NEW YORK — The NBA and its commissioner, David Stern, are emerging from a tumultuous time. A bitter labor dispute cost the league almost its entire preseason and 16 regular-season games, but it resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Orlando Sentinel recently sat down with Stern at the NBA's midtown Manhattan headquarters for a one-on-one interview.
Sitting in a conference room that overlooks St. Patrick's Cathedral, the Sentinel and Stern discussed a wide range of topics. Those topics included Dwight Howard's future, the quality of play this season and Stern's future. What follows is a transcript of that conversation.
Dwight Howard's situation
Orlando Sentinel: When I asked you on Christmas night in Oklahoma City how you wanted the Dwight Howard situation to play out, you said, basically, that players who had put in their time in the league have the right to play where they want. They've earned the right to become free agents. But let's say Howard does leave Orlando for a larger market. Are you concerned that there will be a perception in small- and medium-sized markets that the teams there will not be able to hold onto their stars?
David Stern: Only to the extent that they're fed by journalists like you. I don't remember Miami ever being referred to as a "large market." Do you?
Stern: Stop right there, then. But, now, because a couple of players decided to go where the sun shines, that's now a large market. Well, guess what: Orlando, to my mind, is a large market even though you refer to it as a "small market." It's up there in the top 10 in revenues. It has actually pretty much close to the same sunshine that Miami has, and it's a preferred place for so many people to live in the middle of their careers and after their careers are over. So I think there's a small-market sort of point of view sometimes that people have a defensiveness [about]. But, to me, Orlando's a great market, and it seems to be a great place to live.
OS: With Chris Paul going from New Orleans to Los Angeles, do you not see a trend? And Carmelo [Anthony] going from Denver to New York?
Stern: We'll see. But the one thing I can say to you is that the new collective bargaining agreement will speak to that with each passing year more forcefully, because what I also said to you when last we met was that as the new tax levels become effective, there will be a limitation on what any team can add. And those levels actually will hit small- and large-market teams alike, because the question is not the size of your market. It's going to be the size of your payroll.
OS: What do you think the effect would be on the Magic franchise if Dwight leaves?
Stern: We've had players depart franchises from time immemorial. I remember there was this other large person, now a television commentator, that once left. And I think that I saw Orlando blossom and thrive and build a new arena. So I think this is not a life-threatening event when players move. It depends upon who replaces them and how the community rallies around them.
OS: Some people would counter — perhaps even some from within the franchise — that it took the franchise a decade to recover and that even then it took the luck of a pingpong ball and some smart drafting to select Dwight.
Stern: Smart drafting is a wonderful thing. A smart free-agent signing is a wonderful thing. Smart trades are a wonderful thing, and that's a function of management. And when you have a 30-team league, you'll have to see how that works out. Everyone wrote off poor little old Memphis because Pau Gasol left, and the best they could talk about was the 48th pick in the draft that turned out to be this guy Marc Gasol, who is now a maximum-contract center. It depends. These things have a life of their own that have to be analyzed. Implicit in your question, I guess, is that we should tell players that whoever drafts them that's where they must play for their entire professional career. Is that your view?
OS: No, that's not my view.
Stern: But it would seem to be suggested by your question. I guess what I'm saying to you is that — having seen this league really grow and prosper over the last 40 years or so, the idea that a young man who at the age of 19 is literally allocated to a market and then plays there, whether it's six years or seven years or eight years, and then all of the hand-wringing that follows by saying, "Oh, my goodness gracious, you can't go someplace else, whether it's your family, your taste, your choice, your business, because you are going to stay at that team, in that market" — I don't believe it. Never have.
OS: I would counter that no one would deny someone his or her right to work where he or she wants.
Stern: [Interrupts] Unless they're an NBA player.
OS: No, including an NBA player. But I would also say that decisions have consequences.
OS: And for a player of Dwight's caliber — and there's no one like him in the league at his position now — losing a player of his quality is difficult to recover from in the short-term.
Stern: Well, but this is a long-term business. And, so, as a result, whether it was Grant Hill, who never recovered to what Orlando hoped he would recover to when they signed him, or Brandon Roy in Portland or worse yet Len Bias in Boston, we could go down the list and talk about all of the issues that affect teams that lose or never have the services of a great star. It happens all the time. Our record here, our history, is full of many unfulfilled promises.
The current season
OS: You're 3½ weeks into this season. What do you see in terms of quality of play? Do you believe that quality of play is similar to where it would be in a normal season 3½ weeks in?
Stern: I think that the quality of play is probably — how do I say this? — about the same, more or less, of where it has been after the requisite period of practice and time. For our teams 3½ weeks in, in some measure it's like they're finishing training camp on a timing basis. So they're catching up to their potential.
OS: To what degree, if any, are you concerned about injuries? There have been two injuries that have caught the eye of people — the Kwame Brown torn pectoral muscle and the Al Horford torn pectoral muscle — that seem to be rare for basketball players.
Stern: Very. They're two freak injuries of the same type that have occurred.
OS: Do you see any tie to lack of a full training camp?
Stern: No, no. I don't know the answer, because I wouldn't presume it one way or another. But I will say that when the players and we agreed to the current season, we knew together that we were buying whatever it was that that bundle of games offered up. But it seemed to be something that both sides thought was a good idea: that being able to start the season on Christmas Day both guaranteed that we would only lose 20 percent of our games — and hopefully 20 percent only of salary — that we would hold onto the fans and that if we played the season that we agreed to, together, it would mean only two more games per month, 16 rather than 14. And it seemed to be an idea that both sides thought was a good one.
The CBA talks
OS: When you look back at the CBA negotiations, do you see anything that could have been done differently that would have expedited the process?
Stern: No. I don't.
OS: From the owners' perspective, do you believe this will be a 10-year agreement or a 6-year agreement?
Stern: It's hard not to confuse my expectation with my hope. My hope is it's a 10-year agreement. I think that the owners, from their side, the only issue that the owners will have is whether it does enough for the business. But I think it does. And I think that it levels the playing field and will continue to level it and it aligns paying with performance in a very positive way. So I think the owners will not opt out of it after six years.
OS: How difficult was the whole process on you personally?
Stern: Well, it wasn't fun. But it was what I get paid to do and what I've been doing for the better part of three decades. So I don't dwell on it much. I'd rather not be reading some of the things and some of the characterizations and the like. I'd like not to see a business that has great potential not be operating. But on balance I think it will ultimately be judged by the deal that emerges and I think it's a very fair deal for both sides.
OS: There's a school of thought — and I'm sure you've read the articles — that says that a new generation of owners are less deferential toward you or that they look a little less reverentially at the accomplishments of your tenure. And, by extension, that they are less reliant on you than the owners were 10 years ago or 15 years ago. Is that perception accurate?
Stern: I've never found NBA owners to be deferential. I never considered them to be reliant. All that I do is knock myself out to represent their interests the best way I can and sometimes tell them, as part of my job, what they don't like to hear. And I would say that there was a fair amount of that going on as it related to the sea change that we have effectuated with this collective bargaining agreement and the attendant revenue sharing. And I would say that there were probably more unhappy owners in connection with these two arrangements than at any time in my tenure as commissioner. But it doesn't change what I do, which is to tell them what I think is the right thing and then work hard to secure it. Because if I didn't give them my full [opinion], or if I just did what was easy or convenient, then I wouldn't be doing the job. And I've never done that.
OS: After the lockout was lifted, the Magic laid off 20 employees and cut 12 open positions. I'm not asking you to comment on their behalf. But do the CBA settlement, the revenue sharing, the loss of a full preseason and the loss of 16 regular-season games force franchises to make cuts that they would prefer not to make?
Stern: Well, I guess I would say that we eliminated 100 jobs at the league level because we were going into a new reality in an economy where we have, unprecedented in our lifetime, really, unemployment, huge mortgage foreclosures, increased homelessness, poverty and despair and something called The Great Recession. So that put huge pressure on all businesses and particularly the NBA, where we were focusing on losses and enhanced revenue sharing and a season that was disrupted greatly. So it doesn't surprise me that teams were making these business decisions.
OS: There have been occasions in recent years — the Mavericks' opener this season, the Magic's opener last season — where you've been booed by fans.
Stern: [Interrupts] I have been booed by fans the last 28 years. It's always. The commissioner is the authority figure and, for the most part, unless I was in Oklahoma City having just moved the franchise there or opening night in a new building that is a [home of a] new franchise, I think the commissioners are a good place to boo.
OS: So are you saying that you're going to get booed no matter what?
Stern: I think so. But that's OK. I enjoy it. It shows, at least, they're noticing me.
OS: Well, now, you are a human being. It doesn't upset you?
Stern: No, no. It doesn't upset me at all. The word is "inured." I suppose it would be great if they carried me around every arena in a posh chair, but it is what it is. . . . It doesn't change what I do, which is I actually work for the owners, the players and the fans and their communities. Those are my constituents. And sometimes [laughing] they have an unusual way of showing their appreciation.
OS: Last March, Stan Van Gundy was asked what he thought of the league's 16 technical-foul compilation rule. I'm sure you're familiar with his answer. "I can't answer that, and I certainly can't have an opinion because David Stern, like a lot of leaders we've seen in this world lately, don't really tolerate other people's opinions or free speech or anything. So I'm not really allowed to have an opinion, so it's up to him. He decides."
Stern: [In a sarcastic tone] God, it sounds like a perfect commissioner's world to me.
OS: Did it tick you off? My understanding was that Van Gundy's comment ticked you off.
Stern: I don't know where you got that understanding from. That's an unremarkable comment.
OS: To be likened to a dictator?
Stern: What'd he say? Did he say "dictators"?
OS: Keep in mind this was said in the middle of the Arab Spring, after Mubarak had been deposed. [Here is the quote again:] "And I certainly can't have an opinion because David Stern, like a lot of leaders we've seen in this world lately, don't really tolerate other people's opinions or free speech or anything."
Stern: Well, it is certainly true that when you sign a contract in the NBA that's an employment agreement subject to a set of rules. And free speech is against governments, not against the NBA. So the players and coaches and indeed owners have been fined for their speech, which is costly rather than free. I sort of acknowledge that there is not free speech when you agree to work in the NBA.
OS: You started your tenure as the NBA commissioner in 1984 and you turn 70 later this year. How much longer do you want to remain commissioner?
Stern: A little bit.
OS: Are you referring to one year? Five years? Ten years?
Stern: I think it's fair to say that I won't be commissioner when the owners have the opportunity to decide whether they are going to opt out of the agreement. The owners and the players are going to make that decision without me.
OS: Six years from now? Right?
Stern: Right. That's all that I've said so far publicly, and that's how I'm going to leave it. But stay tuned.
OS: Two years? Three years? Four?
Stern: I think we've got some work to do to get this thing back up-and-running post-lockout on a global and a digital basis. . . . You know, I love my job. And I think it's as much fun now as it's ever been. Really. But I think there will come a point when it's time to say "enough is enough" and let other people do their job and do this job. That time is approaching. It's not speeding, but it's approaching.
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