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 NBA.com’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 SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.