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Essay: The Hubris Of David Stern

“A man cannot become a hero until he can see the root of his own downfall.”
— Aristotle

Every man has a dream. Not every man shares the same fate. Some men are blessed to achieve and prosper, but some are doomed to fail, despite their best efforts or good intentions. While it is impossible for an outsider like me to truly understand what drives David Stern, his actions speak for themselves.

When I look at David Stern, I see a man who once told Bill Russell’s dying wife about the plan to rename the NBA Finals MVP trophy after Russell — which let her know before Russell did. I see a man who moved a team from the nation’s 14th-largest market to the 45th-largest, and led the NBA to intervene against a 2008 legal attempt by Howard Schultz to keep the team in Seattle.

Stern’s entire career has been a wave of questionable events and conspiracy theories, which have covered what good things he actually did. He’s forced outsiders to feel different emotions. For me, it’s pity. Pity that this man will probably never get his due credit for the amazing turnaround and stewardship of the NBA. David Stern is a hero. But he will not be remembered as one.

No matter how just or intelligent a person is, no one is perfect. David Stern was not perfect as the commissioner of the NBA. Along with a list of gains made by the league, there is also a list of controversies. Some of these controversies were escalated by Stern himself, who possesses an uncanny, rare intelligence that both hurts him and lifts him up as a leader of men.

David Stern had a dream and he fought for it. He tried to better the image of the league by creating a dress code. He rejected a Hornets-Lakers trade that seemed to completely be in favor of the Lakers. But in all of these stories and more, Stern hurt himself and the achievement of his goal with his own pride. In the Hornets-Lakers trade fiasco, he simply responded to inquiries about the reason for the rejection with the infamous line, “basketball reasons.”

When the league was preparing to go into a lockout with the players, Stern was quoted as saying that he “knows where the bodies are buried.” Stern made his own life harder, and gave more ammunition to an already unstable fan base.

The recent Spurs scandal embodies Stern’s entire career. San Antonio had every right to do what they did, but it was clear that the league’s television partners didn’t see it that way. Stern, with his pride wounded and possible negotiating points in future contract talks on the line, made the situation even worse by creating an unprecedented event and setting a shaky standard for the future. Are we going to fine NBA teams for tanking? How much power do coaches have over their own teams? Stern, while making it much more interesting, gave the debacle unnecessary juice.

David Stern has set his own retirement date. People responded in different ways. I was disappointed. No matter what people say about his age, his ego, or his stubborn personality, few men can say they have changed the NBA for the better like David Stern did.

Stern saved the league from irrelevance in the 1980s (with some help from Magic and Bird). Stern fully capitalized on the emergence of Michael Jordan and made the NBA a global brand. Stern led the league from the dark ages of the Post-Jordan era, into our modern, tech-friendly, super competitive, unbearably exciting day. Stern took a league and turned it into a staple of life. No longer does the casual American sports fan look down on the NBA. No longer does any game lack full, live coverage.

Stern is not the most likeable guy to a lot of people. To some, he’s quaint and charming, and very thoughtful. To others, he’s nothing more than a big bully. But David Stern changed the NBA, and that cannot be ignored. The sad part is—the reason why I label Stern as a “tragic hero”—that he will never be seen in the light he deserves. A sad shadow of darkness will always loom over Stern’s legacy, and even though it’s a bit his own fault, that still doesn’t make it right.

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