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Friday, January 31, 2014
Updated: February 2, 7:35 PM ET
Hard to imagine NBA without Stern

By Marc Stein
ESPN.com

Stern/Silver
Saturday will mark the first time in 30 years someone other than David Stern is in charge of the NBA.

As the foremost nostalgic sap on the ESPN.com basketball team, I maintain a sports geek museum in my home office filled with trinkets that, if you could see some of them, would quickly and rightfully confirm that I have trouble letting go.

They are too numerous (and sad) to list fully here, but just trust me. Who else keeps a three-decades-old Apollo Creed figurine on his desk in honor of his favorite movie ... right near his very first Blackberry that's displayed like a trophy ... mere inches away from the Matchbox-sized UPS truck that was purchased in a futile attempt to rekindle that magical feeling, from one's preteens, that was triggered every time the delivery guy rang the doorbell toting a fresh shipment from Strat-O-Matic?

It's in that spirit that I have clung to an old Wilson NBA ball, stamped with the signature of a certain Lawrence O'Brien, that I'm not even sure how I obtained. I keep it around mostly because that tattered pre-Spalding leather does a better job than anything in my life, given how this funky brain is wired, of making sure I never forget that there really was an NBA commissioner before David Stern.

For all my Buffalo Braves fandom that long-suffering regular readers have been subjected to, I find it a massive struggle to picture the pre-Stern NBA in my head. I've been covering the league as a member of the media for two-thirds of Stern's 30 years in charge -- which means I've been writing for two decades, over and over, about the Larry O'Brien Trophy awarded to the champs at the end of every season -- but it still feels as though Stern has been running the NBA my whole life.

Which is why it's even harder to imagine the NBA without him.

Bully, dictator, villain. It's all true. Sporting that especially apt last name, Stern has frequently fit all of those descriptions since taking charge on Feb. 1, 1984, making sure everyone knew -- from the players, to the owners, to the coaches and team executives, to the people working in his own building -- who had the final say in the NBA. On everything.

Yet you can't convince me it was the wrong approach. Heavy-handed? Sure. Increasingly unpopular in recent years? No doubt. Proclamations such as the one we got from Sports Illustrated in 1991, when SI anointed Stern "the best commissioner in sports" on the heels of Pete Rozelle's departure from the NFL, have been scarce over this final third of Stern's reign thanks to a steady stream of crises and controversies. It's been one after another over the last several years to drown out so much of the praise he got for steering the league out of its late 1970s gloom and then spearheading the sport's financial growth and gradual globalization.

David Stern, Micky Arison & Pat Riley
The NBA's championship trophy, named for Larry O'Brien, proves there have been commissioners other than David Stern in the past.

I would submit, though, that a commissioner who packs no fear factor is probably not going to be a successful commissioner. We can only wait and see whether the more benign, collaborative approach widely anticipated from successor Adam Silver indeed succeeds in the new NBA that launches Saturday morning, but I see this issue as one of Silver's major challenges as he becomes merely the fifth commish this league has ever employed.

Establishing his own certifiably commissioner-esque presence.

It's a persona, in Stern's case, that detractors find overbearing (to put it kindly). And his legacy has certainly taken some hits in this last leg of Stern's run. I'm sure our younger audience, if quizzed, would focus largely on what was generally seen as the draconian implementation of the NBA's age limit and dress code, followed by the microfiber ball fiasco and capped by the blockage of the Chris Paul trade while running the league-owned New Orleans Hornets fresh off five straight months as Everybody's Bad Guy in the 2011 lockout.

You figure, though, that appreciation for Stern's work is bound to start building back up the longer he's gone. Clippers coach Doc Rivers summed it up neatly when he chimed in with this Wednesday night:  "He's been great for this league. He's been great for me. I think the public sees the mean side of David Stern so much, they don't see the real side.

"We'll miss him. Adam will be great. But David Stern ... he gets all the heat and doesn't get enough of the good stuff. It's amazing. He's done this great job of making sure the players are the stars ... and yet behind the scenes he's been a superstar and almost no one has noticed. That's probably the way he wanted it. He's going to leave the league better than when he started."

And as longtime Stern foil Mark Cuban told ESPN.com earlier this month before the Dallas Mavericks' loquacious owner incurred his final Stern-issued fine: "One reason that I truly respect David is that he followed the rules. He didn't want to be king. He wanted to be successful and make the NBA successful. He was less concerned with his legacy than with creating results for the NBA. He knows that the results will stand the test of time and define his legacy.

"I like David a lot. David is focused. He's smart. He's driven. He's goal-oriented. He's relentless. Those are good qualities in a lot of respects. I think, for the most part, he's done a lot of great things. ... I don't think it'll be hard [for Silver to take over] and that's a compliment to David. There aren't 50 things you have to fix. What's gonna happen with the next TV deal? What's gonna happen with the franchises that need new arenas? What's gonna happen with expansion? Those are challenges, but they're obvious. David has left things in a good position."

Let's be clear here: Stern isn't anywhere near as ego-less as Rivers and Cuban just made him sound. He clearly relished his role as NBA ruler and, as you've surely heard about a zillion times by now, didn't hesitate to unleash that legendary temper.

Yet you can't quibble with the fact that the league's myriad financial booms under his watch, combined with the base of power he's amassed in a universe that has Cuban suddenly predicting that all 30 teams will be worth at least a billion dollars in the not-so-far-off future, are the envy of commissioners everywhere. The NBA has pushed around the National Basketball Players Association for ages, wrested complete control of minor league basketball away from every junior circuit that tried to go it alone and can boast alliances with the Basketball Hall of Fame, USA Basketball, FIBA and the NBA Coaches Association that have often made it look as though Stern was the one pulling all the strings. Neither Roger Goodell nor even Mr. Rozelle ever quite flexed that much muscle.

Rewind through hoop history and you'll find that the aforementioned Larry O'Brien actually arrived as NBA commissioner in 1975 as a bit of a celebrity after his stint as postmaster general of the United States. Yet only Stern, of all the commissioners in all the major North American team sports, can legitimately claim to have been cloned; Gary Bettman was hired right out of his cabinet in 1993 to be the National Hockey League's answer to Stern.

The NHL's problem, of course, is that there's really only one DJS.

I've seen all the good riddance tweets. I know initial public sentiment will make it seem as though no one outside of Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue is sad to see Stern shift into his new role of commissioner emeritus . With time, though, I suspect historians will start to again zero in on the man's business acumen and commitment to social justice. It's undeniably true that Stern was incredibly (and admittedly) fortunate to have taken hold of the wheel in the same year Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton all happened to be drafted into a league headlined by two pretty marketable youngsters named Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Yet it's also instructive to note that so many of the game's legends from that era echo Rivers' appreciation for the empire Stern helped build for them and the way he fought for them, for all minorities and for the women's game, too.

He's had to cope with a lot since Jordan's first retirement in 1998, whether it was the serious and lasting stain of the Pacers-Pistons brawl, Tim Donaghy and a betting scandal that legitimately threatened the game's credibility, or the raw emotions that still linger in Seattle in the wake of the Sonics' relocation to Oklahoma City in 2007 ... and Seattle's subsequent failure to land the Sacramento Kings when so many prematurely assumed they would. Yet the script Stern always stuck to, in response, is that nothing us media mavens were prepared to deem a doomsday scenario for his league -- not even L'Affaire Donaghy or the Gilbert Arenas gun nightmare -- could compare to his first six years in the league office before becoming commissioner.

Those depressingly dark days when the NBA looked like an unsustainable operation until the introduction of pro sports' first salary cap and an effective drug policy.

Maybe you won't miss Stern, but I will. I'll miss his press conferences at All-Star Weekend and the NBA Finals, his feigned annoyance at another Cuban question -- "What the f--- do you want, Stein?" -- and mostly that underrated comfort of knowing exactly what to expect from the NBA's commish.

I'd argue that Stern really hasn't changed much since I was dispatched by the Los Angeles Daily News, in my first-ever NBA assignment as a full-time sportswriter, to handle the David Stern sidebar at Magic's unforgettable retirement press conference on Nov. 7, 1991. And neither, for that matter, have I.

So you had to know what you were going to get here. To go with that justifiably sappy ode to Magic's announcement from November 2011, here ends a fairly (and inevitably) sentimental farewell to the relentless force of nature who laughably dubbed himself "Easy Dave" during the NBA's first lockout in 1999.

The guy who really had me believing he was going to try to commish forever.