by Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
During the ring ceremony on opening night in Miami, a microphone picked up NBA Commissioner David Stern telling LeBron James, “I’m proud of you.”
Although it doesn’t become official until 2014, Stern’s recent retirement announcement cracked the door on the debate about his legacy. In one important sense — more on that in a moment — it’s an open-and-shut case.
Charles Barkley weighed in during the Celtics at Miami pregame show, calling his one-time boss, “arguably the greatest commissioner in sports” because since both arrived in 1984, the average player salary had skyrocketed from $250,000 to $5.2 million this season. Factor in relative labor peace, a decided lack of scandal, expansion from 23 teams to 30 and the explosive growth of the league’s fan base internationally, and Barkley’s assessment doesn’t sound far-fetched.
Stern is a “player’s commissioner” in nearly every sense, which is why the knocks against him have plenty of merit, too. He inherited one of the best rivalries in sport, Magic vs. Larry, but as Michael Jordan ascended to become basketball’s first truly global figure, he hitched the league’s fortunes to the drawing power of its stars at the expense of its teams. So while Stern often pays lip service to achieving competitive balance, the dominance of two dozen or so superstars has made the argument moot. Only eight teams have won a championship during his stewardship — compared to 15 in the NFL and NHL, and 18 in major league baseball — and as Stern’s cameo alongside James on Tuesday night reminded us, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
If you’re one of those superstars, or lucky to have landed in the right place at the right time, it’s been a good run. Dwayne Wade qualifies on both counts. His breakthrough season came when Shaquille O’Neal parted ways with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and moved east to claim his last title in Miami. Two seasons ago, James decided to leave Cleveland to take his talents there, too, pulling along Chris Bosh from Toronto in his wake. After a sure-handed 120-107 win over their Eastern Conference rivals, someone asked Wade whether players kept track of how few teams passed out rings during the Stern era like the ones the Heat collected before the game.
“I do. I do. I’m sure a lot of players do,” Wade replied. If you know the history of the game, you know not many franchises, not many coaches and obviously not many players have won championships in that long period of time from when I started watching basketball.”
During training camp, James was asked a similar question and said, “The game is different, but the way it’s being shaped, it has some similarities.”
He’s right insofar as superstars always needed a strong supporting cast — both Magic and Bird had All-Star teammates, and even Jordan needed Scottie Pippen as a sidekick — but these days they have more say over where they play than ever. The labor fight that shortened last season, and Stern’s veto of the Chris Paul-to-Los Angeles trade just before it began were an attempt to slow down that movement, but it was a case of too little too late. Just about every superstar looking for a better home already has found one in the past few seasons — the latest example being Dwight Howard and Steve Nash moving to Los Angeles — which is why the biggest name anyone expects to get moved between now and the trade deadline is Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao.
As if the Heat’s title last year wasn’t impressive enough, they added Rashard Lewis and three-point specialist Ray Allen, putting even more distance between them and the rest of the conference. The story is almost as depressing in the West. Oklahoma City, the team Miami beat in the finals last season, figured to have its hands full getting past those Lakers and the Spurs again this year. And in a bid to save money, the Thunder traded sixth-man James Harden to Houston, deciding they didn’t want to take on another long-term contract in addition to the two deals they made to lock up Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
It’s not just the players, of course, who’ve taken notice of how Stern does business. Fans and owners in more than a few of the league’s outposts, from Sacramento to Charlotte, know only too well how the league operates. So do the bookies in Las Vegas, where more than one has the Heat and Lakers as odds-on co-favorites.
“It’s great to be in that category,” Wade acknowledged. “It’s special. It’s the one thing, when the banner was going up, you look and you say, ‘Man, this is something that can never be taken away from us.'”
Not to worry. There’s likely to be another one or two hanging alongside it sometime soon.
(Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.)