The Price Of Fame: How NBA Commissioner David Stern Let Money And Power Corrupt His Morals

The uncontained and public hypocrisy of former NBA commissioner David Stern runs deeper than the Chris Paul debacle of 2011. It actually dates back to Oscar Robertson and an antitrust lawsuit in 1970.

Before Oscar Robertson’s antitrust law suit in 1970, a drafted player was bound to that team. But in 1970 the NBA and ABA wanted to merge. Robertson filed an antitrust lawsuit to block the merger (which ended up taking place in 1976) and led to the modern free agency that we have today. The lawyer representing Robertson was Stern.

Stern’s immersion in conspiracy and public scrutiny started in 1985, the year the NBA started the first Lottery draft and his second year as commissioner. Stern picked the number one draft out of group of envelopes. Only one had a slightly bent corner and that’s the one Stern went after, sending Hall of Fame Center Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks. Immediately rumors started that he just wanted to send a star to a big market.

Stern’s inclinations to help big markets has never been as strong as his desire to help out his buddies. When Clay Bennet wanted to bring the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma, Stern was quick to try to allow this to happen, even getting the NBA to step into a legal battle against Starbucks owner Howard Shultz when he tried to keep the team in Seattle.

His obvious ties to certain individuals remained fervent. He continually made exceptions in some places while doing all he could to silence his critics, especially within the NBA. Stern himself corroborated this in 2011 in Los Angeles during the All-Star break when he made an offhand comment about “knowing where the bodies are buried in the league” because he buried them himself.

That very same year Stern interjected with a three way trade that should have sent point guard Chris Paul to Los Angeles. Stern, being accused of sending top players to big markets for years, was sure to let this go. Chris Paul to Los Angeles with Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson would have been a ratings slam dunk. But Stern stopped the trade due to “basketball reasons” and then went oddly silent about it directly after, only stating in 2016 that it was “one of the few times I decided to go silent and let it play out…I got killed. There was never a trade. It was never approved by me as the owner rep.”

But the truth is probably a little more complicated than that. The rest of the owners were upset that the Lakers would benefit so much from the trade. Dan Gilbert, no stranger to penning letters that go public, wrote that “It would be a travesty to allow the Lakers to acquire Chris Paul. I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do.” He stated the Lakers could save $40 million without giving up any draft picks.

Just a few years prior, Stern convinced the rest of the owners to take a share of the struggling Hornets and then found himself in this strange predicament. An antitrust lawyer who sided with the players in the 1970s suddenly seemed to be the cause of a major antitrust issue within the league. How could 29 owners who own the 30th team make any fair trades at all? The players had the most to lose in this situation and the issues that Stern once fought he was now taking a major part in creating.

Up in Charlotte, Michael Jordan was in his second year as majority owner of the Bobcats. He was the face of the franchise there, considering Kemba Walker was a rookie and not yet well known, and the rest of the roster was relatively unrecognizable to the casual fan. Jordan was still the star. Fresh from his Hall of Fame induction in 2009, he was still one of the biggest names in all of sports.

The last thing Stern would want to do is upset the man that made him successful. Jordan was drafted in the same year that Stern took over as commissioner, 1984. The NBA’s success had more to do with the players than Stern’s business savvy. Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton also came from the same draft.

Bu when the Chris Paul trade came up the person who would have benefited from it the most would have been Phil Jackson.

Jackson was in the last year of his coaching career with the Lakers. He had made many public mentions that he was going to retire after the close of the 2011 season. He had just won a championship with Kobe over the Celtics in a seven game series the year before. He won it the way he did with Jordan, without a true point guard, using the triangle offense.

The addition of Chris Paul would have given Jackson something he had never really had, a true point guard. He could have finished his career with another championship and doing it in a way that was new to him, new to Kobe, and new to Laker nation since Magic Johnson graced the court.

But after Jordan’s 2009 hall of fame speech, it seemed fairly obvious that Jordan and Jackson weren’t the best of buds. Or at least, Jordan didn’t think so. He hardly mentioned Jackson in his Hall of Fame speech and went on to say the “nay-sayers” said a “scoring champion can’t win an NBA title.” Jordan was talking not about the media or his critics but Jackson.

Phil always gave himself more credit than Michael thought he deserved for those six championships and Phil has been vocal about what Michael complained about in his speech. Here’s what Phil had said publically in an interview years after he left the Bulls:

“I didn’t buy into that [god-like] part of his being,” Jackson says. “[I] actually had to ask him to cut back from what he was doing. ‘I don’t want you to be the scoring leader’. The scoring leaders have not won championships.”

A few years later, Phil was asked by Oprah Winfrey “Did that feel to him, though, that you’re asking [Jordan] to be less than [he] can be?”

“He accepted the role, which was wonderful,” was Jackson’s reply.

I bet Mike doesn’t think that.

David Stern owes a lot to Jordan. The global success of the NBA was built on his shoulders, his bald head, and his tongue. He was an icon who brought the league from having the championship played on tape delay after the news in the 1980s to prime time television by the 1990s. With the dispute between Mike and Phil, how could he let him get more talent and win more championships with the Lakers if all he had to do was a place a quick phone call to Stern to shut it down?

Stern as commissioner did all he could to hamper the success of the league but it flourished despite him. Some of the all-time greats came from this era and Stern was going to be sure that it stayed that way. He didn’t need any further success being built by ego driven coaches. He only wanted to make sure that those he owed it to get theirs.

A successful commissioner is ready to help the owners develop the best strategies to make the most money, but without the players the league is not sustainable. Stern truly believed this in the 1960s and early 1970s, but the more money he made and the more power he had the more corrupt he started to become. By the end, he was more of a made man helping out his buddies he owed favors to than a true commissioner.

Maybe Stern truly believes what Michael said in his last sentence at his hall of fame speech.

“Limits, like fears, are often an illusion.”