At best, David Stern tolerated a racist owner.
At worst, David Stern enabled, encouraged and emboldened a racist owner.
Either way, it’s not good.
While the legacy of David Stern is far from the most important aspect of the Donald Sterling fiasco, it is still relevant. There were more than a few people who noticed that the words “David” and “Stern” were not uttered Tuesday as new NBA commissioner Adam Silver handed down the punishment. Silver didn’t say them. Other NBA owners didn’t say them. NBA players didn’t say them.
There was some concern when Silver was named commissioner – mostly from those outside of the NBA offices – that he was not up to the enormous task. That he was incapable of following in the large shoes that the ubiquitous Stern had trampled opponents in for three decades.
How quickly that narrative changed.
Everyone that followed the NBA knew Donald Sterling was a terrible person. He had been sued multiple times. Elgin Baylor sued him. His tenants sued him. Star players never wanted to stay and play for him. His depositions painted the picture of a man with viewpoints that were out of place in today’s society.
The questions in the aftermath of the TMZ story focused on the future. What will happen? How will he be punished? Who will own the team?
What about the questions focused on the past? How did Sterling remain in charge for so long? Why are sports always so slow to react?
Most pressing, how the hell did Chris Paul end up a Clipper? Remember, Stern didn’t merely allow Sterling to stay in the league – he gift-wrapped arguably the best point guard alive for Sterling while keeping said player away from the Lakers.
Will we ever know the full story about that? Do we even want to?
The current visibility of Stern, or the lack thereof, reminds me of Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner from 1989 to 2006. When I read the damning League of Denial, it was Tagliabue who stood as the one actively leading the NFL’s campaign to squash the concussion stories.
One of the most interesting parts of the whole book centered on Roger Goodell, shortly after taking over, listening in the back of the room as Tagliabue’s men continued to argue the earth was flat and concussions were not a serious issue.
Goodell was, according to one person in the room, silent and shaking his head, as if to accept the problem was far bigger than he ever imagined. While Goodell’s reaction to the concussion epidemic can be questioned, the league finally admitted the problem under his watch. It took the NFL nearly 20 years after post-concussion syndrome was first observed to actually admit it was a problem.
How often do you hear Paul Tagliabue’s name in NFL circles?
Donald Sterling’s transgressions ultimately do not rise to concussion levels – his words did not end up with former athletes shooting themselves in the chest to preserve their brains.
But that wasn’t Stern’s only issue toward the end of his reign. Remember, it was Stern’s dress code mandate that had many players and fans crying racism. It was Stern who conspired to pry the Sonics out of Seattle. It was Stern who was trying to get the Kings out of Sacramento. It was Stern who led the league’s questioned takeover of the New Orleans Hornets, which ended up with them winning the lottery and drafting Anthony Davis, as part of the Chris Paul fiasco.
When David Stern left office in February of this year during the All-Star Break, many wondered why there was such little fanfare. There was no grand farewell. There was no goodbye speech. At the time, we believed this was of Stern’s choosing.
Is there any doubt that, a mere two months later, the entire league had become fed up with David Stern?
The type of praise heaped upon Adam Silver this week never, ever happened for David Stern. He believed he made the NBA. He didn’t. He happened to be in charge when Magic and Larry showed up.
Who the hell can’t make money or go global with Michael Jordan leading your brand?
The twilight of Stern’s career felt like watching Jordan on the Wizards. He was older and slower but believed he wasn’t. The writing was on the wall.
But while Jordan lingered for only two years, Stern lingered for five to ten years past due. Long enough that he oversaw the Sonics fiasco, the Kings fiasco, the Chris Paul fiasco and the beginning of the Donald Sterling fiasco.
Adam Silver was put in an impossible situation and he succeeded. He united a league in 90 days in a way David Stern did not in 30 years.
Donald Sterling is the first mess left by David Stern that Adam Silver had to clean up. It is almost certainly not the last.
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