David Stern never really cared about the people who did more to publicize his product than any other group: the NBA beat writers for the daily newspapers, and later, for the major Web sites.
Stern pretended to evince a modicum of interest in his meetings with us, which came a couple times during the year. He’d listen, then basically ignore everything he heard. Our plight, whether it was floor seating, access to practice or player availability, never seemed to coalesce with the overall mission in his supposedly visionary mind.
That did, and still does, seem wholly inconsistent with someone who supposedly loved the game. Why wouldn’t he go out of his way to support the very people who, for the first half of his 30-year tenure, were the only day-to-day source of NBA information? He didn’t. I never understood that.
Had it not been for Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s estimable public relations czar, reporters would have had it even harder. Stern didn’t care if we saw the game from the upper reaches of an arena, even though basketball was a game that really needed to be watched and covered from the floor.
The owners wanted those seats to sell? Fine with the commish. Never mind that in places like Boston, the seats that the reporters used to occupy are now occupied by ownership and their friends. See the above photo for the quality of the clientele that reveled in seeing themselves on TV from what used to be press row at Madison Square Garden.
I, for one, do not share Danny Schayes’ opinion that Stern had a love for the game. He had a love for the almighty dollar, which trumped any love for the game.
Does anyone who has been around the NBA for David Stern’s three-decade tenure honestly believe that the quality of play today is better than it was in the early 1980s? Trust me, it isn’t.
Back in the 1980s, you need a handful of Hall of Famers to even compete for a title.
Today, two or three usually does the trick.
Stern pushed through expansion, adding seven teams. That’s roughly 105 players now in the league who would not have been in the league he inherited. Another byproduct of expansion, however, was even more appalling (or appealing, if you’re Stern): the total sellout of the game to the marketing people.
The NBA today is not about basketball. The basketball-to-marketing Rubicon was crossed in the late 1980s, when the NBA decided to expand to Hooterville – Orlando and Charlotte.
Prior to expansion, we could watch a game without getting bombarded by mascots and stentorian public address announcers. Orlando and Charlotte changed all that and, unfortunately, the rest of the NBA has followed suit.
Today, the most important part of an NBA game is not the game itself. It’s the “game experience.” It’s the dance teams. It’s the Jumbotron. It’s the giveaways during timeouts. It’s Ozzy Osbourne. My friend Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe has a good phrase for all this: Audio Porn. It is.
Stern can remember what it was like to sit in an arena where the noise came from the fans actually, you know, watching the game! But he didn’t care that his arenas turned into mini theme parks. He endorsed it. He didn’t care that the product on the floor was such that it needed bells and whistles to make the evening satisfactory. T-shirt guns now bring the loudest cheers. Think about that for a moment.
That is not to say going to a game in the 1980s was always an out-of-body experience. But you went to a game back then knowing what you were going to get. You went to see basketball, not yourself on the Jumbotron.
But all this translates to money.
Stern has made the owners fabulously rich (OK, most were rich before they bought in) which is his No. 1 job description. But I can’t tell how you how many people I know who say they just aren’t interested in today’s NBA. That, too, is on Stern.
He absolutely blew the whole rookie draft. Why should any unproven player walk into a job with guaranteed money? What other vocation does that? Getting guaranteed money guarantees a player will leave college early. Who wouldn’t do that?
Some of the draftees deserve the money and those that do will get theirs. But so many of those first-rounders flame out while still pocketing millions. It’s ridiculous. Stern can moan about the one-and-dones, but how does he not see that guaranteeing money to unproven players hastens the decision to leave college?
This may all come across as the rantings of a crank. Fine.
But it’s also a grasp at nostalgia, to a time when the squeak of sneakers – not manufactured noise – was what you heard at an NBA game. To a time when writers and broadcasters, the very individuals whose lives intertwined with the game, were front and center to describe the sights, sounds and even the smells of the game.
I know those days aren’t coming back.
And I’m sure David Stern sleeps very soundly at night knowing that.
The NBA is exponentially better off financially now than when he took over. That’s indisputable.
But the caliber of play? No way.
The overall talent of the league? No way.
That, too, sadly, is indisputable.
Peter May is the only writer who covered the final NBA games played by Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He has covered the league for three decades for The Hartford Courant and The Boston Globe and has written three books on the Boston Celtics. His work also appears in The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter.