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. 

June 19th, 2011
Once upon a time, ESPN mag asked me to debunk the rigged 1985 lottery myth. Here’s what I gave them; it didn’t make the cut, but maybe because I got it right … and the exercise was never supposed to succeed in the first place?Heading  into the 1985-86 season, the NBA instituted a very primitive form of  draft lottery. Patrick Ewing went to the Knicks, the league’s biggest  market and hometown of Commissioner David Stern. You may also be familar  with a conspiracy theory arguing that Stern to fixed the results. It’s  based on a Zapruder-esque close reading of that night’s lottery, which  took place in plain sight, on live television. The crucial steps:1.  One Jack Wagner, a phantom who cannot be officially linked to the firm  of Ernst and Whitney, dropped the envelopes into a clear plastic drum.2. One envelope bounces off the side as it is dropped in, which would have dented the corner.3.  Stern reaches in, fumbles around with the pile, and then draws out one  from the middle—which must be the Knicks envelope, identified by its  dented corner.It’s  pretty heady stuff, and will keep you up for hours, giggling maniacally  over a grainy YouTube video that should be most notable for the wide  ties and huge-shouldered suits on display. But what if you go further,  breaking through paranoia and the thrill of discovery and reaching …  true enlightenment.1.  Corporations shred records all the time. Maybe Ernset and Whitney is  covering up something that really matters, like proof of the cocaine  they bought for a company party.2.  The “dented” envelope in fact slide smoothly down on its bottom edge,  before flopping down lightly on top of the pile. The three before it are  actually tossed in, roughly, and end up with their corners absorbing  the impact (since it’s a spherical surface on the bottom). If anything,  the “dented” envelope might be the only one without some superficial damage.3.  Ever cut cards? The instinctive first move is to go to the middle of  the deck, since that presumably does the most to randomize the order. It  is the great unknown. Stern’s not cutting cards, but this process is  new to everyone. He’s figuring out as he goes along. And part of that  is—clumsily, reflexively—treating the envelopes like he’s in the middle  of a poker game.It  not be as juicy as a rigged lottery. But at the end of the day, would  you rather believe that the first lottery was an excuse to make the  league even more unfair? And, incidentally, have you taken a look at  other outcomes from the envelope days? Something tells me Stern would  rather the Clippers not get Danny Manning and Danny Ferry.

Once upon a time, ESPN mag asked me to debunk the rigged 1985 lottery myth. Here’s what I gave them; it didn’t make the cut, but maybe because I got it right … and the exercise was never supposed to succeed in the first place?

Heading into the 1985-86 season, the NBA instituted a very primitive form of draft lottery. Patrick Ewing went to the Knicks, the league’s biggest market and hometown of Commissioner David Stern. You may also be familar with a conspiracy theory arguing that Stern to fixed the results. It’s based on a Zapruder-esque close reading of that night’s lottery, which took place in plain sight, on live television. The crucial steps:

1. One Jack Wagner, a phantom who cannot be officially linked to the firm of Ernst and Whitney, dropped the envelopes into a clear plastic drum.

2. One envelope bounces off the side as it is dropped in, which would have dented the corner.

3. Stern reaches in, fumbles around with the pile, and then draws out one from the middle—which must be the Knicks envelope, identified by its dented corner.

It’s pretty heady stuff, and will keep you up for hours, giggling maniacally over a grainy YouTube video that should be most notable for the wide ties and huge-shouldered suits on display. But what if you go further, breaking through paranoia and the thrill of discovery and reaching … true enlightenment.

1. Corporations shred records all the time. Maybe Ernset and Whitney is covering up something that really matters, like proof of the cocaine they bought for a company party.

2. The “dented” envelope in fact slide smoothly down on its bottom edge, before flopping down lightly on top of the pile. The three before it are actually tossed in, roughly, and end up with their corners absorbing the impact (since it’s a spherical surface on the bottom). If anything, the “dented” envelope might be the only one without some superficial damage.

3. Ever cut cards? The instinctive first move is to go to the middle of the deck, since that presumably does the most to randomize the order. It is the great unknown. Stern’s not cutting cards, but this process is new to everyone. He’s figuring out as he goes along. And part of that is—clumsily, reflexively—treating the envelopes like he’s in the middle of a poker game.

It not be as juicy as a rigged lottery. But at the end of the day, would you rather believe that the first lottery was an excuse to make the league even more unfair? And, incidentally, have you taken a look at other outcomes from the envelope days? Something tells me Stern would rather the Clippers not get Danny Manning and Danny Ferry.