David Was A Saint Before He Was A Thief

Seven years before his extraordinary reign, before anyone knew the name David Stern, there was a shameful, gruesome fight that dramatized the NBA’s flaws. As fights go, it was bloody and devastating and unable to be rationalized; it changed one man’s face and skull and it rearranged how the NBA, a struggling league with games on tape delay, handled on court aggression. Because the fight was captured by television cameras, it dramatized false perceptions and racial stereotypes, it created villains out of quiet men, and heroes out of innocent victims. In a baseball and football fetishized world, a weary NBA fight was a dark, contemptuous stain.

It was December 9, 1977 when Kermit Washington slugged Rudy Tomjanovich in the face. Tomjanovich, acting as a peacemaker, intended to cool the tempers down. But in Washington’s peripheral vision, a shadowy presence lingered behind him and he swung as hard as he could out of instinct and self protection. He broke Tomjanovich’s face and cracked his skull; Tomjanovich nearly died because of it.

That Washington was black and Tomjanovich white only hardened the racial pejoratives that damned the league and kept it treading water. The fight epilogue drew a miserable epitaph as “The Punch”. In the present, it defined the league’s identity. Washington was fined $10,000 dollars and suspended six months; the Lakers traded him. By and large, the league and his peers never forgave Washington’s impulsivity. Tomjanovich, on the other hand, was bathed in victim sympathies. He resumed his career after his injuries healed.

One year after the fight, David Stern left private practice and became the NBA’s General Counsel. As Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were thrilling the league with their east coast-west coast everyone pick sides battles, Stern was Executive Vice President of the NBA.

The NBA had two major victories during this period of young Stern: drug testing and salary cap. Prejudice willed a false narrative: black players as coke heads. The league sided against the racial calculations of their white fan base because of economics. They couldn’t grow the league if fans thought the players were sucking white powder up their nose before games, or freebasing crack. To maintain integrity and create the perception that the league was clean and fair, the policy had to change with testing, fines, suspensions and bans. The Executive Committee also instituted revenue sharing so all teams could benefit from the sudden success, courtesy of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

By the time David Stern became the commissioner in 1984, his vision of where he wanted the league to go and specifically how it was going to prosper was solidified. Stern imagined a hybrid version of Disneyland, an entertainment vehicle showcasing great athletes in state of the art arenas with an ecstatic fan base. Because Stern became commissioner the same year that Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton were drafted, and because Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had already earned titles in must see television head to heads, he was surrounded by excellence. It was easy to sell the NBA now.  The product was the golden age of the golden age.

Stern added teams in Canada, opened offices overseas, allowed the league’s players to participate in the Olympics. There were exhibition camps in foreign locales and the scouting of international prospects. The television partners extended far and wide, more than 50 languages were spoken. Endorsements for the biggest stars flooded the league. Everyone wanted to be like Mike. And Magic. And Larry. And Charles.

With the advancement of technology, Stern wasn’t idle. He grew the league pushing into infancy NBA.com, NBA TV and League Pass. Information, news and entertainment upped the league’s visibility and marketing opportunities in Africa, Asia, Europe, and India.  It was all because of David Stern’s vision. He knew that every country in the world played basketball. His job was to bring the NBA to every country on earth.

He was generous to Kermit Washington too, who in Stern’s most powerful years, had been blackballed out the league. After the Lakers traded him, Washington’s opportunities dried up. He worked as an assistant coach in China and at Pete Newell’s big man camp. He did predraft workouts and not much else. All the letter writing and resume sending meant nothing. Until David Stern gave him an assist.

As much as Stern cared about perception and what the NBA’s paying customers wanted, he thought Washington had been punished enough. So he made a phone call.  Washington was hired in what was the Developmental League.  Washington said, “I really appreciate what David Stern did for me.”

Washington saw the best of Stern. Generous. Supportive. And willing to lend a hand. The Lakers of 2011 saw the worst of David Stern. It would haunt them for 7 years.

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Like any tough father, David Stern could be punitive. After the Malice at the Palace, he handed down draconian suspensions and fines. 9 players were banned for 140 games. Fines were in excess of $8 million. Though harsh, it made sense. 27 years after Kermit Washington’s punch, David Stern drew a line in the sand. No more ugly brawls on television. Ever.

Seven years later, it wasn’t a brawl that drew the ire of many but it was a superstar player, a veto, and a team that felt robbed. It happened after the lockout of 2011 ended.

The math: the Lakers needed a point guard. Chris Paul asked to be traded. Simple enough and everyone wins.

The Hornets were going to get Lamar Odom, Luis Scola and Kevin Martin. But Dan Gilbert didn’t care about the trade flotsam, just that a superstar was leaving a small market for a gigantic one. Gilbert picked up the phone whining about small market and superstars fleeing.

The lockout had bruised everyone, particularly small market owners who found themselves in an odd position, perhaps for the first time in their professional  lives. They lacked power to prevent insurrection and player movement. Without warning, revenue shifted as star players shifted to bigger cities and small market owners were left with crumbs to rebuild. Within this vortex of bitterness and contempt, the Chris Paul to the  Lakers trade had atrocious timing.

Dan Gilbert picked up the phone, incensed. He worked Stern and Stern had no choice but to listen. The owners paid his salary; they were his boss.

You better do something about Chris Paul coming to Los Angeles. What was the lockout about if it wasn’t a referendum on big markets yanking our players for themselves? Small markets losing teams to big markets, superstars ruining franchises as they look to help themselves, owners suddenly powerless, c’mon David. Do your job.

He did. It was a very slippery slope. Before that moment in 2011, a commissioner had never vetoed a trade. And this was the Lakers, the glamour franchise of the league and cash cow, champions a year earlier. Stern justified his veto as “basketball reasons.”

No. It was money reasons. The NBA owned the Hornets, after forcing George Shinn out. The team was on the market with no legitimate buyers.  Because the NBA owned the Hornets, they had the right to approve or veto any trade that would hurt future ownership potential.

When Stern said “basketball reasons” he meant Dan Gilbert and small market owners reasons. I’ll interpret: no way in hell a year after LeBron’s defection decimated the Cavs and downtown Cleveland was another star leaving a small market and going to the Lakers. As a consolation prize, Stern gave the Clippers time to get something going and they sweetened the pot by adding Eric Gordon and Chris Kaman for Chris Paul. And that was that. The Lakers had to watch Chris Paul elevate the Clippers while they sank into mediocrity, all because David Stern said “basketball reasons”.

Like any wild fire, it was a disaster for many and a benefit for a few. The Hornets were one of the worst teams in the league after Chris Paul was traded to the Clippers, so bad they lucked into the number one pick  and selected NCAA champion Anthony Davis. Instantly attractive, the Hornets were sold to Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints. Stern felt redeemed. He made money for the league because the Hornets price shot up and he helped the Clippers thrive at the Lakers expense.

Expectedly and appropriately, Laker fans were bitter. Livid at Stern for what he did to them, how he stole Chris Paul in an act of institutional thievery, it opened up a bunch of wounds that never really closed. The vetoed Chris Paul trade lives on in an apocalyptic past. It was a transactional piece of horror put in play by Stern’s Machiavellian power move.

Not to shill for Stern after his death but what was missed about the entire fiasco that culminated in the excoriation of Stern was this: he was doing what he was paid to do. Addvocate for billionaires. The Dan Gilberts of the world had his ear and always would. They paid his salary. The best thing about Stern as commissioner was he didn’t suffer false loyalties. He understood who he worked for. The owners. The paying customers. The bottom line. He was willing to create enemies to keep everyone on his side and agreeable. He was, at the end of the day, a lawyer who cared less about justice and more about balance. It was the Clippers turn.

But as fate would have it, what Stern could not do was deliver a winner. Chris Paul and the Clippers were underachievers so the trade lost a lot of oxygen. The Clippers never reached their potential, nor the conference final. Unable to put a dent in the Lakers popularity because they couldn’t achieve in the postseason, they were haunted by their failures until they had to break the entire thing up. Even the Hornets (Pelicans) lost. The draft pick that created a sale wanted out just like Chris Paul wanted out. This time, there was no veto.

The only winner in the whole sordid mess was Dan Gilbert. Stern was his puppet and Gilbert proved it to the world by pulling his strings. Stern won too. Every owner was suddenly reminded of the power of the commissioner’s office. Don’t take him for granted. He had absolute power and was willing to do the unpopular thing to help NBA owners.