NBA Commissioner David Stern emits an aura that inspires an energy-sapping, dull fear in those around him. Players, media, and even the owners that pay his rumored eight figure salary all acquiesce meekly in his presence. The brave get gelatinous. The brown nosers polish their kneepads. The toadies ribbit.
It’s certainly understandable why. Players fear that their employment opportunities will wither upon retirement. Media members fear that their access to the league will simply end. Fans fear that Stern could pull a Seattle Sonics and simply jack their team. Even owners don’t speak out against him. After thirty years, he’s become more like a tin-pot dictator or a small town southern sheriff than a commissioner. Stern has become the emperor no one dares say is buck-naked and now the basketball world is paying the price. We are going to lose much or all of the 2010-2011 season due to a David Stern engineered owner's lockout. The NBA right now has more storylines than General Hospital. Could this be the year Lebron and the Miami heat figure it out? Will Kobe tie Jordan with six rings? Can the Miracle Mavs repeat? What could Derrick Rose do for an MVP encore? But these questions won’t be answered. We don't get answers to these questions because too many teams are losing money, and Stern has determined that only a lockout and taking it out of the union’s hide is a path to solvency.
There are of course exceptions to this conspiracy of silence. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks once made a sport of tweaking Stern, but after several million dollars in fines, he got the hint. Last year, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said that there is no free speech in the NBA and Stern responded, “We won’t be hearing from him for the rest of the season.” He then said of Van Gundy, “I see somebody whose team isn’t performing…who seems to be fraying.” Rasheed Wallace was an exception, saying, "I ain't no dumb-ass n----- out here. I'm not like a whole bunch of these young boys out here who get caught up and captivated into the league…. I know what this business is all about…. I know the commissioner of this league makes more than three-quarters of the players in this league."
Stern responded publicly, "Mr. Wallace's hateful diatribe was ignorant and offensive to all NBA players. I refuse to enhance his heightened sense of deprivation by publicly debating with him." You might notice that Rasheed Wallace isn’t providing commentary on NBA TV.
Mess with Stern, and become an object lesson. As Stern said to a group of NBA All-Stars, “I know where the bodies are buried because I’ve buried some of them myself.” Stern has built an atmosphere of fear and intimidation over three decades with the subtlety of Rupert Murdoch. Even the owners, the ones who pay his salary, don’t dare ask how much Stern, ostensibly their employee, gets paid.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports quotes a source who says that “two maybe three” owners even know the answer to this question. As Wojnarowski writes, “Mostly, it speaks to the authoritarian culture created within the league office, and how Stern carries it out through the NBA. Some younger owners have been warned to never push the issue with him, never ask, because it’s simply unadvisable to get on the wrong side of the commissioner."
Meanwhile the solution to the NBA’s financial crisis is obvious. It’s doesn’t lie in dramatic slashing of salaries, or more public subsidies. It’s revenue sharing. The NBA shares less revenue than any other major league. In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers make the same television money as the New York Giants. In the NBA, it takes the Portland Trail Blazers more than 10 years to make the same broadcast revenue that the Lakers make in one year. Forbes magazine determined that the league as a whole made money and if revenue was shared, the league would be fine. Stern’s response to Forbes’s findings was a sneer and a growl.
It’s obvious to me that what stands in the way of a logical financial agreement is Stern himself. His intransigence is the logical extension of a decade of dress-code dictates, bullying officials, and even changing the material on the basketball despite the fact that it was cutting the hands of players. He has created a logic that no one dares stand up and say, “This guy has to go.” He has become like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s dictator in the novel Autumn of the Patriarch. As Marquez wrote, “The regime wasn't being sustained by hope or conformity or even by terror, but by the pure inertia of an ancient and irreparable disillusion, go out into the street and look truth in the face, your Excellency, we're on the final curve.” We are on the “final curve” of a Commissioner’s reign that saw the league go global, win millions of new fans, and create a remarkable constellation of superstars. But it’s a reign that now ends with us, the fans, being robbed of the game we love. Yet this "inertia of disillusion" has fans, players, media members and owners on the sideline, too cowed to speak truth as obvious as it is unspoken: we don’t need David Stern to have the NBA. His removal as commissioner would provide a path to labor piece and get the league back in business. But if no one stands up, Stern gets to fulfill every dictator’s wish: to destroy the very world of his own creation.
Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.