Commentary

David Stern's perfect timing

Updated: October 27, 2012, 11:45 AM ET
By Scoop Jackson | ESPN.com

The timing was perfect. So gangster. So Stern.

No one can say they saw it coming, yet no one can say that it was unexpected or a surprise. For the NBA commissioner, it was much more a matter of "when" as opposed to "Why hasn't he … ?" that seemed to be the conversation piece. And he decided Thursday that he was going to share with us his immaculate sense of timing.

David Stern's announcement of his step-down in February 2014 was hype-free, quick, drama-less and done with a touch of class. (Donald Trump, take note.) He knew the time was right, he knew to exit the game before the whispers of the greatest commissioner ever's continued decline got louder.

There's been a "Boardwalk Empire"/"Boss" kinda feel to his tenure. He's smarter than Nucky Thompson and more savvy than Tom Kane, but Stern could have served as the powerful model for the creators to make both of those characters authentic.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern
Dick Raphael/Getty ImagesIn the early days of David Stern's tenure, the headliners were Larry Bird (and Magic Johnson and the Detroit Pistons).

He'd become the equivalent of a genius on the verge of madness. Talk of his consumption and abuse of power had begun to overshadow the fact(s) that Stern did with the NBA something no other living person might have been able to, taking into consideration the state of the League when he took it over. He was a lawyer and a financial visionary who had respect and a good relationship with both labor and management. It was often said -- even by those who didn't necessarily like him -- that if anyone could put what Stern possessed in a bottle, it would sell like a new Apple product and it would make the corporate world a more beautifully operated place.

A range of emotions and feelings will follow Stern these next 450 or so days as we revisit his career. Players will recall losing respect for him during last year's CBA negotiations (Dwyane Wade reportedly said to him during one meeting: "You're not pointing your finger at me. I am not your child!"). Others will remember being in sincere fear of him because he once said to a group of All-Stars: "I know where the bodies are buried" -- because he buried some of them.

There are owners who worship the hardwood he walks on and have run to him to save themselves, and there are owners like Mark Cuban who might not accidentally spill water on Stern if he were on fire.

NBA fans posting comments on ESPN's SportsNation page also recognized the spectrum of his accomplishments. "He left the NBA in a better state than when he took it over. It's a world-wide fixture now and, while I would never say 'I like Stern' he did a great job, and the game of basketball would not have been able to thrive without him," wrote onio617.

"His legacy is riding the coattails of the Magic/Bird era, then the Jordan era, then turning the game into a joke," wrote dAdXeR.

Until Roger Goodell entered the commissioners' cipher, Stern was the most polarizing executive in professional sports, a title he held with esteem because the polarization came with people's respect for his brilliance.

For years and years (and years!) he could do nothing wrong. The Don. Teflon-coated. While millions of kids and athletes wanted to be like Mike, grown men, CEOs and business-school graduates wanted to be like Stern. His Gatorade was wetter.

But it seemed like those successes began to come to a close around 2006. The 1998 lockout didn't do too much damage to his legacy or image. He'd done too much for a 204-day lockout to erase or eclipse the platinum road he'd laid out for owners and players to travel.

Then Jordan retired, then Allen Iverson became an unstoppable cultural force, then owners began losing money, then he instituted an age-limit policy into the collective bargaining agreement, followed by a dress code, then he changed the game ball (which actually was the first real big public mistake), then … one of his refs was found to have gone rogue and put everything Stern had done in jeopardy and into question.

The FBI investigation uncovering that dirt in 2007 hit Stern hard. To his core. It was his Roy Jones Jr. moment (see Tarver, Antonio, second fight). Although he remained standing, Stern didn't survive that Tim Donaghy blow. Looking back, it's easy to say he was never the same after that.

[+] EnlargeDavid Stern
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesRasheed Wallace was among those who refused to defer to David Stern at the height of his power.

And then came the credibility questions, followed by elite players making power moves and orchestrating where, when and how they were going to be traded; a shift of direction and decade-long stranglehold of power. Then came the second lockout, then came his veto of the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade. Which ultimately proved to be the nail. His nail. His coffin.

David Stern went from the commissioner we loved to the commissioner we loved to hate. He knew this probably before we did. He knew his time was up. He just had to find the perfect time to let us know. Which he did.

So now there exists a date for when one of the most powerful runs in the history of the business of sports will come to an end. The perfect democratic diplomatic dictatorship will be over. And until that day, that February day when Stern hands the control of his League over to Adam Silver, the "what of" questions of his legacy and "what is" questions of his place in history will consume us.

Only DJS could do this. Only he could construct an exit strategy so "out of nowhere" but necessary that it will force us to begin the forgetting of the past three or so years of his reign and concentrate on his first 25. He knows with 15 months left before it becomes official that his swan song tour will be filled with great memories of what he did right, as opposed to where it all went wrong.

His "fall from grace" and his perceived "arrogance" (smugness) and his protection almost to a fault of the owners hurt what many believed for years was one of the greatest runs as a commish of a professional sports league. At the same time, while conspiracy issues still hover over his rule, Stern will exit (and still remains) the most respected commissioner in all of sports. Although hardly anyone can have it both ways -- he did.

I'll always remember his response to Rasheed Wallace when 'Sheed made him the centerpiece to a much larger issue in 2003. "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," Wallace said at the time.

To which Stern simply and calmly responded: "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."

So Thompson. So Kane. So Stern.

He may have lost some of his shine in the end, and more importantly he may have even lost that mythical title of the "best that ever was, best that ever will be." But the one thing David Stern will remind us before he leaves is how you can't be half a gangster and expect the world to rightfully kiss your ring when you say goodbye.

Scoop Jackson | email

ESPN.com columnist