Commentary

Full-court trap

David Stern presses his advantage over players, and it's sure to come back to him

Updated: January 28, 2012, 6:16 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

David Stern's NBAIllustration by Mark SmithNBA commissioner David Stern has yet to pay a price for wielding his power so recklessly.

A version of this story appears in the Feb. 6, 2012 "Recruiting Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

AS WE ENTER THE SECOND MONTH of this haphazard, abbreviated season, the NBA today looks very much like it did yesterday, only with a month's fewer games. The caste system of the pretty and the ugly is still in place. The Wizards and Bucks are awful, as they were before, and the Heat and Bulls are as strong and destined as a year ago. The Thunder are still on the verge of being a championship-level team. The Knicks and Lakers will always be the preferred destination for players for the same reason the Timberwolves and Cavaliers will never be: New York and LA are the pretty; Minneapolis and Cleveland are not.

There is one key difference. The boss of the new season -- David Stern -- is not the same as the old Stern, the Stern once considered the most player-friendly of all commissioners, the one credited with understanding both Main Street and Madison Avenue better than his peers, resulting in a boomtown NBA. Today's Stern has presided over two lockouts in a dozen years, with a referee fixing games in between. More important moving forward, he's been exposed as the enabler of the hopeless cadre of small-market owners who shut the game down, such as Cleveland's Dan Gilbert. Instead of demanding that these owners reform their economic system and become better businessmen or die, Stern aligned with them in the recent CBA negotiations, then blocked a great young player, Chris Paul, from being traded to the NBA's signature team, the Lakers.

Stern escaped any real blowback for his mishandling of the Paul trade or for interjecting himself into the deal in the first place. Parts of the reasons are understandable: Fans wanted basketball and were happy it was back. At the same time, Stern exploited the anti-player, anti-union sentiment in this country that always gives institutions the advantage in winning over the public -- and he did so without much scrutiny, as it would be easier to ask sports journalists to cover the Iditarod than labor issues.

Stern is the employee of the owners. He does their bidding. Only they can hire him, and only they can fire him.

Still, Stern's moves will come back to haunt the league. After killing the Paul-to-Lakers deal, the commissioner said the Hornets were "better served" by having the All-Star point guard remain in New Orleans as opposed to allowing that deal -- then allowed him to be traded to the Clippers, one of the worst-run teams in pro sports, who play in the same megamarket (the same building, no less) as the Lakers. While the Hornets are owned by the league, both the Lakers and Rockets (who also were part of the original Paul deal) are among the top five highest-valued teams in the NBA, according to Forbes. Stern sent a clear signal that the Lakers needed curbing, the way baseball for years tried to rein in the Yankees. Likewise, in adding a harsh luxury tax to the new CBA while reducing the players' cut of league revenue from 57 percent to 50 percent after this season, Stern and the owners seem seduced by the NFL and its hard salary caps, illusion of parity and unrealistic controls on players and their money.

Such seduction is fatal. Stern, who rose to power during the Bird-Magic-Jordan years, shouldn't need a history lesson to know the NBA has been at its most profitable when people care enough to love or hate the superteams in Boston and Chicago, New York and LA -- and Miami today. (Just ask the Spurs.) That Stern would position himself the champion of the small- to midmarket teams at the expense of the elites either suggests runaway hubris or the recognition that the NBA lacks enough strong teams to thrive. Neither says much about the future of the league.

Consider: Years from now, many of the game's brightest young stars will be forced to re-sign with their small-market teams because the new tax will make it all but impossible for the likes of the Mavericks and Lakers to throw huge money their way. That will dilute these players' star impact while muting the allure of the marquee franchises. And do you think the Wizards and Bucks will be any less low-rent and mismanaged? There's a fine line between parity and mediocrity, and, as the NBA skirts that line, only then will the true price of Stern's manipulations become clear.

But at least he did the players one favor. In a sense, he restored honesty to the sports narrative. Players must always remember that the notion of the commissioner as impartial caretaker of the game is a myth. Stern is the employee of the owners. He does their bidding. Only they can hire him, and only they can fire him. No player has ever had input in who is chosen to be commissioner. Stern has revealed the face behind the mask -- and he isn't fooling anyone anymore.

Howad Bryant is a columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.