David Stern's Legacy in the Pacific Northwest

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Remembering the David Stern era from a Portland Trail Blazers perspective.

Today marks the end of an era in the NBA, the final day in David Stern's tenure as league commissioner.  To honor the moment and reflect on Stern's legacy SBNation's NBA sites are describing the commissioner's effect on their respective franchises.  This is the view from a Portland Trail Blazers perspective.  Be sure to check out NBA blogs from across the network to hear their views.

The greatest legacy David Stern leaves to any franchise has to be the increase in the league's popularity and the corresponding rise in profile and valuation during his tenure.  When Stern took office the NBA generated around $165 million in revenue.  Last year that number hung close to $5.5 billion.  In the mid-80's few people knew or cared who the league's greatest players were compared to NFL luminaries or Major League Baseball stars.  The NBA offered its pantheon of legends--George Mikan, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Pete Maravich, Wilt Chamberlain--but they didn't blaze in the popular consciousness like O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, Mickey Mantle, or Joe DiMaggio.  No Mr. Coffee commercials, no running through airports...NBA stars were spoken of in their former spheres of influence if at all.  One could argue that the Harlem Globetrotters coming to town created more of a stir than all but the most famous NBA squads.

Through clever marketing, rule management, and determined vision Stern re-shaped his league, making its stars larger than life before our very eyes.  Now we have Magic, Bird, Michael, Kobe, Shaq, and LeBron to draw upon.  Heck, there's a reasonable chance that some kid on the Croatian coastline or a middle province of China knows who Tracy McGrady and LaMarcus Aldridge are.  Today basketball follows only soccer worldwide, only the NFL domestically, in popular recognition.  Forget Mr. Coffee and the Hertz guy, nowadays everyone across the globe would give their left arm to be Like Mike.  Peyton Manning is the best-known player of the most popular sport in the nation but he still needs two names to be recognized.  LeBron goes by one and he'd easily bump Manning out of any V.I.P. lounge in the country.  He makes more money too.

David Stern did for the sport of basketball what Vince McMahon did for professional wrestling.  He transformed it from a regional attraction played before insulated devotees into a cultural phenomenon.  In doing so he raised the salaries of employees and the value of franchises for their owners, making it possible for billionaires like Portland's Paul Allen to invest with peace of mind.   Had nothing changed since 1985 there's no way we would have seen the mature years of the Drexler era, the Bob Whitsitt playoff runs, or Allen pouring millions into the franchise through the Jailblazer years and on through to this day.  No matter how you feel about him, Stern deserves some credit for making basketball work in Portland.

The double-edged sword for Blazers fans is that in order to work his wizardry, Stern had to shift value away from team sport and towards star-driven entertainment.  Even in the heyday of the WWE few people tuned in to see the six-man tag team match.  Stone Cold vs. The Rock created the buzz, drove the sales.  The first step to making Magic, Bird, and Jordan bigger than life was making them and their teams bigger than the league that surrounded them.  Marquee franchises got emphasized, star calls became commonplace, and media leads changed from the Thunder versus the Heat to "Durant vs. LeBron"...a trend that has never subsided.

Playing Cinderella is well within the grasp of the Blazers but becoming a marquee franchise isn't.  Neither can transcendent superstars be invented if you don't have them already (or if you pass on one or two in the draft).  No television executive will ever be thrilled about putting "Portland Trail Blazers" on a promo banner instead of "Los Angeles Lakers".  Rightly or wrongly, David Stern will be viewed in Portland as the commissioner who set up the system that never gave Portland a fair chance, the guy who ran to the bank as Shaq threw a forearm into Arvydas Sabonis again and again without penalty, the champion of the "haves" at the expense of the "have-nots".  Calls of "Tim Donaghy Scandal!" and "2002 Western Conference Finals!" will forever gain sympathy in the Rose City.  The commissioner who gets credit for his Vince McMahon business sense will also get booed for his "Mr. McMahon: Evil Overlord" persona, the big boss screwing over the little guy.

We'd be remiss in not mentioning our neighbors to the north, the departed Seattle Supersonics.  The intricacies and vitriol surrounding their departure to Oklahoma City are too tangled to recite here, let alone pin on the lapel of Commissioner Stern.  Nevertheless during Stern's watch Blazer fans lost one of their most bitter rivals, a sacrifice not easily replaced.  Portland paints a target on Oklahoma City because of the Durant/Oden draft and because the Thunder are the best in the conference but the heat between the franchises is tepid compared to the molten fury that would fly up and down Interstate 5 if the conference champs still wore green and gold.  Business over passion, hype over integrity...accusations commonly leveled at David Stern.  Pacific Northwest residents have felt those sentiments deeply.

Through all of the accusations, through criticism and conspiracy theory alike, the Teflon Don of the NBA has remained, if not unstained at least unbowed.  It's hard to sort out where justification for negative feelings ends and the need to acknowledge that the powerful and driven can't please everybody begins.  The star system on which the Stern Era was founded absolutely disadvantaged teams like Portland.   On the other hand the Blazers might have benefited from that same system had they drafted Jordan or Durant, an eventuality which no doubt would have changed Portland's perception of the Commish.  Plus there's no guarantee the franchise would have been more successful under a different regime.  The way things were going for the NBA in the mid-80's--drug scandals, tape-delayed Finals broadcasts--there might not have been an NBA for the Blazers to be successful in had the league not turned around.

Blazer fans might be justified in thinking Stern's NBA placed extra burdens upon them.  But Stern would be just as justified in replying, "Tough noodles!  Look at the league you have now, at the opportunities before you and your players, and at all the stories you've been able to tell--good and bad--as we've journeyed to this point."

Maybe that's the best way to sum it up.  Right or wrong, hero or villain, David Stern has always been interesting.  Most of the time his league has been interesting as well, albeit in maddening ways sometimes.  Either way, memorable leaders don't win acclaim by consensus or compromise.  They lift up a vision, drive toward it, and take everybody around them along for the ride.  That's exactly what David Stern did for 30 years in the NBA.  Love him or hate him, odds are you're not going to see another commissioner like him for a long while.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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