During the NBA’s annual season tip-off conference call with the media on Thursday, David Stern just wouldn’t mention it. Stern, 70, had announced earlier in the day that he would step down as NBA commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, exactly 30 years after he took over a league flirting with irrelevance. This news was the only thing most people wanted to talk about.
But Stern went ahead and ran down the mundane business of the NBA. Revenue sharing is working, he said, and season-ticket renewal is at 86%. (It’s actually slightly higher, and it’s a new record.) At the Board of Governors meeting, the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets delivered presentations on their new high-definition arena video boards. The NBA … where high-def arena video boards happen!
Finally, more than five minutes in, he acknowledged the news. “Oh yes, one more development,” Stern said, reiterating that Adam Silver, his longtime deputy, would take his place. (Official ratification, which Stern labeled a “formality,” is in April.) As a long-standing Stern watcher, I couldn’t help but think that the whole monologue was fitting. He didn’t want to let go.
But he is. The prevailing thinking among many NBA employees and analysts over the years was that you’d have to bulldoze Stern’s office to get him out of there. And even amid the rubble, he might not budge. He’d be commissioner for life. Unless some weird Jay Leno–Conan O’Brien thing goes down over the 15-month transition — and in the end, that wouldn’t be all that surprising, given Stern’s love of the job — we’re indeed entering a new era of NBA leadership.
There had been some signs he’d be stepping aside. Silver definitely took a more active role in the labor negotiations that produced last year’s lockout-shortened season. The battle seemed to wear on Stern, not that haggling over salary caps is a hoot. After the NBA and its players signed the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement, which the owners and players can opt out of after six years, Stern said, “I’m not planning to be here certainly for the 10 and probably not the six.” But a half-dozen years is a long way off. A retirement announcement in, say, five years made sense. Now just seems so soon.
Commissioners, like coaches and politicians and CEOs, get outsize credit for successes — and probably get hit too hard for failures. Fans didn’t fill NBA arenas to see David Stern grinning in the stands. When Stern took over in 1984, he already had two gifts on his desk: Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who were months away from playing in their first finals against each other. Selling that rivalry required no advanced degree. Then, in that year’s draft, a skinny, tongue-waving highlight film from North Carolina, Michael Jordan, might as well have walked into Stern’s office and poured cash all over the place. Nike dished a sweet assist to expand that brand.
Bottom line, however: Stern sold basketball hard. Someone else could have produced the same result: the globalization of an American game, cherished both in the streets of Harlem and at all those Hickory Highs. But Stern’s the one who pushed basketball across borders. He saw the potential impact of the Dream Team. He figured out the television channels. Under his watch, a boring exhibition — the All-Star game — became a weekend spectacle, the dunk contests and three-point shoot-outs of yesteryear producing iconic moments and spiking demand for the NBA game. He started the first league-owned TV network, a template for marketing a sports brand.
In steps Silver, a guy who has played good cop over the years. He’s been the heir apparent for a long time. (As someone who’s been wrong on countless predictions, can I just point out that, finally, we were on to something?) Silver grew up in the NBA and is fluent in all aspects of the business: labor, television deals, international marketing. He’ll bring a new style to the top job. Stern can be tough to work for. He can be caustic. Many people who sit across from Stern at the negotiating table and work at the NBA offices likely cheered a bit today. Stern will yell at his subordinates, needle them. That’s not Silver’s style — at least not yet. Sometimes at the top, you can’t be the nice guy. Though I’d be shocked if Silver’s persona changed too drastically.
As consumers of basketball, does it really matter to us if Stern isn’t always cuddly? For a generation of basketball fans, Stern’s holding court at the draft and his signatures on all those balls are all we know. And the product he managed, aside from some down years after Jordan’s retirement and a labor strife here and there, was terrific. “I’m not a big believer in the L word, legacy,” Stern says. “I just want people to say that he steered the good ship NBA through all kinds of interesting times, some choppy waters, some extraordinary opportunities, and … on his watch, the league grew in popularity, became a global phenomenon, and the owners and the players and the fans did very well.”
They did. We did. We were lucky to have him.