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.
With the pervasive popularity of rap music and a black man sitting in the White House, there's no reason to pretend the NBA has been handicapped by the blackness of basketball. There's no reason to judge Stern on some sort of curve. He doesn't get extra-credit points for running a league dominated by black players.
Basketball is America's sport. Every man, woman and child plays basketball at some point. People in wheelchairs play basketball. The game isn't expensive to play. You can play by yourself. It's accessible.
Basketball should be more popular. In my opinion, the NBA should rival the NFL. At the very least, no way should the NFL be five times more popular than the NBA. No way. Stern rode Bird, Magic and Jordan to an unprecedented level of relevance and success. The league has lost relevance since the end of that era. That's inexcusable for a league with LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and teams as likable as the Spurs, Pacers, Warriors, Thunder, etc.
Stern focused too much of the league's relevance on individual superstars at the expense of promoting teams, rivalries and championships. He has never understood the importance of the health of college basketball. College football fuels the popularity of pro football. It's just the opposite in basketball. College and NBA fans hate each other.
A great NBA commissioner during Stern's reign would've forced a conversation about ways to keep elite basketball players in college for three or four years. Stern should've been the outspoken champion of ending shamateur athletics. He should've worked tirelessly to figure out how to financially reward Kobe for attending Duke for four years.
The more popular and entertaining college basketball is, the more popular the NBA would be. If Stern was/is aware of this, I've never heard him say it publicly. What I've heard is his defenders blame the NBA players' association and its former executive director, Billy Hunter, for the league's inability to construct an agenda that moves all basketball forward.
That's a copout taken from the same script that credits Stern for cleaning up a drugged-out, black league. Translation: "He's working with black guys. What do you expect? He's handicapped."
Stern did not have an easy job. He ruled a league filled with superfamous young people. That's extremely difficult. The average NBA player is far more famous (and delusional) than the average football or baseball player. The fame is a curse and a blessing.
The racial politics of the NBA also presented problems. When Stern appropriately told his Allen Iverson-influenced players to take off their white T's, pull up their sagging pants and dress like grown men coming to work, media idiots screamed racism.
Commissioner is a tough job. Stern earned an estimated $20 million a year. I expected more from him and his league. He bullied the wrong people for the wrong reason. Given the dysfunction and immorality in NCAA athletics, the NBA commissioner is the de facto leader of all of basketball.
I don't believe Stern healed the game of American basketball. I think he contributed to its division. You can go a million other places and read about all the great things Stern accomplished during his reign. He's been writing that narrative for 30 years. Enjoy.