In the middle of a spectacular flameout that would come to define his supernova career, Gilbert Arenas called The Post sports department. It was the day after Arenas had bizarrely tried to make light of his bringing guns into the Wizards’ locker room by pantomiming six-shooters during pregame introductions, and David Stern had just indefinitely suspended him for the rest of the season.
A few moments later, the NBA commissioner was calling in on another line:
“Before you hang up with him to talk to me,” Stern began, “tell Gilbert one thing and one thing only: It’s not personal. I like him. But right now, I need to protect him from himself.”
By then, January 2010, the NBA of Magic, Larry and Michael — the forces of personality and panache that amazingly combined for 14 of the league’s 19 titles between 1980 and 1998 — were long gone.
The arrival of the counterculture athletic hero was here. The sheen from Jordan’s beautiful Italian wool ties and suits and soothing “Quite naturally” answers in postgame news conferences had been replaced by Allen Iverson in sweats and do-rag, incredulously “talkin’ about practice.”
It wasn’t 1980, four years before an NBA lawyer from Teaneck, N.J., with a cheesy mustache inherited one of the toughest jobs in American sports: selling a predominantly black product to a predominantly white audience.
It wasn’t even 1992, when a bigger vision of Stern’s had incredibly come to fruition in Barcelona: the world wholly buying America’s game.
This was after Ron Artest went into the stands, after a rogue referee named Tim Donaghy threatened to open up a Pandora’s box on every officiating conspiracy theory dreamed up.
This was, really, Stern at his finest: identifying the knuckleheads bringing dishonor to the good souls in his league, taking executive action before the product suffered anymore.
David Stern is 72 now. He will step down as commissioner Saturday, after a longer commissioner tenure than even Pete Rozelle, who made the NFL the colossus it is today.
Maybe you don’t care about this. Maybe you think Stern relinquishing power should have happened 10 years ago. Maybe you think his annual proclamations of the NBA’s growth sounds like the old Jon Lovitz character from “Saturday Night Live” — “Yeah, that’s the ticket” — and that monotone, genteel, slightly nauseating tone won’t be missed.
But it will.
This isn’t an appreciation, because there were several things not to appreciate about Stern. He could feign compromise while absolutely crushing his negotiating foes. He could be smug and pedantic with his critics. And while Stern wanted to hear what his minions had to say at Olympic Tower, there were often two ways to do things on Fifth Avenue: David’s Way and the Wrong Way.
But Magic Johnson’s first title in 1980 was shown on tape delay; now networks bid almost a billion dollars to televise NBA games. When Stern started, the average player salary was $250,000; now it’s about $5.5 million. Going rate for a franchise was $12 million; now it’s $650 million.
Stern never lost an entire regular season or a postseason to labor disputes. Neither Bud Selig nor Gary Bettman can say that. Even on his most omnipotent, arrogant days he also never took on the imperiousness of a Roger Goodell.
David was still David.
Another personal anecdote: During an appearance on Bob Costas’s former HBO show, Stern was asked about a passage I had written that essentially said there were a dozen or so knucklehead characters in the league (Rasheed Wallace was one of them) who were destroying the good reputations of more than 400 other players, that the bad characters were casting aspersions on everyone.
“Mike Wise wrote that?” he asked Costas repeatedly, even inexplicably coming back to it 20 minutes later in the program.
Adam Silver, then a league executive and now Stern’s successor, told me to call Stern and patch things up.
When Stern’s secretary put me through, I quipped, “So I guess you didn’t like what I wrote the other day, huh?”
“Hey Mike,” Stern said, his voice rising, “[Expletive] you!” He hung up in a rage.
When I saw him three months later, he acted as if nothing happened.
“You know what that was about?” he said Thursday night by telephone from Manhattan. “My job was to protect our players and our league. That’s what it’s always been. And I had been told by columnists in the late 1970s that America would never accept our league because it was too black. You develop thick skin over the years, but you never forget what that feels like. After the Artest incident, how many people said, ‘The NBA is full of thugs and punks?’ What were they really saying there?”
My friend Jason Whitlock and I disagree on a central point about Stern’s legacy: that his total acceptance of hip-hop culture caused the NBA to further polarize itself from a mainstream audience.
I don’t believe that. I believe the decline of the NBA’s popularity started with Michael Jordan’s second retirement after the Bulls’ second three-peat in 1998. The natural evolution of the game’s next star didn’t happen soon enough for a league that lost 32 games per team to labor strife in 1999 and really had no transcendent star to fall back on.
Help has come again in the form of LeBron James and Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry and a cadre of young, marketable stars.
In hindsight, Stern didn’t sell a black sport to white America; he sold great athletes and good stories to a paying audience willing to accept some of the flawed characters for who they were.
Stern won’t get enough credit for some of his best work: his compassion and empathy for the most discriminated among us, not just poor black kids, many of whom grew up in America’s most impoverished neighborhoods. No, he stood for John Amaechi after the former center came out as gay in his autobiography. When Tim Hardaway made anti-gay comments in reference to Amaechi in 2007, Hardaway’s livelihood in the NBA suddenly ceased. Stern wasn’t having bigotry.
Micheal Ray Richardson, banned for life from the NBA for repeated cocaine use, credits Stern with saving his life. They are still friends today.
In October, Stern received the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal at Harvard with other esteemed honorees for his contribution to African-American culture. He won’t say it, but he is probably more proud of that award than any other.
Stern intrinsically knew at some point that America was going to have to accept a dreadlocked black athlete with body art and not automatically assume, “Gangsta.” He knew the small-minded who clung to covertly racist beliefs were going to be left behind in a marketplace that now endorses Robert Griffin III and is realizing Richard Sherman can’t be dismissed and ignored as another Angry Black Man.
“I wanted people to accept modern-day athletes for who they are, not for who you wanted them to be,” he said before we hung up. “I hope people understood that.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.