As I'm sure most of you have heard by now, David Stern will be retiring as the commissioner of the NBA on February 1st, 2014; 30 years to the day after he started the job, replacing Larry O'Brien.
Now, Stern hasn't been perfect; no one is. His tenure has seen multiple lockouts, some of the worst on-court (field....rink...whatever...) fights in American pro-sports, and the least amount of championship parity of any of those sports. His referees have constantly been the subject of game-fixing conspiracy theories, which then, even worse, proved to be true when Tim Donaughy was federally convicted of it. The draft system actively rewards teams for intentionally being bad, and he's actively waged a war (of sorts) with the college ranks, when other sports commissioners have found happy truces with them.
That said, we all owe Stern a profound debt of gratitude.
It's hard to imagine the NBA when Stern first took control. Truthfully, Stern inherited an unmitigated disaster; the NBA was still struggling through it's merger with the ABA, which had been marred by extreme divisive opinion and an anti-trust suit filed by Oscar Robertson. The actually merger was so contentious it ultimately required congressional action to push through.
Worse still, the NBA...and basketball in general....was seen by the public as a joke. It's players were irresponsible, philandering, drug-abusing hooligans and thugs, and the sport as a whole was an afterthought. The general populace cared so little about it that entire seasons, including championship series, were broadcast tape delayed....a practice that lasted until 1986. (Yes, that's right. Larry Bird's first two championship runs were tape delayed)
Stern turned it around with a clever mix of negotiation, marketing, and brute force. He had the good fortune of starting his tenure at the same time Larry and Magic started their careers...and more importantly, he knew it. Stern replaced the emphasis of the sport with an emphasis on the superstars, selling basketball through the stories and personalities of its top players. This, of course, paid off massive dividends when Michael Jordan rose to the top, and that legacy has continued to the present day. Sure, local coverage is following their home teams, but national media coverage follows the players. It's not about the Heat, it's about LeBron. It's not about the Thunder and Rockets, it's about James Harden. Even teams' own promotions have followed suit; the Wolves didn't sell the Wolves so much as they sold Kevin Garnett, and they don't sell the Wolves so much as they sell Spanish Unicorns. It's a player's league.
Concurrently, Stern also instituted a drug-testing, zero-tolerance policy that still exists today. His 'my way or the highway' personality showed most here, as he essentially centralized the disciplinary part of it. Today, the NBA's way of doling out fines and suspensions seems arbitrary, but at the time it was necessary. There couldn't be any margin, no '3 strikes'....you either followed the rules or you were gone. It was the only way to get rid of the problem players and promote the right ones, and the only way for the league to shed it's thug-life image.
Stern then turned his attention towards expansion. Over his tenure, the NBA has gone from 10 teams to 30, personally launching 7 brand new teams (including our own Pups). He also created the draft lottery (imperfect, but it was much worse prior), NBA All-Star weekend, and the WNBA, which has done more for women's pro sports than any other in the US. More recently, he has focused his efforts on international expansion, with the ultimate goal of having NBA franchises across seas someday. The effort has already made significant headway, with the massive influx of foreign players into the league that has gone so far as having a Euroleague player selected first overall in the draft (Andrea Bargnani).
And as a crowning achievement, Stern has successfully worked the rulebook to the sport's advantage, particularly with the handcheck rule that brought back the fast, freewheeling style of the Showtime Lakers. Fans like watching that a lot more than Mike Fratello's Grizzlies.
In short, basketball went from a disaster exhibit that people approached with the same sort of attitude as Saturday Night Live to the world's second most popular sport, behind only 'association' football (soccer, for the less culturally aware...) All of that was headed by David Stern.
How do you follow that act?
Adam Silver is a fundamentally different type of person than the man he will be succeeding. He's more of a diplomat, more of a level head, more of an administrator. A Tim Cook to Stern's Steve Jobs. In some regards, this is welcome. Owners in particular seem happy they'll be dealing with someone who's more of a negotiator, who won't draw so many lines in the sand on them. Silver has worked in basically every facet of the NBA in some capacity; if those who've dealt with him are to be believed, he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the league and the sport that surpasses even Stern's. He took over as Deputy Commissioner in 2006, when Russ Granik retired, and has been a major force behind the scenes ever since. He's more than qualified, as was emphasized by his succession nomination being unanimously favored.
On the flip side....much like Tim Cook compared to Steve Jobs....Silver hasn't shown the sort of singular vision or driving personality Stern possesses. Stern has a sort of charisma that is simultaneously arrogant and self-depreciating, and he knows how to use it an when. Few things in the NBA command my attention more than David Stern in front of a microphone, whether it be him hawkishly blasting the NCAA over their eligibility gripes, or him laughing at himself and cupping his ears when the Madison Square Garden crowd cat-calls him on draft night.
But more importantly, everyone knew Stern was the alpha dog. You didn't mess with him, not if you valued your career, and that went for both executives and players. The guy didn't tolerate any clowning under his watch, and came down swift and hard when he caught it. His authority was absolute, both in power and personality....which in a league of tempermental executives who's product is made up of even more tempermental players, isn't necessarily a bad thing. You couldn't bully Stern, you couldn't steamroll him. As S-n-P said during the last lockout, the guy could be a dick, but an extremely intelligent one who almost always got his way in the end. Much of what was accomplished in the NBA over the last 30 years could have only been done by someone of Stern's sheer bullishness. The guy could not be derailed. Taking in his driving leadership and the amount of positive change he's brought to the NBA, Stern can probably be considered one of those 'once-in-a-lifetime' sort of executives.
Silver is probably going to get challenged early and often, by the players especially, who will want to see where he draws the lines and how he responds when they get crossed. What we've seen of him so far doesn't really indicate he's got the same sort of roaring fire in him Stern does. He's much more tactful....very useful in negotiating, but not so much when discipline is necessary. He's also going to have to deal with the true fallout of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, whos punative salary cap penalties will be kicking in full force as he takes over, (ironic that the first team it's really penalized...the Thunder...are the model of a team it's meant to help) and likely an ongoing Sacramento Kings/arena issue too. And he's going to be a lot less fun on TV and at the podium.
But there's also plenty of positives to look forward to. Among the many titles Silver has held in the NBA (in reality, Commissioner is about the only position he hasn't held yet), there's the President of NBA Entertainment. Silver has been responsible for the NBA's last two national TV deals, and was the administrative force behind the globalization movement. He's been the practical application of Stern's visions. His background in the entertainment side will hopefully lead to a broader and more streamlined footprint for the NBA in mass media, with easier and more access to NBA content. He'll also continue the globalization vision Stern started, of with the Timberwolves....whos roster is fully half international....have been particular beneficiaries.
Further, Silver was also the league's point man in the new CBA, and has the owners' full confidence because of that. He'll still clash with some of them over various issues, but he doubtful to elicit the sort of feuds that Stern has had with guys like Mark Cuban and Donald Sterling. He's also likely to find a better working relationship with the NCAA, and his comments lead me to believe he's interested in revising the draft lottery as well. Silver likes consensus, likes harmony, and has a broad background and genuine interest in the fan experience of the NBA.
And no, he's not the sort of guy who will sell exclusive NBA rights to EA. I mean c'mon....EA can't even get their act together well enough to ship an NBA game at all. Three years of cancelled NBA Live titles (or whatever the hell they call it now). Oh, and what has 2k done in those three years? Michael Jordan Legacy mode, Bird/Magic rivalry mode, and Dream Team mode. Yeah.
And of course, helping Silver out is that Stern's still around for another 18 months, and the simple fact that it's not like any of the other commissioners are legends either. Bettmen's NHL is locked out as we speak, Selig will always have a drug problem in his legacy, and Goodell is getting hounded by the Saints' 'bounty hunting' program fallout, a sadly, seemingly constant stream of high-profile NFL player suicides, and accusations that he isn't doing enough to prevent player injuries, particularly head trauma.
In all, Silver will be inheriting a league that is in transition, both as a sport and an organization. The NBA's influence is expanding as its borders are shrinking, and the game's driving force has gone from dominant big men to speedy point guards: a change that i still in progress and has yet-unforeseen results. David Stern, for all his faults, has done a masterful job of getting the NBA to where it is today. Adam Silver seems like a good candidate to continue the upward climb.