It may seem strange now — when the NBA’s TV ratings are strong, its television revenue astronomical and labor peace reached with little public acrimony — but the league and its players were barely on speaking terms just six years ago. The 2011 lockout lasted more than four months and erased 16 games from the regular season schedule, with the negotiations taking on racial undertones as a group of almost entirely white owners squabbled with a nearly all-black player pool over revenue sharing and other sensitive labor topics.
In the middle of all this stepped Bryant Gumbel, who took a number of shots at then-commissioner David Stern during his closing comments on an October 2011 episode of HBO’s “Real Sports.”
“If the NBA lockout is going to be resolved anytime soon, it seems likely to be done in spite of David Stern, not because of him,” he said of Stern’s stance during the lockout. “I say that because the NBA’s infamously egocentric commissioner seems more hellbent lately on demeaning the players than on solving his game’s labor issues. …
“His efforts are typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern-day plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys. … His moves are intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.”
Six years later, Stern still has not forgotten those comments.
“My reaction was that Bryant Gumbel is an idiot and that I considered it a badge of honor,” he told former Post sportswriter Nunyo Demasio on a recent podcast (Awful Announcing has the partial transcription of their nearly two-hour chat). “He was repeating something that the players’ representatives had said in the middle of a lockout. He was just regurgitating something. He’s the same guy that did a feature on our players and tried to sensationalize their nightlife. And, you know, even though he happens to be black, he was talking about our guys and the women they hang out with, et cetera. I have no respect for him, so that didn’t upset me at all.”
Stern told Demasio that he wasn’t bothered when the “race card” (his words) was played against him by a prominent black journalist such as Gumbel.
“My response was, ‘I have done more for people of color than he has,’ ” Stern told Demasio, adding that he found the HBO host to be “sufficiently ignorant” when it came to Gumbel’s comments about the league’s dress code, which was criticized when implemented in 2005 but has since found acceptance from the league’s players.
“I remember getting killed because of it, they were doing cartoons of me, putting me in gold chains and stuff, but the reality was, it didn’t take long and our players went way past it,” Stern told Demasio. “If you’re Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant or Tyson Chandler or James Harden, you take pride in who you are, how you’re built, how you dress. And actually, it’s really part of what I’m proudest of. Our players, who had the worst reputation in sports when we all started this journey, they were in the basement of the pyramid, I’d say, and now they’re at the top of the pyramid. That gives me great pride every day. People listen to them, respect them, expect them to do the right thing. They work in their neighborhoods, they work for their communities, they speak out on issues, that’s exactly what we wished for.”
An HBO spokesman said Gumbel would not be responding to Stern’s comments, but he told the Los Angeles Times in 2012 that he regrets none of the things he has said on the show.
“I take it seriously and spend a lot of time with it,” Gumbel said of his commentary that closes each “Real Sports” episode after he was specifically asked about the “plantation overseer” comment. “We’re trying to make a point. Brevity is difficult. To do it in a minute, or 1:15, the economy of words is important and I go through a lot of angst about every word. Commentaries are intended to make people think. After all of them, I can’t think of any I’d take back. I firmly believe what I say. Part of the reality of it is that it’s a monthly program, so you can’t do something that won’t be relevant in two weeks. You do something to stand the test of time and keep it current.”