Posted Oct 25, 2012 6:55 PM
New York -- This is a good-better-and-best culture we live in, with rankings and lists as valued for their own sake as whatever actually ends up ranked or listed. Nothing grabs one's attention -- or truth be told, generates more Internet "hits" -- than another stab at determining the Greatest Of All Time.
Greatest "what?" It barely matters. Miniature golf courses, places to retire, concert pianists, party schools, hirsute neurosurgeons ... what really matters is that there are opinions, preferably diverse and ideally strong, supported by some sort of criteria, agreed upon or not.
That's where any GOAT debate over the commissioners of professional sports leagues unravels rather quickly. It's not much fun when a slideshow only goes two deep. But that's pretty much where this one lands. You size them up, take your pick and go with either Pete Rozelle. Or David Stern.
Sorry, Bud Selig, Gary Bettman, Kenesaw Mountain Landis and others who line up in some order after Rozelle and Stern. But anyone trying to come up with a Mount Rushmore of sports commishes can stop chiselin' right now.
With Stern's announcement Thursday at the NBA Board of Governors meeting in New York that he will step down on Feb. 1, 2014, the GOAT chatter will begin and likely intensify over the next 15 months. There is no definitive answer -- that's a big part of the GOAT appeal -- but the case for Stern is awfully compelling. And the man has nearly a season-and-a-half to add to his portfolio, with most of a commissioner's potential pitfalls (labor agreements, network contracts, economic and franchise stability) nicely tucked away.
What was it that Ted Williams craved during his days crushing baseballs for the Boston Red Sox? To have people see him on the street and tell each other, "There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived." Stern already has heard some of that but the frequency and volume surely will increase as his walks up Fifth Avenue morphs into a stroll toward stepping down as commissioner.
Rozelle was a public relations man who moved into the top job at age 33 and set the NFL on a trajectory -- catching the comet's tail of TV sports -- that nothing could deter. Not successors Paul Tagliabue or Roger Goodell, not concussions or labor squabbles, not "bounties" or dog-fighting scandals or even bogus referees this fall. Rozelle was an impresario, a huckster and a salesman but over time, the NFL sold itself.
It was the perfect American sport, expertly staged for television screens, violent in a sanitized way, its once-a-week schedule fitting well into fans' busy lives and tight household budgets. Its players never gain too much power, which team owners love, because all those helmets and pads render them somewhat interchangeable, while injury rates make even the most gifted of them seem expendable.
Stern didn't have all those advantages and, in fact, had some notable disadvantages. Basketball isn't the spectacle that football is, either in person or on TV. It is played in arenas, not stadiums, with one-third or one-quarter the capacity of football's massive venues -- the NBA's annual revenues are less than half the NFL's $9.5 billion. Eighty-two game schedules place demands on fans' time and wallets, and there is the little matter of race, with the largest percentage of African-American athletes in major North American sports .
That meant selling black players to a largely white fan base -- and more than that, black stars. Under Stern, and in the NBA more than elsewhere, the employees gained leverage by becoming the names on the marquee. Performing their marvelous feats in little more than their skivvies, the best basketball players in the world became unofficial partners with the owners. That made labor peace a trickier proposition, with the National Basketball Players Association wielding power second only to the baseball players' union.
But the delicatessen owner's son from Teaneck, N.J., persevered. As a young lawyer who came aboard as NBA's general counsel in 1978 and became its executive VP in 1980, he navigated the league from its reality (and even worse perception) as a haven for recreational drug users and carpetbagging team owners. Back in 1980, the Lakers-76ers Finals was relegated to tape-delayed national broadcasts; now network TV revenues surpass $1 billion annually and the Lakers' local deal is worth a reported $3 billion over 20 years.
What had been a 23-team, almost Mom-and-Pop operation when Stern took over for Larry O'Brien now has 30 franchises. When four expansion teams were added in 1988 and 1989, the buy-in price was $32.5 million. This year, Forbes magazine estimated the value of the Lakers at $393 million, with the other 29 lining up from there, all north of a quarter-billion dollars.
The game has exploded globally -- something Rozelle or his successors never managed with their uniquely "American football." And some of Stern's proudest achievements have nothing to do with the NBA itself; he promoted the women's game through the red ink of the WNBA and offered up the Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as the ultimate example of pro basketball wonderfulness.
"David has been, in my estimation, the type of commissioner who has set the standard not just for the NBA but for all sports," said Glen Taylor, the Minnesota Timberwolves owner whose own investment has grown from $88.5 million in 1995 to an estimated $272 million.
Taylor, stepping down himself after four years as chairman of the Board of Governors, mentioned the marketing of the game, the licensing deals with sponsors and the opportunities abroad that opened up on Stern's watch. "David has led that," Taylor said. "He has taken contracts from television and [those have] gone up 40-fold. He has led us through numerous negotiations with our partners, the players."
In fact, Taylor noted that the average player salary when Stern took over was approximately $250,000. Under the current CBA and for several seasons prior to it, the average NBA player salary is about $5 million. The NBA over the past three decades has been a leader, too, in coaching opportunities for former players, particularly for minority candidates.
The public has been able to benefit through a variety of NBA social programs focused on reading, community involvement and international assistance. Stern said Thursday that what he and the Board of Governors still see as growth possibilities can be realized as NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver assumes the top spot in February 2014.
Silver, of course, knows the shoes he'll soon be wearing are Shaq-sized. "The opportunities for this league are limitless. Truly limitless," Silver said. "I will do my absolute best to try to grow this league, and do it in a way that David has done."
Stern wasn't in a reflective mood when he spoke at the news conference at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. The highs of his tenure as commissioner are well known. Riding first the rivalry of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, followed by the transcendence of Michael Jordan to unprecedented popularity. Challenging baseball as America's No. 2 sport. Growing the All-Star Game into a full weekend of events and, in 1992, turning Johnson's saga and turn as the event's MVP in Orlando into a statement on AIDS awareness and sensitivity.
Selling the game around the world while importing the finest players from Europe, South America, Asia and Africa to replenish and diversify the NBA talent base. Nailing down the current CBA, which imposed more limits on player compensation while instituting more aggressive revenue-sharing between the 30 teams.
That deal came at a price, however. There were numerous days, as negotiations dragged on from spring through summer into autumn and all the way to Thanksgiving, when Stern emerged looking exhausted. He had impatient, even peevish moments with the likes of Dwyane Wade during the contract talks and, later, involving former Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy and sports broadcaster Jim Rome.
The gambling revelations involving tainted referee in 2007 pushed Stern, who had grimly fended off various conspiracy theories lobbed without evidence in the past, to the brink. The league's push for consistency in its officiating has been taken at times as heavy-handedness from the New York headquarters, and rules and changes have been imposed -- remember the synthetic ball? -- without seeking player input up front.
Remember, too, that for every market that covets and perhaps even lands an NBA franchise, there is one that has lost or might lose one. Easy enough for Stern to end up among the villains in those scenarios.
The commissioner wasn't about to do reporters' and critics' work for them, though, summing up his achievements and regrets (though he did quote a line from Sinatra's "My Way") Besides, this isn't an obituary.
"I would say `the best' is a long list of things," Stern said. "It's hard to even pick." For the record, he did mention the Dream Team as one.
"The low point of every moment has been happy, include dealing with the media, but I haven't enjoyed having the responsibility to end careers," he said of the lifetime bans imposed on repeat drug abusers such as Micheal Ray Richardson and Lewis Lloyd.
"But for the most part it has been a series of extraordinary experiences, and enormous putting-together of pieces of a puzzle, and it goes on for forever. There will always be another piece of the puzzle, so the question is, at what point do you decide that, you know, let somebody else do it? That's the point that I'm at now."
This isn't an obituary. Stern's work is not done and it won't be even when Silver moves into the big office at Olympic Tower. The NBA, both Taylor and new Board of Governors chairman Peter Holt said, will draw on his experiences and acumen after he's officially out the door.
Meanwhile, Sterns' status on the GOAT list is secure. His boosters and Rozelle's can wrangle over which one is 1A, which one is 1B. But they should know this: Rozelle served as NFL commissioner from January 1960 to November 1989, a little over a month shy of 30 years.
Stern's exit strategy will end precisely at three decades, giving him one more little edge in the pigskin vs. pebble-grained comparisons. Three decades that the NBA commissioner on Thursday called "a spectacular journey," not because of what he's achieved but because he's gone along and been a big part of the ride.
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