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TrueHoop Complexifies Legacy of Former NBA Commissioner David Stern

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Henry Abbott remembers the excellence, but also the ruthlessness, of the most influential commissioner in professional sports.

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game Two Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The outpouring of praise for former NBA Commissioner David Stern upon his passing yesterday has been continual and unstinting. Deservedly so, as few sports executives have shaped the landscape as dramatically as Stern did during his tenure from 1984-2014.

Today Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.com reminded readers that legacies are usually more complex than is portrayed publicly, especially for a person who with as much influence as Stern had as commissioner. In a public posting, also emailed to site subscribers, Abbott tackled the conflicting images of Stern as kindly father figure and ruthless power broker.

Abbott acknowledges Stern’s acumen on several occasions during the wide-ranging article:

The magic trick of the century was that a socially odd, five-nine lawyer from Teaneck rearranged every goddamned star in the basketball universe so that only Michael Jordan could rival Stern as the defining character of National Basketball Association history.

How in the hell did he do that? With brilliance, hard work, vision, and, crucially: ruthlessness. I am sad that he died because he was a human. And he was this complicated character, who meant a lot.

Seldom is the praise unqualified, nor does it stand apart from frank appraisals of Stern’s conduct:

Stern humiliated people. Routinely, and with relish. Often in front of groups. Stern was top class at dressing people down. (If you watched Succession you have a sense of the furious capabilities of Logan Roy, and how silly it would be to describe him as a nice guy.) Stern was super elite at manufacturing the leverage to get people to take his side. This is not the same as being good at choosing the right side. Quitting a job under Stern often only required self-regard.

Abbott shares personal anecdotes, quotes from Stern’s contemporaries, and tales from other media members as he examines the sweeping contributions of the Commissioner Emeritus. The piece is far too long to summarize here, but nobody does this kind of thing better than TrueHoop. This is a must-read for anyone trying to put Stern’s tenure and legacy into perspective.