David Stern had been NBA commissioner for barely a year when the Knicks won the 1985 draft lottery, sending Patrick Ewing on the way to New York.
Skeptics cried conspiracy, that the league rigged the result to bail out the faltering franchise in its largest market.
Stern would shrug it off, knowing he wouldn’t do anything illegal to help the Knicks, or any of the big boys.
He did far more for the little guys.
Cities such as Sacramento and New Orleans needed Stern more, and his efforts helped them retain teams that might otherwise have been playing elsewhere.
In New Orleans’ case, that even included running the organization at the same time as running a league.
“I used to think that he just showed up on draft day and shook hands, but then I got to work with him when I was in New Orleans when the NBA took over the Pelicans. I was amazed how much he did,” said Phoenix coach Monty Williams, who was coaching the team when the league stepped in to run it until new ownership could be found.
Tributes flowed for hours Wednesday after Stern died at 77, from grateful players and teams who benefited from his 30 years of leadership. Most focused on his vision that led to the NBA’s massive worldwide growth, but some had more personal stories to tell about closer to home.
Like the Kings, who at times appeared ticketed for Seattle, Southern California, Las Vegas or some other city before Stern rejected the team’s plans to bolt and gave Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson the chance to put together plans for local ownership and a new arena that kept the team in California’s capital city. A street is named in Stern’s honour there.
“David will always be remembered as Superman in Sacramento,” owner Vivek Ranadive said, adding that Stern’s “fierce support of the team and this community is the reason why the Kings stayed in Sacramento. David’s enthusiasm for our city and belief in our fans will never be forgotten.”
The Kings played a tribute video Thursday acknowledging Stern’s role in their revival before their home game against the Memphis Grizzlies, another team in a minor market that’s struggled at times to fill its building after the team relocated there from Vancouver.
Business may have boomed better in other places, but one move for the franchise was hard enough. Stern had no interest in another.
“Commissioner Stern’s support of Memphis as an NBA market and the resulting arrival of the Grizzlies franchise in 2001 forever changed the trajectory of our city,” the Grizzlies said. “His continued support in standing alongside the Grizzlies organization in its creation of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game in Memphis reflected his commitment to using the power of sport to transform lives.”
The NBA loves its big stars and benefits from them being in the biggest markets, from Magic Johnson to Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and now LeBron James being in Los Angeles, or Michael Jordan playing in Chicago. But Stern and the league admired the parity of the NFL, where small-market squads such as Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis have thrived.
A better chance of achieving that was a driving force that led to the 2011 lockout, with the league hoping a more favourable salary structure and improved sharing of revenues would give any well-managed team a chance to compete, no matter its location. Teams such as Oklahoma City, Portland and Utah have since been relatively consistent winners, and Milwaukee currently sports the NBA’s best record.
Occasionally, it took a larger effort from the league, especially in New Orleans.
The NBA has never proven over the long term it will flourish in the city after moving from Charlotte, with Chris Paul and Anthony Davis both eventually seeking to be traded. But even though the Hornets were well-supported in Oklahoma City after playing home games there following Hurricane Katrina, Stern felt it was important to return the team to New Orleans when it was ready to host games again, then sent the 2008 All-Star Game soon after.
Later, he had the league take ownership of the franchise from George Shinn until it could find an owner who would keep the team in the city. That situation became uncomfortable when Stern had to make the heavily criticized decision to kill a trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, but the Pelicans are still there nearly two decades after arriving.
“Mr. Stern was a catalyst in professional basketball returning to New Orleans in 2002,” the team said. “His commitment to the New Orleans community and the Gulf South region was further shown when he guided the franchise through an ownership transition to Tom Benson in 2012.”
Stern couldn’t win all the fights, failing to convince local leadership to approve arena funding that could have kept the SuperSonics in Seattle, a city whose fans were strong supporters. They moved to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder have been a small-market success.
Just the kind Stern liked.