David Stern's Hall of Fame enshrinement speech was missing ... David Stern. You know, the haughty, defiant Stern. The man who could be so condescending in public and tyrannical in private.
Instead, we saw a deferential Stern. He didn't call out his critics. He capitulated to them.
There are those who erroneously believe Stern was more a beneficiary of good timing than a visionary leader. They bring up the fortuitous sequence of events beyond his control: He became NBA commissioner in 1984, the year Magic Johnson and Larry Bird played the first of their three NBA Finals matchups that finalized the transformation of the league's showcase series from tape-delayed to must-watch. Shortly afterward, he presided over the influx of new talent in the NBA's greatest draft, highlighted by Michael Jordan. So for anyone who questioned the merits of Stern's fast-tracked entry into the Hall of Fame, in which he stepped into the Springfield, Massachusetts, museum just six months after ending his 30-year tenure as commissioner, he basically said, "You're right."
He was the headliner of this class, the man given the honor of going last, the person singled out by Hall honorees Mitch Richmond and Alonzo Mourning during their turns at the microphone, and yet the story he told wound up being the least personal. He took a playful swipe at official Joey Crawford and told a subtly stunning story of the time even his own mother wondered how much control he had over the officiating, but for the most part, he was modest, not biting.
He let his choices of Bill Russell, Johnson, Bird, former deputy commissioner Russ Granik and Hall of Famer Bob Lanier as presenters serve as the backbone of his speech. They represented the different elements that came together to make his reign so successful and allowed him to quickly summarize his three decades in the office.
"If I were to engage in thanking everyone that had something to do with the success that you celebrate me for, we would be here all night ... and we've been here all night," he said, a nod to some of the longer speeches in the program.
Those five on the stage behind him said plenty with their presence.
Russell represented the league's history -- and Stern deserves more credit for emphasizing the NBA's tradition after it had been neglected for years and taking advantage of the fact that most of the legends are still alive.
Magic and Bird? Not a whole lot needs to be mentioned.
"Larry and Magic -- they're forever interwoven," Stern said. "They even did one of our first music videos together."
That was an odd choice to highlight, but I'm thrilled Stern did it because, after years of futile searches, I looked one last time for the Converse "Choose Your Weapon"-inspired version of Loverboy's "Working for the Weekend" and finally found it..
Granik represented the achievements of everyone who worked under Stern and their role in building the NBA into what it is today.
Lanier was the face of the league's community service efforts, an aspect of the NBA Stern played up at every turn.
About the only thing missing was someone to highlight the globalization of the game under Stern. But the Yakov Smirnoff-esque speech of Sarunas Marciulionis, the enshrinee who preceded Stern at the podium, served as a reminder of that element.
About the only evidence of the imperious Stern was when he ordered the people in the audience to get out of their seats. But he wasn't demanding a standing ovation. He was offering the full spectrum of people in the building -- great players, coaches, executives, fans, media members -- a chance to be recognized for their contributions to the NBA.
"The reason I'm here is because of thousands of people," Stern said.
They're what made the league the behemoth it is today -- arguably at its peak right now with a $2 billion price tag for the Los Angeles Clippers and a buzz-creating offseason that has dominated the summertime sports discussion. But we missed out on some of the elements that made Stern who he is: one of the more intriguing, unforgettable personalities in sports. In some ways, it's the most a Hall of Fame executive has ever been like a Hall of Fame player. You wanted to turn to the youngsters watching and say, "You should have seen him in his prime."