player salaries in the NBA is lower than most pro sports leagues already.

    This has been a one sided negotiation and now that ends.

    “Mr. Stern…Mr. Cuban is on line 1.

  5. LA Phil says

    So, compared to the last agreement, the players made ALL the concessions while the NBA made none, repeatedly insulted the players and kept demanding more givebacks.
    The only legitimate criticism of the players I’ve heard is they weren’t savvy enough to outwit Stern as to timing and strategies. So the NBA beat the hell out of the players only to possibly lose the season. Wonder what the owners of the Lakers, Mavericks, Heat, Bulls et al think of Stern’s performance now?
    LA Phil

    • Mark says

      The players didn’t make all the concessions. Under the new agreement, teams would be required to pay 90% of the cap in salaries up from 75%.

      But everyone is looking at this the wrong way. By focusing on the prior agreement, you seem to forget what this deal offered the players — and it is very good.

      Ultimately, the players, based on bad advice and false pride, can sit out and hope to get what? Think about that for a second.

      • Troy says

        Wow, the players made one concession? So, the owners have only gotten 99% of what they want? Yes, the players have virtually no leverage. But the vindictive and insulting rhetoric on the side of the hard line owners and Stern/Silver PUSHED them to reject the deal. Not saying it was the smartest move, but the owners/Stern made it about pride and who is the bigger man. Who says this is a great deal for the players anyways? Most of the middle class gets seriously squeezed.

  6. Musa says

    Thats why was disappointed with the interviewer for not telling him, that he has said that he has finished negotiating. How can Jan Hubbard said the player did not give him a chance. two and a half years is not enough a chance?
    U know fans do not care who the players play for, I cannot afford a ticket at the msg, thus. I would love to see a China-Knick playing A China-Heat on TV just like I see US-Knicks play US-Heat

  7. Dan says

    Great article. All along this entire process, it has been such a comedy of errors in terms of timing, ego-based jabs and empty threats on both sides of the ball. But you hit on an interesting point that I haven’t really heard beaten into the ground yet (as most points have)- that of Stern’s continual , for lack of better word, ‘disrespectful tone’ to the players and their union. Has he just reached that age where he doesn’t care about speak his totally honest mind (which is never a great move for someone in such a powerful position- diplomacy and tact are essential elements to such a position)? Has he been bitten by this new generation of speak first-think later-and at no time hold yourself accountable for your actions slackers who just shoot from the hip, spew some hate on whatever they are looking at, rinse, repeat? Even Billy Hunter has seen to show a bit of remorse over the lack of a deal, while Stern goes right to ESPN and starts slinging barbs at the players. And for what?
    The man who seemed destined to go down as the greatest commission of any professional sport (1999 lockout be damned) has, in my opinion, sealed his fate to not even be nominated for such an honor.
    Shame on everyone involved. Double shame on Stern and his giant ears.

        • Troy says

          Agreed! Billy Hunter is no hero in this, as he was clearly in over his head. But Stern has been trying to win the whole battle through snarky comments, biased interviews, fuzzy numbers, and PR spin. Which backfired on him when the players got mad and walked away from the table. Sure, thats what the hardline owners seem to want! But Stern, as the commissioner, owes it to the NBA as a brand and an entity to perform better than some pseudo-Bachmann.

  8. LT says

    I, too, was surprised by Stern’s vindictive tone in his ESPN interview yesterday. All that kind of language does is make the players think that you never respected them in the first place, and that they made the right move. Getting someone more angry at you never leads to compromise. I think he believes he can still scare enough players into capitulating. If he’s wrong, using terms like “nuclear winter” just amp up the conflict level. And I really think that amping up the conflict is not how you resolve conflicts.

    • Mark says

      LT: the players gave up an average of 5 million a season, plus a new 40million (roughly) a year benefit established as part of annuity program. In addition, they gave up perks such as luxury hotels, chartered travel and of course marketing by the league which helps the players secure endorsement deals. The agreement allowed for multi year guaranteed contracts and REQUIRED every team to spend at least 90% of the cap (up from the current 75%).

      The season essentially begins in October and ends in April -June.

      Once again, I feel real bad for many of the players. If they don’t know now, they will soon realize what they gave up.

    • Troy says

      He’s been patronizing and arrogant for YEARS (donaghy scandal anyone? he brushed that under the rug like it didn’t matter), but only NOW is it really coming home to roost. Sure, the players have been disorganized and should have actually had a strategy, but there was a deal to made IF stern had come off his high horse and at least paid lip service to the idea that the league is a PARTNERSHIP between owners and players. Instead, he’s mocked, insulted, denigrated them from the start. Belittling his OWN product!! And let’s not forget, he allowed these crappy hard-line owners (Jordan, Maloofs, Sarver, Taylor) into his league in the first place! So, a pox on him for inviting bad owners into the league which have led to him being completely unable to control the league’s negotiating position.


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