Why David Stern Will Go Down as the Most Controversial Sports Commissioner Ever

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterOctober 26, 2012

MILAN, ITALY - OCTOBER 07: NBA's Commisioner David Stern looks over during the NBA Europe Live game between EA7 Emporio Armani Milano v Boston Celtics at Mediolanum Forum  on October 7, 2012 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)
Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

There's no simple way to sum up the expansive career of NBA commissioner David Stern. He's been a giant and a tyrant, part visionary and part villain, always toeing the line between winning and losing but always seeming to be in control of the score in the end, whether anyone else likes it or not.

Come Feb. 1, 2014—30 years to the day that Stern first stepped into the shoes left behind by the bumbling Larry O'Brien—it'll be Adam Silver's turn to step up to the plate.

In all likelihood, Stern will be remembered as the most successful sports commissioner to ever hold court in North America, one whose legacy figures to flourish in spite and because of the controversy that he so often invited, if not outright instigated.

It's only fitting that Stern's first NBA Draft as commissioner was the same one that introduced Michael Jordan to the pros. After all, it was Stern who was on hand for the NBA's growth from tape-delayed sports backwater into a global brand supported by the world's most renowned athletes.

Whatever his responsibility for the league's explosion of popularity since 1984 in relation to that shared by the likes of Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Stern can do no worse than be branded an opportunist for it.

He oversaw a situation in which capital and labor thrived—the former with the addition of seven franchises (and six relocations, some more disdainful than others) and the thirtyfold increase in value of each, the latter with corporate tie-ins, free agency and contracts—thanks in no small part to shrewd moves made by Stern's office with regard to television deals and content control and distribution in the digital age.

Not that Stern's promotion of superstar personalities hasn't invited its own problems. Players' egos ballooned along with their salaries through the 1990s and 2000s into the present day, wherein the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard have been empowered to hijack the league's landscape-shaping tools in such a way as to turn off swaths of fans and transform themselves into villains.

Stern was hardly the first to advocate for the participation of pro basketball players in the Olympics; that distinction belongs to former FIBA president Borislav Stankovic. In fact, Stern was reluctant to sign off on the move but eventually came around to the position and has reaped the rewards ever since.

And when he suggested this past summer that the time for NBA "Dream Teams" playing in the Olympics was soon to pass, he was swiftly rebuked by players, coaches, fans and close observers alike. Whatever becomes of the "World Cup of Basketball" he once trumpeted will likely be left to Silver to determine.

Stern's work was also often the sort that invited the attention of conspiracy theorists and other folks who fancy tinfoil headgear. Such scrutiny began largely with the run-up to the 1985 NBA Draft, when some skeptics accused Stern of rigging the lottery so as to allow the New York Knicks to acquire Patrick Ewing with the No. 1 pick.

Similar notions have risen to the surface from time to time over the years, most recently with Stern vetoing Chris Paul's trade to the Los Angeles Lakers while acting as owner of the New Orleans Hornets and later appearing (according to some) to deliver Anthony Davis to the forlorn franchise after offloading it to Saints owner Tom Benson.

Whether Stern actually had such a heavy hand in these and other proceedings or not, they ultimately worked out in the league's favor. Ewing's presence served to restore the luster of one of the NBA's most iconic franchises in the most populous city in the country, Paul's arrival in LA has transformed the Clippers from league laughingstock to legitimate contender, and Davis' debut in New Orleans has made the Hornets a hot ticket once again.

His reign continued largely unchecked through most of Ewing's tenure in the NBA. The 1998-99 lockout cost the league a good chunk of the season, but allowed Stern to institute a salary cap, claiming such would help owners control exploding costs and improve parity on the court.

The former prediction has been proven correct, though the cap and subsequent tweaks to it have only widened the gap between the big-market haves and the small-market have-nots for the most part.

The last decade has seen Stern steer the NBA over, into and through many a pothole in the proverbial road. He managed to sell a predominantly black sport to a white audience, in part by coming down on the players themselves with dictatorial dress codes and credos of conduct.

Of course, this came only after the "Malice at the Palace" in November of 2004. As much resistance as there was to Stern's orders, in this case, as has tended to be the case time and again, the outrage eventually subsided as a younger generation came to embrace the stylistic opportunities that accompanied the need to dress up before, during and after games.

The emperor's own clothes came into sharp questioning in 2007, when the Tim Donaghy scandal took the NBA by storm. The league's popularity had already been in decline, what with the San Antonio Spurs and the Detroit Pistons grinding the product into a nearly unwatchable powder.

But with the officials in the crosshairs came a huge blow to the NBA's actual integrity and, in turn, that of David Stern.

Still, the league managed to rebound bigger and stronger than ever, with LeBron emerging as the next Jordan-esque mogul amid a game that was trending toward more attractive play.

To be sure, that only seemed to embolden Stern in the flexing of his might from the Olympic Tower. He became persona non grata in Seattle after allowing Clay Bennett to uproot the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, where they subsequently morphed into the lovable Thunder.

Now, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, he'll spend some of his energy over his final 15 months attempting to revive basketball in the Emerald City, perhaps by moving the Kings to their fifth locale in franchise history. 

Though, admittedly, a second wrong wouldn't exactly make a right. Nor would it mask entirely his mishandling of the 2011 lockout and the events that followed. Throughout that labor dispute—the longest in NBA history—Stern came off as somewhat peevish and entirely condescending yet surprisingly powerless to reign in a new generation of owners against a resolute group of well-financed players.

In the end, a deal was struck when the room was boiled down to Stern and NBPA executive director Billy Hunter, who himself has come under fire of late for the nepotistic exploitation of his own office.

Stern's never been endured quite such damning personal accusations himself, though it's clear that he's done plenty to capitalize politically on the good that's come on his watch while deflecting blame for the bad.

Whether you like Stern or not, whether you think he's a savvy businessman or an insufferable bully, you have to admit that, by and large, he's done well by the NBA. It's no accident that a league that couldn't secure live broadcasts for the Finals when he first took over is now seen in 215 countries and heard in 40 different languages across the globe.

As smug and self-serving as David Stern has so often been and figures to be on his upcoming farewell tour, it's tough not to respect the guy for his role in fashioning basketball into the worldwide sporting phenomenon that it is today.

And, as always, for recognizing an opportunity when he sees one—in this case, to get out of the game before his grip slips completely and sprucing up his image in the process.