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Will We Miss David Stern’s Heavy Hands?

David Stern, who announced yesterday that in 2014 he will retire after a 30-year stint as National Basketball Association commissioner, was too lucky to fail. His predecessor, Larry O’Brien, bequeathed him a stable labor situation and a clear path toward greater success. A few months after Stern started in February 1984, the Finals pitted Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics against Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers—cementing a great rivalry that boosted the league’s popularity. And shortly after that, stars Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, and indeed Michael Jordan entered the league, followed in successive years by similarly magnetic talents Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Dennis Rodman, Reggie Miller, and others.

The question isn’t whether Stern’s tenure was a success. The question is whether it could have been even more successful had he not tried so damn hard.

At the beginning of Stern’s tenure, the NBA was just coming into its own, a clubby, locally-oriented league that struggled to turn a profit. Today, it is a multibillion-dollar global brand with more marketable stars than every other major league combined. In the interim, the National Hockey League, ineptly led by Stern acolyte Gary Bettman, sustained a crippling lockout, Major League Baseball suffered a season-ending strike and the near-fatal steroids scandal, and the National Football League is only beginning to face head trauma news that could fundamentally change its game forever.

The NBA has been a different story. In 1984, as Forbes noted, the league had a $22 million broadcast deal with one network; now, its TV contracts pay its 30 teams close to $1 billion a year. The franchises’ values have soared at similarly exponential rates, and Laker purple-and-gold is as recognizable as Dallas’ star or Yankee pinstripes.

For three decades Stern has embodied the dilemma of the liberal in power: His stated values clashed with the imperatives of being management. On the one hand, Stern is a generous Democrat whose wife sits on an environmentalist group’s board and son works for Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer. On the other, Stern has been zealous on behalf of the owners who employ him. Even before his NBA stint, he’d risen to prominence fighting unions as an attorney at Proskauer Rose; he was introduced to the NBA when he represented the league in its famous suit against Oscar Robertson. The liberal side of him has always wanted to let the league’s disproportionately undereducated and black employees thrive; the management side of him has been overcautious and controlling. The results have been economic success, but they’ve also left it unclear as to just what Stern’s ultimate values really are.

Stern’s constant meddling and overbearing conspicuousness has created a rainforest-humid climate for conspiracy-theorizing. Do superstars get to the foul line more easily than the plebes? Unclear. Was Jordan’s first retirement actually a secret gambling-related suspension? Probably not. Was that 2002 Sacramento Kings playoff series fixed? Well, maybe. Was the 1985 draft lottery (the first ever), which handed the number-one pick (Patrick Ewing) to the league’s most prominent beleagured team (the New York Knicks), rigged? Er. The common denominator here is that Stern's record left a lot of people willing to believe he was willing to put his thumb—at times his whole hand—on the scale in favor of the powerful.

A classic case of Sternian contradictions: In 2005, he instituted a player dress code mandating business casual and explicitly banning clothing associated with urban culture. The authoritarian gesture was both self-serving and well-meaning: On the one hand, there was a business imperative to make sure that what was increasingly seen as a thugs’ league remained palatable to a broad audience. On the other, there was Stern-the-bleeding-heart’s desire to help out the players, some of whom had probably never worn a suit before they were drafted. But the result was that a person who may have done more than any other white guy to mainstream the hip-hop aesthetic–a guy who created conditions in which NBA players like Amar’e Stoudemire are fashion icons and Jay-Z can part-own a team–came off as a culturally insensitive megalomaniac.

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Stern has been at his best when he is the sort of Old Testament deity that befits his surname: firm when necessary, as when he suspended Ron Artest 86 games following the Detroit-Indiana brawl; benevolently tinkering the rest of the time, as when he presided over new rules that banned lots of contact and generally freed up the offense, leading to the fastest, most exciting game since the NBA’s late-‘80s heyday.

Likewise Stern has been at his worst when he has swung farthest over to the controlling side of his psyche. Amid hand-wringing over a string of scrubs like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and LeBron James who went pro straight out of high school, Stern insisted that all NBA players be 19 and one year out—leading to the repulsive spectacle of one-and-done factories like Coach John Calipari’s Kentucky program. Most ignominiously, last year, at the urgning of small-market team owners, Stern vetoed a trade—in his capacity as “owner” of the New Orleans Hornets, which the NBA had briefly taken into receivership—that would have sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. The move backfired spectacularly: other teams involved in the trade got screwed badly (sorry, Dallas and Houston fans); Stern came under near-universal condemnation. 

In recent years, the players have learned new ways to push back. Deron Williams essentially forced out Jerry Sloan, who had helmed the Utah Jazz since before some players were born. Carmelo Anthony did the same to the Knicks’ Mike D’Antoni. And the most notorious case wound up serving as a classic example of the imbalance between the league’s more powerful and less powerful figures–the very thing Stern the manager is accused of abetting. Three NBA stars who became buddies at the Olympics hatched a plan to all join the same team, leading the league’s biggest star to ditch his hometown in a parody of ostentatiousness. One result of superstars’ newfound power is that, heading into this season, there are no more than five or six teams that could even conceivably win the championship.

Indeed, the contemporary NBA could arguably use a new injection of Stern’s labor-battling energy. The league is exhibit A for the case that you need not be anti-labor to understand that the worker is not always right. But as Republican governors, education reformers, and the like have found, you cannot get away with treating talented laborers in service industries like they’re your soldiers. They will push back, and all the while the market will go on: This offseason, the Lakers, having failed to get Paul, instead picked up veteran point guard Steve Nash and the best center in the league, Dwight Howard. They have not looked this dominant since Shaq was in his prime.

Stern’s will be the longest tenure for any U.S. sports league commissioner, besting the NFL’s legendary Pete Rozelle by two months. On February 1, 2014, the new commissioner will be longtime deputy Adam Silver, dubbed “Mr. Congeniality,” whose background is in marketing, not labor law (although his father was Proskauer Rose’s chairman when Stern first joined the firm). The league will be continuing its expansion into foreign markets, most notably China. It will be a juggernaut invulnerable to the major threats that could have felled it when Stern began.

But it will be vulnerable to smaller dangers—stagnation, competitive imbalance, a vague sense that the fix is in—that Stern helped create. When Dr. James Naismith hung up two peach baskets at that YMCA more than a century ago, it was expressly to create a game that did not require coaches, much less a league commissioner. But who knows how Naismith would have dealt with Kobe Bryant?