The death of David Stern on Wednesday elicited the expected tributes to his far-reaching legacy as the 30-year commissioner of the NBA. No less an eminence than Michael Jordan extolled Stern for growing the league into an “international phenomenon.”
But here in Seattle, where Stern has long been regarded as an enemy of the people for his role in both the departure of the Sonics in 2008 and the thwarting of a replacement team in 2013, the reaction is much more complicated.
Only the most coldhearted would express anything but deep sympathy to the family of Stern, who died at age 77, three weeks after suffering a brain hemorrhage. His imprint on basketball encompasses a vast array of positive achievements. Stern inherited a league that was an afterthought in the pro sports pantheon, embroiled in drug scandals, and transformed it into a vastly more popular — and profitable — enterprise with a worldwide brand. He created the WNBA, and was a champion of diversity.
But I believe it’s possible to be duly respectful after the passing of such a towering figure and yet also point out that like most people of such surpassing power, their legacy is complex.
That was never so evident than in Stern’s handling of the Sonics’ departure to Oklahoma City — a psychological blow that still hasn’t healed, and one that had his fingerprints all over it.
Writing of Stern on Wednesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski called the former commissioner “a visionary and a deal-maker and a tyrant and a revolutionist. … Stern screamed and cursed and pounded boardroom tables, treating the commissioner’s seat like an emperor’s throne.”
We got to witness that side of Stern, in all its inglorious nature. There are those who still swear that the departure of the Sonics was ensured on Feb. 23, 2006, when Stern accompanied then-owner Howard Schultz to Olympia to lobby for the funds the team was seeking to renovate KeyArena. (That was barely a decade after a previous KeyArena renovation that Stern, at its unveiling on Nov. 4, 1995, called “beautiful … I think Seattle should be very proud of what’s going on here tonight.”)
What happened in Olympia seemed to sear its way into Stern’s psyche and never left. According to reports from those who were there, Stern was highly insulted by the way he was treated by Frank Chopp, then the Speaker of the Washington state House of Representatives. The commissioner would often cite with disdain this quote by Chopp in shooting down the Sonics’ proposal for funds:
“They ought to get their own financial house in order when their payroll is over $50 million for, what is it, 10 players? I think that’s a little ridiculous. They need to get their own financial house in order and if they did, they wouldn’t have to ask for public help.”
From that point on, it seemed that Stern treated Seattle’s efforts to retain the Sonics, and subsequently to lure the Sacramento Kings, in a far more hostile manner, bordering on vindictiveness. Certainly, city and state politicians didn’t help matters along with their handling of the matter, and Schultz deserves much scorn for selling to Oklahoma businessmen who were secretly scheming to move the team. But Stern, as the league’s omnipotent overseer, should never have allowed Clay Bennett and his partners to orchestrate the move to Oklahoma City in such a duplicitous manner.
Then, when Chris Hansen and his group was on the verge of righting that wrong in 2013, reaching an agreement in January to purchase the Kings from the Maloof family, Stern suddenly became a staunch advocate of franchise stability. After the league voted 22-8 to deny the Kings’ relocation to Seattle — an outcome achieved through much lobbying by Stern — he told reporters that the edge goes to the incumbent. The Sonics, a 41-year incumbent in Seattle, had received no such nod.
Maybe the unkindest cut came after the relocation vote at the Board of Governors meeting in Dallas. At his brief news conference, Stern began, “This is going to be short for me. I have a game to get to in Oklahoma City.”
That was widely viewed as Stern’s last twist of the knife toward Seattle. As my former colleague Jerry Brewer wrote in the Seattle Times:
“At the end of the fight, the old, vindictive NBA commissioner couldn’t announce the winner without first needling the city he was about to make a loser again.
“At the end of a polarizing relocation issue that he once described as “wrenching,” the man who always measures his words couldn’t resist one smug remark directed at Seattle.
At the end of another heartbreaking NBA result, David Stern taunted us.”
Far be it from me to disagree with Chilon of Sparta, one of the Seven Sages of Greece, who is believed to have been the first to say, “Of the dead, nothing but good is to be said.”
With Stern, there is an overwhelming amount of good that’s reflected in the robust nature of NBA basketball, nearly five years after his resignation. But any honest assessment of Stern’s tenure as NBA commissioner must include his unsparing treatment of the Sonics, and the devastating impact that will outlive him.