When I found out about David Stern’s 2014 retirement date, I didn’t think too deeply about the practical implications of his departure, but my first thoughts went to the media’s reaction, Twitter nerds going bananas, what the response would be … I guess that’s more a function of my personal participation in the game so it makes sense that’s where my thoughts went.
In the midst of Thursday night’s NBA TV coverage and reading through Twitter, I came across a few things: First, David Stern and Adam Silver both have huge ears with floppy lobes that look like they wore ear spacers once or like something a cartoonist would draw. Second: Despite having completely different physical characteristics, Stern and Silver look alike—similar facial expressions, smirks, not smiles, wet eyes, big ears. Third: Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski took Stern to the woodshed as he’s done so many times before.
This latest shot started out: “The biggest ego in the history of the sport, the emperor of the NBA …” Even a half-assed perusal of Wojnarowski’s 1,095 stories on Yahoo will reveal a small mountain of shells from the shots Woj has taken at Stern over the years. Here’s a far-from-in-depth grab:
12/9/11: The curtain has been pulled back on how this league operates, how Stern still sees himself as emperor, as a dictator of what he wants and how he wants it. Back on All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, Stern told those stars in an angry, true moment in the locker room that he knew where the bodies were buried because he had buried a lot of them. He threw that shovel over his shoulder again Thursday and walked away from one more dirt ditch.
6/30/11: And say goodbye to David Stern’s legacy, which will look like that of one more star player who stayed too long in the game, who was the last to know when it all passed him by.
6/24/11: Stern is no longer the sport’s leader, its moral compass, but the errand boy of the fringe owners.
10/19/09: Yes, this behavior would’ve bought an NBA coach and GM the wrath of Emperor Stern, but Maccabi had international immunity.
1/30/09: When David Stern had the relentless resolve to make everyone forget the debauchery of a lost All-Star weekend on the Vegas Strip and a mobbed-up dirty referee, the commissioner turned New Orleans into a post-Katrina photo-op for the NBA’s beleaguered brand. He made sure every paint-brush stroke, every stunted swing of a hammer, had camera lenses to bear witness to the world.
10/30/06: And it keeps him here on the 15th floor of the Olympic Tower, chasing tomorrow even after his longtime football contemporary, Tagliabue, called it a career. Eventually, the NBA has a way of bending to the commissioner’s will. There’s a relentless way to Stern that forever finds him getting his vision validated, getting his league his way.
That last one is from nearly six years ago when Wojnarowski wrote his first column for Yahoo. I didn’t have the pleasure of reading Woj prior to his Yahoo days, but I’m assuming this biting view of Stern has been a part of his writing for longer than just six years. Anyone familiar with his work knows he saves his most scathing tones and insults for the league’s most powerful—the guys who appear to be capable, but choose not to live up to the lofty standards their roles demand of them; namely Lebron James and David Stern.
As I was reading through his latest story on Thursday night, I shook my head at the remarkable consistency, the venom, the spittle, the intensity of his assault. I can imagine him pacing back and forth in his home office, wearing the carpet thin with a mug of coffee in his hand (likely his fourth or fifth), talking through the column—mostly in his head, but occasionally muttering words. Maybe there’s a dog following him around, getting wound up from the rising energy in the room. Maybe he chews on a pencil or a pen, jotting down ideas and phrases. Whatever the methodology, the end result is nothing short of a tamed hurricane made of words.
Impassioned words like this don’t just pop out of thin air. They’re cultivated over time and from something deep seeded; something a man feels in his muscles and nerves, way down in the core, something that makes his nostrils flare and his jaw clench. But as I wrote a friend an email about Stern last night, I wondered what I’ve always wondered: Where’s this axe to grind come from? Is there a hidden story we don’t know about? Somewhere along the line, did Stern insult a young Wojnarowski and scar him in the process? And to take the soap opera further: Stern has to know about Wojnarowski, right? He has to know this guy with the dark hair and glasses who looks more like a high school science teacher or an economist is slicing him up with razor blades every couple months, right? What’s it like when these two cross paths at NBA press conferences? Is Stern dropping a “cocksucker” under his breath when he passes Woj? Does Woj respond with a deliberate “prick?” I hope so, but I have my doubts.
As much as my imagination and my dependence on Hollywood for any sense of a storyline (conflict conflict conflict!) want to believe there’s this hidden personal feud between Commissioner David Stern and Adrian Wojnarowski, but unfortunately, I’ve got to accept Woj’s impeccable record here. His style is to bust the balls of anyone who crosses the NBA’s version of a 38th parallel (Dwight Howard, Gilbert Arenas, James, Stern)—and in extreme circumstances attempt to castrate them. And while occasionally, it does feel like he’s unfairly targeting a few unlucky characters; time has consistently revealed his portrayals, while aggressive, are honest and accurate.
Which leads to the next-to-last point in this Stern saga: If you believe Wojnarowski’s descriptions of Stern, if you accept the words of this well-respected journalist who has little to gain by publicly trashing the commissioner of the league he covers; then you have to acknowledge that David Stern is a real asshole, the kind of guy you’d despise and about whom you’d say things like, “if I didn’t work for him and he said that to me, I’d knock his old ass out,” the kind of guy you could actually describe as diabolical (maybe it’s a stretch, but let’s go with it). Think about that. How many diabolical people do you know? And if you know one or some, how hard do you try to limit your contact with those people? Woj describes him as a “dictator,” “emperor,” “errand boy,” paints him as a manipulator, a bully, a puppet master, ruthless. These are all fine characteristics if you’re Gordon fucking Gekko, but Commissioner Stern? The sweet looking old guy with that shit eating grin who’s always trying to convince us that the “NBA Cares?”
The final point; from the defenders of Stern—which, not surprisingly, include every employee of NBA TV and any player willing to get in front of a camera and say a few words about the Commissioner. He’s been successful; his job isn’t to make friends or be nice, his job is to make money for the league and the owners and you can’t argue against the success, just the approach. I have a huge book sitting on my bookshelf that I’ve never read. It’s the Steve Jobs biography and while I haven’t read it myself, I’m aware that Jobs had a reputation for pushing Apple employees to their breaking point, but it was always in the name of something larger; a strive for perfection in Apple products and judging by the cult of Apple acolytes and the ever-rising stock price, it’s fair to say Jobs was successful in his endeavors—just like Stern. For me, the big difference (again, not knowing all the details of Jobs’ backstory) is the ruthlessness that Stern has controlled his image whereas Jobs spoke openly about his intensity and approach. Successful? Yes, but at what cost?
If you think it’s just business for Woj and not personal, then you’ve got to be circling 2/1/14 as a day to celebrate. And if you refuse to accept that premise … then your imagination’s probably doing its own thing and trying to speculate on exactly what happened between these two men. The last option … you believe Stern was the greatest Commissioner in pro sports history … and you work for the NBA.
Whose fury are we looking at?