As we approach February and the 2014 All Star Weekend, the league will approach a milestone that for the vast majority of NBA players, fans, and executives will represent uncharted waters .. . the great unknown.
David Stern will not be the commissioner.
As Stern retires after serving a 30-year term as commissioner, the game as we know it today is largely a product of his influence.
Stern took over as commissioner when Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuon entered the league and Bird/Magic was pushing the popularity of the league out of the dark ages.
With the league being a global juggernaut it is hard to remember back to the days when the Finals were not shown live on network television, the league only had 23 teams, and people remembered which franchises came over from the ABA.
Forget Hi-def, we’re talking black and white.
I’m so old I remember a time when the players actually had to go to the airport to catch a team flight. When the most dreaded words in a players life were “first available” meaning that teams were required to take the first available morning flight to make sure that they arrived on time for back-to-back games.
Those 6 a.m. flights required 3:30 a.m. wake up calls. Many guys decided that it was easier to go out to dinner, go to a club and just take a cab to the bus in the morning without even going back to the hotel.
So everyone has something to thank David Stern for as the league has grown stupendously.
One of his greatest strengths has been the ability to grow with the league and take on new challenges. Even when he doesn’t know much about it.
For the last 15 years, for instance, he has been “Digital Dave”. He has overseen the growth of the NBA into the digital age. The underlying joke though is that he didn’t know squat about digital at the time. He knew it was coming and brought the right people in, sought advice from the ones in the know and grew into it.
He has impacted the league in so many ways that it is hard to pick which ones were the most important, but I will go through some of my favorites (in no particular order):
-Upgraded the entire level of the game.
-Most cities have new or upgraded arenas, and practice facilities.
-Instituted a player dress code.
-All-Star Weekend is now a major spectacle.
-All events are done in a first-class manner.
-Brought the game to the world and the world to the game, making the NBA the standard.
-Realized that the game is bigger than all of us.
*Managed through crises (Tim Donaghy betting scandal, lockouts, etc).
*Balanced the needs of dozens of different team owners.
*Had a true love of the game.
But as all good things come to an end, David has picked a proper time to move on. The league is in great shape, his successor is assured, and he can step aside during a calm time.
Those who worked closely with David know him as both generous and a tyrant. I sat down with him on many different occasions during collective bargaining as a negotiator, as a retired player overseeing the Retired Players Association during a difficult time, and socially at the Hall of Fame, All-Star Weekend, and at various games.
While I have seen him in a range of situations and moods, one thing that always came through is his love for the game. Even during contentious negotiating sessions the game always came first.
I remember in 1998 during the lockout we had a couple of sessions that broke down to essentially yelling matches during an impasse. After cooler heads prevailed it was back to the business of making the game better. He would negotiate hard to make the best deal, then see how we could work together to make the pie grow for everyone. He always had a perspective that when it was all said and done, both sides need to work together to improve the game.
As a retired player running the Retired Players Association, I saw that he knew part of his responsibility was to create opportunities for the players who had come before. In many ways he supported the Retired Players better than the active Players Association did under Billy Hunter.
So as we bid Dave a fond farewell, we can all appreciate the complex man that oversaw the unlimited complexity of the growth of the game. And we can all enjoy what the game has become.
There are many people like me who feel a commitment to the game.
We all have our opinions on what is better now and what was better in the old days. But one thing that we can all agree on is that the league in better for millions of people now than when David Stern started.
High praise indeed!
Danny Schayes is a retired 18-year-veteran of the NBA, a professional broadcaster and soon-to-be-published author now penning NBA columns for SheridanHoops. Follow him on Twitter.
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