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Shaun Powell

David Stern
David Stern risked his reputation to bring peace among several agenda-driven forces.
Patrick McDermott/NBAE/Getty Images

Stern will leave NBA stronger than when he took over

Posted Nov 29 2011 1:24PM's Labor Central

The way he was swatted around in the court of public opinion, treated like he staged "The Decision II" or something, David Stern must have wondered, at some point during the negotiations, why he bothered to stick around for this.

Well, sure, the nice salary had something to do with it. But being front and center stage for the NBA lockout for five months was an occupational hazard, and if the criticism didn't get to him, those takeout orders at midnight during those many meetings-to-nowhere probably did.

Whatever. That's in the past. Now, the man blamed for the lockout is also the man who just saved the season. The lockout began when Stern worked hard on behalf of the owners and ended when Stern worked hard on behalf of the players.

Some may disagree, even strongly. But the league is better off today because a commissioner did what he is supposed to do. He looked out for the best interest of the game instead of those who control the game. And this commissioner, one of the all-time greats, just put the league in a more stable place, and did it to compete with the most challenging economic hurricane of most of our lifetimes.

Stern risked his reputation to bring peace among a handful of agenda-driven forces: new-school owners, old-school owners, rich owners, not-as-rich-as-before owners, veteran players, young players and a handful of powerful agents protecting their future percentages.

Stern did it without losing the season and without losing Christmas Day. And for those who insist the lockout was such a horrible experience for the NBA, just remember that it ended much quicker than the 1998 lockout. Yes, this was an improvement.

While the ink on the new labor deal is busy getting the blow-dryer treatment right now by the attorneys, here's the so-called damage done to the game: players missed a few paychecks and owners lost a month of gate receipts, losses that'll be more than made up over the course of time. The NBA missed a month that belonged to football, anyway. These weren't gash wounds; these were paper cuts.

Were there other casualties? Of course. Nothing went perfectly, and Stern wasn't perfect. People who depended on the NBA for their livelihood lost some wages, NBA merchandise didn't move as much and team staff dwindled, although the economy had something to do with those last two items. Still, there is labor peace, maybe for the next 10 years, meaning Stern's latest major act as commissioner will last longer than he will on the job.

Stern's role in the labor talks was mischaracterized by the public. At no point did he operate on his own agenda. He is, first and foremost, an "employee" of the owners. They expressed a desire to reduce their payroll expenses and therefore protect their investments and bottom lines. The "little guys" among owners wanted a better chance to compete for championships. Stern obliged. That was his duty. He was the front man, and if that meant taking the arrows from the public or union, so be it.

But Stern also has an obligation to the players, and in the end, he fulfilled that, too. This deal wouldn't have gotten done without Stern working the boardroom and getting some hard-line owners to soften their stance on certain issues. In the last few weeks, he went from being pro-owner to semi-pro-player. Stern never wanted a lasting wedge to be driven between owners and players, who need a solid relationship in order to keep the league healthy.

What the lockout showed was Stern's skill set at its best: negotiating (he's a former attorney) and public relations. He took the PR hits, most of them undeserving (and in the case of Bryant Gumbel's rant, downright stupid) and never deflected it elsewhere. And through it all, he kept negotiating, even when the calendar began to speed nervously toward December.

Stern demonstrated why he's a favorite of ownership and grudgingly respected by a majority of players. Yes, respected. Not necessarily liked or loved or even understood by all, but respected. Remember, this is a commissioner who pushed for the players to get 57 percent of the profits in the last deal. No other athletes in team sports, not hockey or baseball or the NFL, ever have enjoyed the type of financial benefits (fully guaranteed contracts, hefty pay increases, etc.) that NBA players have. This, despite the fact the NBA trails football and baseball in popularity and revenue by a considerable margin.

What the NBA now has is a labor contract more in line with the current economic climate. Players will still be compensated well (comparatively speaking) and their contracts are still guaranteed. The stars will always be generously paid because they will always be in demand. The rank and file will still be, on average, the highest-paid backups in sports. And while free agents will see more limitations than before, they're still free to go to any team, providing the player and the team can work out the financials in a soft salary cap system.

Here's another reason to like what Stern did: He didn't need to go through the last five months. He didn't need to drag himself through another labor negotiation. As the longest-tenured commissioner in sports, and presumably among the wealthiest, Stern could've retired last summer and left all the dirty work to Adam Silver, the commish-in-waiting. But Stern had too much respect for Silver and the owners and the game. Silver did a healthy share of the detail work anyway, but took none of the bullets. When he assumes the throne in the near future, Silver will bring no baggage, only a clean slate.

When the games resume and all is forgotten, Stern will begin another negotiation: his exit strategy. When that happens, we can all agree he'll leave the NBA a lot better than the way he found it. Because, that's what a commissioner does. The good ones, anyway.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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