- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Los Angeles Lakers fans may never forgive David Stern for vetoing the December 2011 trade that would have put Chris Paul in purple and gold. But as the final days of Stern's 30-year run as NBA commissioner count down, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak made it clear how much Stern has meant to the Lakers over the years.
"He's done so much more good for this organization and in this city than people could ever measure, in the long run," Kupchak told ESPNLosAngeles.com in a sit-down interview Thursday, two days before Stern's tenure is set to come to a close Feb. 1, when Adam Silver will officially assume his position as league commissioner. "Anything that's taken place that can be conceived or be construed as not good will be in the rearview mirror and something good is going to happen down the road. And that's how Dr. [Jerry] Buss looked at it."
Buss, who died last February, purchased the Lakers for $67.5 million in 1979, five years before Stern became commissioner. Today, after benefiting from the growth of the league under Stern's watch, the Lakers are worth $1 billion, according to a recent valuation by Forbes.
Of course, those benefits over time mean little to Lakers fans who see Paul suiting up for their city cohabitants in the Los Angeles Clippers. Stern, citing "basketball reasons," nixed a three-team deal at the outset of the lockout-shortened 2010-11 season that would have landed Paul with the Lakers. Stern had final say because the NBA had taken temporary ownership of Paul's former franchise in New Orleans at the time. A week later, the Clippers put together a trade to acquire the All-Star point guard.
"It was kind of like a perfect storm," Kupchak recalled. "The league owned the team, very unusual circumstances, and quickly -- from an organizational point of view -- we just moved on. And to this date, I don't really catch myself looking back and saying, 'What if?'
"You don't have time in this business to do that. That leads nowhere. But it was a unique situation and I don't think it will ever happen again -- when the stars are lined up just like that where something like that can happen again. But quickly, at least from our point of view, and I know from Dr. Buss' point of view, we just moved on as quickly as possible."
It was a bit of a change of tune from Kupchak, who said of Stern, "We'll miss him, with the exception of one moment," at a Lakers season-ticket holder event earlier this season.
"I don't know if I have to thank him or not," Gasol told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "You never know how that would have played out, but I guess he was part of the reason or the main reason why that trade didn't go through and I'm still with the franchise that I want to be with."
Gasol, who credited Stern's emphasis on the globalization of basketball, acknowledged that the league's most recent lockout affected how he views Stern’s legacy overall.
"His strength has probably taken some things away from us [players], but has benefited the owners in a major way and made the NBA a more attractive business for potential owners," Gasol said.
Gasol described Stern's demeanor at a meeting he attended with members of the NBA Players Association during the 2011 All-Star Weekend in L.A., when a lockout was already looming.
"You could tell his determination and his confidence and how he handled the situation," Gasol said. "He was impeccable and was in a position of advantage the entire way, knowing that he had the situation exactly how he wanted it."
Kupchak, a member of the league's competition committee, recognized that same side of Stern during annual rules meetings.
"You never knew in the meetings if you were there because you really had a say or if you were being manipulated," Kupchak said with a hearty laugh. "You never really knew."
One thing Kupchak does know is that Stern's job hasn't been easy and Dr. Buss served as an ally to the commissioner for the most part.
"You always have to remember: OK, well, if I kept everything that I've always had and every other team doesn’t prosper, then I'll still have my team but there will be nobody to play against," said Kupchak. "That’s a dramatic way of looking at it, but Dr. Buss was always a fan of, 'Let's do what's best for the league.' Now, he protected his rights as much as he could. I think he had a unique relationship with David Stern and I think David appreciated him. He needed owners like that. Otherwise, managing 30 billionaires is a chore. It's a chore. And I think he could always count on Dr. Buss when the chips were down to look at it like David is looking at it: What's best for the league?"
Kupchak also knows that the Lakers have been the most successful team in Stern's three decades running the league, winning more titles (eight) than any other franchise during that time.
"Every championship we won he's been at," Kupchak said, moments after pointing to a framed photograph hanging on the wall of his office showing Stern standing in a group with Kupchak while the Lakers were visiting the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan in honor of their win over the Boston Celtics in the 1985 Finals. "We've won a lot. Those are all great memories. He always had a presence. Whether it was at a ring ceremony or whether it was a competition committee meeting, when David was there, you felt you were with somebody who was special and you respected him. I'm not going to say you were afraid of him -- because he could go a lot of different directions in front of a room -- but he was always respected."
2dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne