David Stern–Hero or Nero?

It’s just David being David.

That is—David Stern, Commissioner of the NBA, who is now accused of fixing last week’s draft. That’s nothing new for David—over the years he been called out for fixing games, rigging the draft, reneging on trades, and cooking the books to screw over the union. And he’s not just being accused by us wingnuts in the blogosphere. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo, NBA executives think Stern rigged the lottery so that a team recently owned by the NBA got this year’s can’t-miss prospect, Anthony Davis of Kentucky.

David Stern is probably the best executive in professional sports (although you have to give Selig honorable mention for turning into senile Uncle Bud every time the topic of steroids comes up.) Stern is charged with selling a niche sport basically played by urban black people to wealthy suburban white people. That ain’t easy.

Like his peers in MLB and the NFL, his employees are problematic—they tend to be rich spoiled young men with excessive levels of testosterone. When an incident occurs that allows us to see these characters without their handlers, like Michael Jordan’s induction into the Hall of Fame or Roger Clemen’s testimony before Congress, we are horrified at their arrogance and nastiness. But while the headlines created by MLB and NFL players are unsavory, like drug use, and sometimes worse, like physical and sexual assault, the ones created by NBA players tend to be downright terrifying, like a drugged-out Delonte West driving down an interstate on a motorcycle carrying three loaded weapons or Jayson Williams shooting his driver in the face with a shotgun.

There are other differences that make the NBA a tough sell. Unlike football and baseball, where those employees are covered from head to toe with uniforms that make them look more to human scale, Stern’s employees perform in shorts and singlets, allowing every fan to see their tats, outrageous musculature and enormous size. Also unlike baseball and football, where the field is some distance from the stands, the NBA is right there in your face. A friend of mine had courtside seats for the Timberwolves, and he was so close to the court he had to put his feet under his chair when players needed to inbound a ball in his area. It is not unknown for NBA players to charge into the stands to confront fans. If you’ve ever stood beside a typical NBA player, you know he is six inches, fifty pounds bigger, and significantly scarier than anybody else you have ever met in your life. It’s like being in an elevator with Predator.

And Stern has sold it. He’s made accused rapist Kobe cuddly. Egomaniacal Michael likable. And managed to convince the world that Delonte was really just looking for a police officer so he could turn those guns in. Loaded.

It’s how he’s sold it that is the problem. Over the years, no sports league has had more improbable events than the NBA. In 1985, a new system is introduced and against overwhelming statistical odds, the best player in the draft, Patrick Ewing, ends up in the league’s biggest market, NY, where the local team is struggling. In 2002 and 2006, two small market teams (Sacramento and Milwaukee) were bounced from the playoffs by big market teams (LA and Miami) with the help of extremely questionable refereeing. Statisticians have analyzed those games and concluded that LA and Miami received 6 and 8 points respectively that they should not have received, both numbers well above the margin of victory. (The 2006 series follows a year where two small market teams actually played in the finals and got dismal ratings.)

Disgraced referee Tim Donaghy argued the league has a set of officials that it sends to games specifically to influence the outcome. Reluctant to take the word of a referee fired for gambling? OK, then, one of the most respected coaches in the league, Jeff Van Gundy, got fined $100,000 for saying essentially the same thing in 2005.

It’s hard not to conclude that either Stern has a short, fat thumb on the scale, or the NBA exists in another time-space continuum where the laws of probability simply do not apply.

The real question is not whether Stern is running a corrupt system, but rather, “At what point will fans have had enough?” Stern has gone from subtle manipulation, bending the corner of an envelope to make it easier to fish out of a fishtank, to the blatant—nullifying the Chris Paul trade and sending Davis to New Orleans, from David Copperfield to Tony Soprano.

According to Wojnarowski, league executives knew that New Orleans would end up with Davis before the lottery. And any fan with half a brain knew it, too.

It’s the equivalent of Nero making his horse consul—Stern is not even pretending to take the system seriously anymore.

Categories: Crime/Corruption, Sports

3 replies »

  1. I covered the NBA in the pre-Stern era (and well before the massive expansion that diluted the NBA.) Even then, the signs of subtle manipulation in favor of large-market teams existed. I stress subtle; Stern is anything but subtle.

    A nice take. One of the best takeouts on the NBA I’ve read in some time.

  2. Well, you’ve read enough of my stuff to know how desperately I agree with you. I sympathize with Stern – you can’t fix every game or people catch on. You can’t fix every draft. It can’t all be about feeding the big markets – the LBJ to hometown Cleveland was a good story, for instance. But you have to bake it enough so that big markets are USUALLY there at the end. That’s a money thing.

    The thing is, he seems clueless about perception. And he seems not to get that so many people suspecting you is a bad thing long term.

    The one I keep puzzling over is this. Have you READ the things Tim Donaghy has accused the league and its refs of? If these things aren’t true, then what hasn’t anyone sued him for libel?


  3. Sam

    Maybe it’s like Bonds and McGuire getting standing ovations. Maybe people just don’t care. Or maybe it’s just that a critical mass of people never get angry enough at the same time. The McHale gift to Boston (Garnett) and the West mitzvah to LA (Gasol) were infuriating, but I know I didn’t quite care enough.

    Good insight that in the NBA world, the Washington Generals get to win every once in awhile.