October 13th, 2011

I will always be partial to Stern, at least superficially, because of his unmistakably Jewish persona. Let’s get that out of the way. I will also never cease to trumpet his staunch Democratic credentials, when it comes to everything except for—well, doing his job. He started out a union-buster, was the NBA’s choice for its last stand against free agency, and has always made a point of going at labor ruthlessly, almost competitively, as if it were his form of bloodsport. These days, it’s hard to reconcile anti-labor bravura with any kind of left-ish leanings. 

Here’s where we would do well to remember something about sports commissioners: They are not installed to rule over players and owners alike. Kenesaw Mountain Landis was a prehistoric being, not a precedent; even the most transformative figures, like Roger Goodell or Stern during the Jordan Era, served at the pleasure of the league’s owners. Larry O’Brien, Tommy Craggs’s great champion (our first in-person meeting was a three-hour long argument about Stern), was very nearly an activist, lecturing the owners about what was fair and right in this world. He was as structurally unlikely as Landis. The rest of these guys are just doing a job. David Stern is a character, at once endearing and a total prick. But just as the league’s best days allow him to assume the guise (and stereotype) of big-hearted showbiz tycoon, so the lean, or bitter, ones demand he scorch the earth. We know something of Stern’s personality, and his politics. The internal contradictions that cling so readily to him are a function of his ironbound sense of duty. The man isn’t a chameleon. Above all else, David Stern is the most ruthless kind of professional. 

Earlier today, Ray Ratto pointed out to me that Stern, as much as he may secretly resent it, has no choice but to protect the interests of mediocre owners. The smart ones are in the minority and they’re probably balanced out by the utter morons, anyway. This is not meant as a defense of David Stern, but an explanation for his seemingly revolting behavior here: He’s an employee. As usual, it’s the guys at the top who ruin everything. Granted, he’s closer, and more culpable, than the players ever could be. But at the end of the day, even David Stern works for someone.

I don’t doubt that David Stern has real feelings. Despair, or at least the hyperbolic idea of it, might be among them, somewhere. However, the exact structure of them, and the way they resolve way down in his gut and up high behind those glasses, is probably a mystery to everyone, save his analyst. Whoever that great and lucky man is. 

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