NBA Commissioner David Stern emits an aura that inspires an energy-sapping, dull fear in those around him. Players, media and even the owners that pay his rumored eight-figure salary all acquiesce meekly in his presence. The brave get gelatinous. The brown nosers polish their kneepads. The toadies ribbit.
It’s certainly understandable why. Players fear that their employment opportunities will wither upon retirement. Media members fear that their access to the league will simply end. Fans fear that Stern could pull a Seattle Sonics and simply jack their team. Even owners don’t speak out against him. After thirty years, he’s become more like a tinpot dictator or a small-town Southern sheriff than a commissioner. Stern has become the emperor no one dares say is buck naked and now the basketball world is paying the price. We are going to lose much or all of the 2010–11 season due to a David Stern engineered owner’s lockout. The NBA right now has more storylines than General Hospital. Could this be the year Lebron and the Miami Heat figure it out? Will Kobe tie Jordan with six rings? Can the Miracle Mavs repeat? What could Derrick Rose do for an MVP encore? But these questions won’t be answered. We don’t get answers to these questions because too many teams are losing money, and Stern has determined that only a lockout and taking it out of the union’s hide is a path to solvency.
There are of course exceptions to this conspiracy of silence. Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks once made a sport of tweaking Stern, but after several million dollars in fines, he got the hint. Last year, Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy said that there is no free speech in the NBA and Stern responded, “We won’t be hearing from him for the rest of the season.” He then said of Van Gundy, “I see somebody whose team isn’t performing…who seems to be fraying.” Rasheed Wallace was an exception, saying, “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.”
Stern responded publicly, “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.” You might notice that Rasheed Wallace isn’t providing commentary on NBA TV.
Mess with Stern, and become an object lesson. As Stern said to a group of NBA All-Stars, “I know where the bodies are buried because I’ve buried some of them myself.” Stern has built an atmosphere of fear and intimidation over three decades with the subtlety of Rupert Murdoch. Even the owners, the ones who pay his salary, don’t dare ask how much Stern, ostensibly their employee, gets paid.