No other powerful public figure in the history of American media has controlled his narrative as effectively as David Stern. That's why, on Saturday, on the 30-year anniversary of his reign as commissioner of the NBA, Stern will step aside to a chorus of media cheers hailing him as the equal of Pete Rozelle.
This orchestrated, vanity-driven, midseason exit speaks to Stern's writing of his own narrative. Who plans to retire midseason? Yes, I'm sure Stern's exit is ceremonial and his successor, Adam Silver, has been running the league this season. But who plans a ceremonial departure? A self-important dictator.
Stern was a bully. He convinced everyone, employees and reporters who covered his league, that he was the smartest, most dangerous man in the room. His profanity-laced tantrums were legendary and effective. His ability to make his enemies uncomfortable was real.
Rozelle's equal? No. Rozelle launched the NFL past Major League Baseball. Rozelle swallowed and/or buried the leagues created to challenge the NFL. Rozelle made a game the overwhelming majority of people never play and don't understand part of Americana.
Stern gets credit for babysitting black kids and making them somewhat palatable to a small percentage of white corporate America.
That's not controversial hyperbole. The Stern narrative begins with his biographers explaining that Stern took over a league filled with black players of unsavory reputation. The NBA allegedly had a cocaine problem that other sports leagues did not have. The players were high and lazy. TV networks wouldn't even televise the NBA Finals live. Stern allegedly cleaned all this up.
Actually, I've always felt that white sports writers just didn't like how black the NBA became in the 1970s, so they sold the myth that pro basketball players used more cocaine than baseball and football players.
Without enacting any transformative drug policy, Stern magically got NBA players to kick their coke habits and play a more family-friendly brand of ball? Or maybe David Stern became commissioner roughly four years into the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird era and the infusion of a transcendent white superstar and an exciting black foil made white sports writers quit pretending the NBA used more illicit drugs than the NFL.
My money is on the latter. Bird made coverage of the NBA less racist. Bird made the league more televisable. Unless Stern coached Bird at Indiana State, Stern was simply at the right place at the right time.
He took over the NBA just before Michael Jordan arrived and just when ESPN and the "SportsCenter" highlight package were gaining massive momentum across America. Did Stern launch ESPN? I'm unaware of his role. Did he develop Chris Berman and Dan Patrick?
I'm not calling Stern a failure or a fraud. I'm saying he was fortunate. I'm saying his reputation outweighs his real accomplishments.
The NBA has underachieved. In the past 30 years, the league has been home to the most transcendent, recognizable and interesting athletes since Muhammad Ali -- Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Tiger Woods and Mike Tyson are the only athletes who can compete with the quartet Stern was handed.