David Stern talks retirement, legacy, CBA, flopping on annual conference call
By Ben Golliver
NBA commissioner David Stern’s preseason conference call — the league’s annual festival of hyping and boasting — took a slightly different turn on Thursday after Stern announced his decision to retire on Feb. 1, 2014. With much of the call dominated by Stern’s thoughts on his decision to step down and the upcoming transition of power with successor Adam Silver, the range of auxiliary topics wasn’t as wide as it’s been in recent addresses.
Still, here’s a digest version with the key sound bytes from Stern’s call, including answers to questions on the success of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the sale of the Memphis Grizzlies, the uncertain future of the Sacramento Kings, ESPN’s decision not to hire Stan Van Gundy as an analyst, the league’s time limit on pre-game handshakes, and its new anti-flopping policy.
Stern clarified that his Feb. 1 2014 retirement date, which will mark the 30th anniversary of his appointment to the commissioner’s post, won’t mark his departure from the game.
“Don’t say retirement,” he told a reporter. “I’m stepping down. I’m going to be busy with a variety of initiatives.”
His post-commissioner role for the league wasn’t made specific but will presumably include continued work as an international ambassador, as he mentioned ongoing league efforts in China, Brazil and India.
In the meantime, the mechanics of the shift are of particular importance over the next 15 months. “My predominant goal is just to assure that there is a seamless transition in the change of leadership, while at the same time driving the league forward in a variety of initiatives,” he said.
His legacy as commissioner
It goes without saying that the NBA is a totally different league than it was when Stern took over in 1984. Stern presided over the Magic/Larry 1980s golden years, the globalization of the game in the 1990s, spurred by Michael Jordan’s immense popularity, and the post-Jordan years, in which the league’s players have put image issues behind them to reach new levels of popularity thanks, in part, to increased television and digital distribution and the rise of social media. When asked to comment on his legacy, Stern focused on the league’s growth, painting himself as its captain.
“I’m not a big believer in the L‑word, legacy,” he said. “I just want people to say that he steered the good ship NBA through all kinds of interesting times, some choppy waters, some extraordinary opportunities. … On his watch, the league grew in popularity, became a global phenomenon, and the owners and the players and the fans did very well.”
Stern on Silver
Stern and Silver began appearing together with increased regularity in recent years. Silver took the lead during certain portions of the lockout negotiations and Stern said in February that he would present Silver to the Board of Governors as he recommended successor, although he did not offer a timeline on his departure until Thursday.
Stern offered this explanation of his endorsement of Silver: “I strongly urged upon [the owners] that the appropriate successor was in house. Because Adam Silver, who has grown up professionally in this league, is aware of every facet of our business, has succeeded at everything he has done here and is primed to lead us on an ongoing basis. Because everything else is in really good shape, and the areas of extraordinary promise: Growth, international, digital, network television, are all areas that Adam is deeply experienced in and has impeccable relationships with respect to those areas as well.”
Stern painted the coming negotiations between the NBA and Silver regarding his promotion as simply a matter of paperwork.
“I couldn’t be happier that the board voted unanimously to enter into discussions with Adam about an agreement, the ratification of which in April will, I believe, be a formality,” he said.
State of the NBA
Like clockwork, Stern began the call by running down the league’s positive indicators in a glowing, optimistic tone. “Our game is very, very popular,” he said. “Our fans loved it last season, we had a nice increase in ratings.” He also cited the NBA’s league-wide 86 percent season ticket renewal rate, calling it “our highest ever.”
Stern also spoke at some length about the strides the league is making internationally, pointing out that he, Silver, and president of league operations Joel Litvin combined to attend preseason games in Berlin, Milan, Shanghai, Barcelona, Istanbul, Beijing and Mexico City, and that all seven games were sellouts. NBA Cares, the league’s community service wing, also put on 150 community service events in 30 countries, Stern said.
Impact of the 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement
The NBA’s 2011-12 season was cut from 82 games to 66 games because of a lockout that turned ugly at times. Stern argued Thursday that the collective bargaining that eventually resulted was functioning as expected. “It definitely appears that the collective bargaining agreements and revenue sharing agreements are working,” he said.
Asked to elaborate, Stern highlighted the importance of shortened contracts in helping owners limit mistakes that previously clogged their salary caps for years and helping players receive more accurate compensation for their services.
“The length and number of years that the contracts are covering has gone down dramatically over the years,” he said. ” But it continues to. And we think that’s going to make us more competitive because teams are not having to, in effect, eat remaining years of contracts. … The more you shorten contracts, the better it is for the players because if they’re still high‑performing, they’ll sign even bigger contracts at the end of their four‑ or in some cases, five‑year contracts. If they’re not, then the marketplace will reflect their diminution in value.”
Many critics view the league as top-heavy and big-market driven, an uneven playing field where superstars team up in premier destinations, leaving smaller-markets to fight an uphill battle on the court. Stern defended his system’s balance when it comes to high-profile free agents, noting that he wanted to protect a high-profile player’s ability to pursue free agency while also creating a system that afforded an incumbent team that was about to lose a star player the opportunity to receive meaningful value in return.
“Dwight Howard, he was drafted by Orlando,” Stern said. “He spent seven years there and in lieu of the eighth, Orlando got five draft picks [in a 4-team trade this summer]. That’s [reflective of] a pretty good system in my view. If Dwight Howard decides after seven years, which is longer than the average career in the NBA, that he’d like to be in another city, I think that’s a right for which he’s bargained.”
Topics of discussion at the Board of Governors meetings
Stern/Silver wasn’t the only transition of power that came out of Thursday’s Board of Governors meetings. Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor will turn over the Board of Governor’s chairmanship to San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt, who had previously chaired the owners’ labor relations and auditing committees. Taylor had held the position since 2008.
“Glen Taylor’s wisdom and counsel over the past four years have been invaluable,” Stern said in a statement. “Peter Holt’s extensive Board experience and committee leadership make him an ideal choice to succeed Glen. I thank Glen for his dedicated service and commend the Board of Governors on its laudable selection of Peter as chairman.”
The other topics at the meetings sounded rather mundane. Stern said the New York Knicks presented on their “exquisite” transformation of Madison Square Garden, the Brooklyn Nets reported receiving an “extraordinary response” to their re-branding efforts after relocating from New Jersey, and the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets discussed their new high-definition jumbotrons, which are going to “change the fan experience dramatically” in their respective arenas.
The NBA announced Thursday that it had approved the sale of the Memphis Grizzlies from Michael Heisley to a group of investors led by Robert Pera. During the conference call, Stern highlighted the importance of the new ownership group’s ties to Memphis, presumably because those ties will ensure that the league won’t have to deal with another relocation attempt.
“Robert Pera is one smart, hard‑working, focused businessman and basketball fan who is so delighted to have the opportunity to purchase the Memphis Grizzlies,” Stern said. “His enthusiasm is infectious. That’s number one. Number two, when you have local investors like Staley Cates and Pitt Hyde who are pillars of the community and can get behind the team and represent them with the key corporate stakeholders and potential season ticket fans, that is a big, big deal. And I expect much improved financial results from the Grizzlies that will grow out of the city and the suburbs rallying around this great, great Memphis treasure known as the Memphis Grizzlies.”
Stern really only had lip service for Sacramento Kings fans who are being held hostage by the Maloof family. After a relocation bid to Anaheim was delayed and a new Sacramento arena deal, negotiated with the help of the NBA, fell through, rumors persist that the Maloofs may have eyes on relocating the Kings. The commissioner’s only advice to the team’s loyal fan base: keep purchasing tickets.
“There are many people who appreciate the fact that Sacramento was, is, and can be a first class NBA city,” he said. “It is true that it needs a new building. We have our differences of opinions with all of our owners, and in this case with the Maloofs on some of the issues that have gone down here. But my advice to Sacramento is to continue the enormous support that you have shown for the team, and we’ll see what the next steps turn out to be.”
Pre-game time limit
During the preseason, the NBA’s officials began more actively enforcing a 90-second time limit on pre-game handshakes. Violators are being hit with a delay of game penalty. Stern clarified that this is not a new rule, but an old rule that is just being more strictly enforced. He also stated that the league was stepping in on behalf of visiting teams to and trying to speed up the game.
“As we extend instances of instant replay, which tends to slow the game down, we are looking for our fans to make sure we can deliver a great two and a half hour experience,” he said. “So we’re looking for ways to make sure that we should make the game fit in a certain way. So we’re enforcing the 90 second rule. We had thought it had gotten a little bit out of hand. Will we make a big deal about it if it’s 95 seconds? Probably not. But it’s not fair to players on teams who are visiting a building who get called out to center court to start the game and they become spectators at a game before the game.”
In September, the NBA announced a new anti-flopping policy that would punish those who embellish contact with fines and the possibility of suspensions. Some media members, and the National Basketball Players Association, protested the new policy. Stern didn’t discuss the mechanics of the issue in detail, preferring instead to simply downplay it.
“We are being judicious in [enforcing the rule] and not going overboard,” he said. ” We’ll have to find sort of a gentle middle ground as to making sure that our players, who are the greatest athletes in the world, play this great game, rather than engage in a little on-court acting. But I don’t think it’s a particularly profound issue.”
Stan Van Gundy
ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy recently claimed that his brother Stan, former coach of the Orlando Magic, was close to reaching an agreement with ESPN to serve as an analyst before the NBA stepped in to squelch the deal. Stan Van Gundy has been critical of Stern in the past, particularly over the league’s gag order on coaches speaking about officiating; Stern publicly scolded Van Gundy for speaking out on the topic back in March.
On Thursday Stern flatly denied any role in negotiations between ESPN and Stan Van Gundy.
“The answer to your question is no,” he said, in response to a question about whether he tried to dissuade ESPN from hiring Van Gundy. “I’m going to add one other thing. I take great pride in expanding the opportunities of our coaches and former coaches. It gives me pride when I see a Mike Fratello or a Jack Ramsay or that transition of Jeff Van Gundy, guys who worked as coaches finding good jobs in broadcasting as well. When they make the jump back [into coaching], whether it’s Doug Collins or Doc Rivers or Kevin McHale, that makes me happy too. I’m happy for all of our coaches who are members of the family. But it’s still the same answer, which is a firm no.”
Sports gambling in Canada
It wouldn’t be a David Stern conference call if he didn’t pop at least one shot at someone. His target this time? The Canadian government, of course.
In response to a question about legislative efforts to legalize sports gambling in Canada, Stern got in an indirect swipe at our neighbors to the north. “We know that gambling exists out there around the world, but we accept the status quo,” he said. “We understand that governments who are basically hungry for money will do just about anything regardless of its demonstrated impact on its citizens.”