Saturday, April 26, 2008

Irony, thy name is Stern

I was perusing the Sports Illustrated Vault (greatest way to kill time ever) and came across this great profile of David Stern, written in November 2006 by Jack McCallum. It features some great unintentional comedy, as many things written about Stern then seem hilarious in retrospect. Consider the following examples:

"Over the past months the NBA drafted a mission statement of which Stern is exceedingly proud. It talks about values and social responsibility, and it pledges that NBA employees will "conduct ourselves in accordance with the highest standards of honesty, truthfulness, ethics and fair dealing."

Commentary: Guess that was before Clay Bennett joined the club.

"Now, there is plenty of room for cynicism when bottom-liners start talking altruism. And the many NBA haters in the U.S. would suggest that players such as Stephen Jackson are living repudiations of the league's mission statement. But Stern holds that the document has had a 'profound effect' on him and on those who work for him. He hardly gets through a day without mentioning the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program, which each summer sends dozens of players to conduct clinics in far-flung and often impoverished parts of the world, and he fumes when the league is criticized for too often airing its NBA Cares spots. 'We're going to keep right on showing them," the commissioner says pugnaciously, "because social responsibility is extremely important to us.'"

Commentary: Apparently, social responsibility permits stealing deeply-entrenched franchises away from fans who have loyally supported the league for generations while falling over backwards to help sleazeball corporate raiders.

"It troubles him, then, that the league is increasingly doing business in countries with abhorrent or at least questionable government policies." ... "China presents an even greater conflict for Stern because it has both colossal business potential and a terrible human rights record. The commissioner has traveled throughout the country, both for business and to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, and there is no doubt that China is critical to the global future of the NBA. Yet its repressive policies fly in the face of the league's mission statement."

Commentary: Yeah, that hasn't stopped him from seeing "more of a need for new pro basketball teams in China than in North America."

"'Believe me, the China situation bothers me,' Stern says one day, traveling between Paris and Cologne. 'And a voice at home [he means (his wife) Dianne, who is more outspoken about politics than he is] reminds me about it all the time.' He sighs heavily. 'But at the end of the day I have a responsibility to my owners to make money," he says. "I can never forget that, no matter what my personal feelings might be.'

Commentary: Stern can play the self-effacing political martyr all he wants, but I've got a feeling the cash is more important to him than he lets on here. We do get a bit of truth here though: Stern lets out that it is the bottom line behind every NBA decision.

There is one image from the piece, though, that makes it possible that Stern has merely been played as a pawn by Bennett, who, after all, considers him "just one of my favorite people on earth." "Though Stern's inner compass in leading the NBA has been largely unerring, he has trouble finding his way back from somewhere if his wife is not along," McCallum writes. "As he enters hotels, for example, he invariably makes the wrong turn to get to the elevator, though he makes it decisively. 'He has no sense of direction,' says Dianne, 'yet he always knows where he's going.'" That damn-the-torpedoes attitude that doesn't allow for admitting that you're wrong may have doomed Stern to the wrong side in the Sonics situation: enticed by Bennett's flattery, he jumped onto the Oklahoma bandwagon and promptly refused to entertain the notion that Clay and co. could be lying out of the sides of their faces, going so far as to say that he hadn't even studied the e-mails in question before the crucial relocation vote.

However, that kind of naivety doesn't seem to fit with the workaholic, obsessive, detail-oriented character McCallum describes.

"He has been traveling abroad for so long that he knows not only the names of international basketball officials and TV executives, but also their kids' names. Stern's attention to detail is astonishing. As he greets Coca-Cola officials in Barcelona, his first question is, 'How's Sprite Zero doing?' Perusing a notebook full of bar graphs and sales-figure charts during a meeting in Rome, he stops and points to one. 'You left a percent sign out here,' he says to Umberto Pieraccioni, Adidas Italy's managing director. Before the tour's final doubleheader, in Cologne on Oct. 11, the commissioner's eyes run over the seating chart. 'How about if you move George Bodenheimer over here?' he says. The ABC Sports/ESPN honcho is duly moved. On planes and in cars Stern usually decides who sits where, calling for a reporter to sit near him on occasion and, on others, exiling the scribe to a different seat or different vehicle, depending on whether or not he feels like answering questions."

It sounds like a disservice to that sort of man to suggest that he's unaware of what each and every one of his owners is up to, and he's clearly paid some attention to what's going on in Seattle, as evidenced by his fine of Aubrey McClendon for telling the truth. That leaves two possibilities. The first is that he was deceived by his first impression of Bennett, is loath to change his mind, and thus conveniently blames everything negative on the others in the group.

The second possibility is that this shifting of blame is merely a PR tactic to appease the factions calling for Bennett's head, and that Stern has secretly been backing the move all along. As I pointed out earlier today, the NBA may lose a large media market, but all of their owners gain substantial leverage in negotiating with local governments. They can threaten to move elsewhere if the pursestrings aren't loosened, and use the Sonics as a key example: "Look what happened to Seattle."

It's the old extortion tactic, but it makes perfect sense for a sports league: no one wants to be known as the politician who let the local team walk, so you can bet that there will be a considerable amount of enthusiasm for publically-funded arenas in NBA or soon-to-be-NBA markets. As TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote, "The more I see the situation play out in Seattle, the more I see that David Stern is really good at his job. His current assignment: getting as many dollars as possible from taxpayers and to NBA owners. Oklahoma City stepped up to the plate, with public dollars to remodel the public building they built some time ago."

That kind of Machiavellian manipulation sounds like a project worthy of a brilliant workaholic like Stern. Perhaps his comments about social responsibility, honesty, truthfulness and the like are merely spin. What would be even worse, though, is if he actually believes in those laudable goals and somehow thinks he's serving them. At the end of the day, he's sold his soul and his ethics to the almighty bottom line. It may be ironic, but after further reflection, it isn't all that funny, especially if you're one of the Seattle fans he's trampled on in the process.

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