Five Highs and Five Lows of the NBA's David Stern Era

Looking at the legacy of the NBA commissioner upon the announcement of his retirement
NBA commissioner David Stern watches the United States take on Australia at the London 2012 Olympic Games Photograph by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NBA Commissioner David Stern announced Thursday that he will step down in February 2014. By then, he will have been at the helm for exactly 30 years. Stern still has more than a year to shape his legacy. Jersey sponsorship patches, for instance, are probably coming next year. But with the end in sight, we take a moment to assess some of the high and lows of a tenure that saw the NBA rise from an also-ran sports enterprise with an uncertain future to a $4 billion business that is home to worldwide celebrities.

The Good:

1) Hands off (literally): During the late 1980s and early ’90s, the NBA was at risk of descending into rugby on hardwood. Bruising defenses led by the likes of Bill Laimbeer in Detroit and Anthony Mason in New York were pushing and shoving their way into the playoffs. The competition was intense, but games were low-scoring and ugly. Stern pushed back with rule changes meant up to free up offense. In 1994, he outlawed hand checking and in 1997 he limited the use of forearms. These changes opened the game and made it possible for the likes of Steve Nash to flourish in an uptempo game.

2) The Slam Dunk Contest: Technically, Stern was just taking over when the league brought the back the old A.B.A. tradition at its All Star weekend in 1984, but Stern had recruited Rick Welts, the brain behind the revival. The dunk contest may have gotten stale in recent years (see Blake Griffin jumping over a Kia), but it provided the now-iconic image of Michael Jordan suspended in mid-flight from the free throw line to the rim.

3) The Olympics: As Jack McCallum relates in his book Dream Team, Stern didn’t spearhead the drive to let NBA players into the Olympics. (That would have been Boris “the meat inspector” Stankovic of FIBA.) Stern didn’t stand in the way, either.

4) Malice in the Palace: When Ron Artest went into the stands to assault a fan after a game against the Detroit Pistons, setting off a brawl between player and fans, the basic contract between the league and its fans was briefly shattered. It could have been the beginning of the end. Stern responded by suspending nine players for more than 140 games, including a 55-game ban that cost Artest $5 million in salary. Stern took some heat over his measures, but nothing like that has happened since.

5) The Dress Code: In 2005, Stern instituted a “business casual” wardrobe for NBA players whenever they were “engaged in team or league business.” The new rules banned shorts, chains, headphones, and sunglasses and drew accusations of racism. While it was a heavy handed move to control the league’s image, Stern planted the seed for the sartorial revolution that led to Russell Westbrook wearing this. That’s a good thing.

The Bad:

1) The Seattle SuperSonics: The headline over at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer today is “NBA Commissioner David Stern, Sonics enemy No. 1, to retire in 2014.” When the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder in 2008, it was a case of sports blackmail. If the city wouldn’t put up money for a new arena, owner Clay Bennett told fans, he was leaving. And so he did, with Stern’s blessing.

2) The Trade That Wasn’t: If any fan base resents Stern as much as Seattle’s, it might be that of the L.A. Lakers. Last December, Stern—acting in his capacity as head of the league-owned New Orleans Hornets franchise—vetoed a deal that would have sent star point guard Chris Paul to the Lakers. The deal came after a player lockout that was driven, in part, by resentment from small-market team owners over the migration of talent to big-market teams. The Paul trade would have looked bad on that score. Stern said he blocked it purely for basketball reasons, but the conflict of interest was glaring.

3) The Age Minimum: In 2006, the NBA raised the minimum player age to 19 and required players to be at least a year out of high school. Stern said he was trying to keep scouts out of high school gyms; more likely, he was trying to protect the league’s product: Teenagers who were not NBA-ready were doing a lot of learning on the court, and it wasn’t always pretty. Still, any rule that keeps an 18-year-old from making millions (and forces him into the exploitative sham that is big-time college sports) is un-American in my book.

4) The Stoudemire Suspension: During the Western Conference Semifinals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Phoenix Suns, the Spurs’ Robert Horry delivered a brutal body-check to the Suns’ Steve Nash. Amare Stoudemire, then a dominant force for the Suns, responded like a decent human being and moved toward his teammate from the bench, breaking an NBA rule. (See Malice in the Palace, No. 4, above.) Stoudemire stopped himself almost immediately, but the league suspended him anyway. “It is not a matter of fairness; it’s a matter of correctness,” NBA Executive Vice President Stu Jackson explained. He was right about the first part. The Spurs won the next two games and the series, then moved on to take the championship.

5) The new ball: When the NBA unveiled its new official game ball in 2006, the league promised “better grip, feel, and consistency than the current leather ball.” Three months later, it went back to leather because players hated Spalding’s “microfiber composite.” Stern might have asked them first.