I remember listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast the first time he had David Stern as a guest. Simmons asked who Stern’s favorite owner was, and Stern listed a variety of the oldest hands in the league: Larry Miller, Jerry Buss and others. Simmons seemed incredulous. Isn’t Mark Cuban great for the league? I also could not believe that Stern would like an old, non-luxury tax paying Toyota salesman more than an awesome dotcom billionaire super-fan.
Based on experience, though, Stern knows that the talent makes the show in the NBA. His list of actions as deputy commissioner and commissioner were all taken to make the league and the stars of the league more presentable to the public, and make the players happier. He instituted the drug testing policy, brought the players in as partners through the salary cap and BRI split, created the now infamous dress code, and sent Ewing to the Knicks.
Stern could handle the backfire from the players over his sometimes apparently dictatorial edicts. In entertainment, the talent has an ego. The CEO of a movie studio, or producer of a Broadway production, or band manager has to jump through all sorts of hoops to make sure the talent is happy. But come hell or high water, the inmates cannot run the asylum. Stern balanced these competing objectives deftly, taking fire from the players where necessary and taking their side at times as well. Combining this touch with his marketing acumen led the league to enjoy unprecedented success.
As good as Stern was at managing his talent, he never really had pushback from the investors (the owners). Guys like Buss and Miller were willing to put basketball people in place, and let the talent do the talking. While that sort of hands-off approach resulted in some teams that were horribly mismanaged, and also resulted in some stagnation of the business model, it also meant there was a clear distinction between who the talent was and who the investors were. Owning an NBA team wasn’t all that exciting: you hired some decent people, they got the players, and you got excited when they won it all.
The change in the way the NBA is operating is down to the character of the new owners. Talent will always have an ego. You’re telling me that today’s superstars are more in need of coddling than yesterday’s cocaine abusing, 10,000 woman screwing NBA players? The issue today is the investors seem to think they are the talent. Dan Gilbert thinks people should take offense because one of his employees leaves his company for better working conditions. People don’t care about Dan Gilbert. We feel bad for those who spent time and money caring about the Cavs and now have to watch Gilbert gallivant around meddling in the rest of the league’s business instead of taking responsibility for the toxic waste dump of a franchise he created.
After the owners spiked the Chris Paul deal (and Stern takes the fall for it) Stern’s weariness during the last few years and particularly the CBA negotiations makes more sense. Stern can put up with the players hating him. That’s his job as needed. What he can’t deal with, and what will ultimately be fatal for the league if unchecked, are these deep rifts within ownership. Gilbert, Cuban and others are apparently willing to put the competitive interests of their teams ahead of the business sense of the greater league.
A sports league can’t exist in that environment. It relies on Jerry Buss and James Dolan to cut big revenue sharing checks to support the system, and it relies on Cuban and Gilbert to negotiate the rules they want through league bylaws, not temper tantrums. The temper tantrums dramatically undermine the system. The Paul deal merely brought this underlying tension within ownership to a head. It’s now clear that Stern is not the man to coddle these new and needy owners. Hopefully these owners who are shortsightedly pushing against the greater interests of the league are manageable, and the next commissioner is the man for the job.
Stern’s legacy before this disaster was the man who marketed and managed the greatest stars the league has seen. Hopefully the the next commissioner can preserve that foundation by handling the pettiest and most difficult owners the league has seen.