Stern plays defense against franchise movement


March 24, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

David Stern is widely considered the best commissioner in sports, but not just because he can toss off facile one-liners or because he is the supreme marketer, both of which are true.

The NBA chief, who dropped in here last week as a part of a goodwill and fact-finding tour of some of the league's cities, is the best because more than caring about how his game looks, he also cares about what people think of the game.

To wit, while football franchises have switched cities with the frequency of the changing of one's socks in recent years, Stern is actually troubled that one team, the then-Vancouver, now-Memphis Grizzlies, has moved since 1985, with the real possibility that a second team, the Charlotte Hornets, may pack up its hive for New Orleans after this season.

Franchise movement "is a failure of ours because I took a great deal of pride in the fact that we didn't have a franchise move for those many years," Stern said. "I think if you take pride in the upside, you've got to take responsibility for the downside. I think they represent different stories, but they represent the reality of market shifts, of market changes and certain limitations of ownership, and of leagues, in terms of the amount in which we involve ourselves in the lives of our franchises."

Stern said the Grizzlies' move was a function of having successive owners that were not local and didn't understand the Vancouver market.

As for Charlotte, Stern called the ongoing developments a "soap opera of epic proportions that I couldn't even recount much less go into details about."

In short, Stern blamed local politicians for placing the matter of whether to build a new arena to replace the 14-year old Charlotte Coliseum to a referendum, which was voted down last June.

"In San Antonio and Houston, it [a referendum] passed ultimately, and in Charlotte it didn't. And everyone knows the stakes," Stern said. "It didn't have to be a referendum, but the politicians decided - for good reasons, I'm sure - that it had to be decided in a referendum in a very contentious time, and it went down. And so we were facing [in Charlotte] the prospect of no building that complies with the new NBA standards for a very long period of time. That's one element of the stew that makes it so difficult. And again there, I'm not going to absolve either the league or the ownership. The people who are, in my view, innocent, in both cases, are the fans."

Stern said the move to New Orleans is "far from a done deal," but after his visit there last week, league officials are operating under the assumption that the Hornets will relocate. And the commissioner added that the name Jazz, which was attached to the New Orleans team that moved to Utah in 1979, will stay here, as nonsensical as that may sound.

In other developments, Stern also has been slightly miffed by recent comments from Milwaukee Bucks coach George Karl, who suggested that younger blacks might be "anointed" into head-coaching jobs, while long-serving white assistant coaches don't get a shot.

"George is a pretty bright guy, and I don't know what he was thinking," Stern said. "The fact of the matter is it's a subject about which we are very, very proud, because our owners don't care about the color of a coach's skin. They want the W's, and that's the issue for them."

Under Stern's leadership, the NBA has set about to get former players into positions of visibility so that owners and general managers can see them and give them a chance. And the NBA, through its relationships with the CBA and with the new developmental league, is attempting to give potential coaches a first chance.

"I really want to get to the point ... that we're not going to become a worse league if there are three firings and they happen to be African-American, and it's not going to make us better if there are three hirings, and they happen to be African-Americans. It's about who's winning and who's delivering," Stern said.

The league also would like to huddle with the players association about getting rid of the five-game injured list, where normally healthy players are routinely stashed with alleged ailments when their clubs have temporary needs at other positions.

In its place, Stern said, the NBA would like to have a three-player swing list that could operate from game to game, in much the same fashion that the NFL's inactive list works, but the union has questions about the possibility of players being permanently hidden for reasons other than injuries.

On the upside, Stern pronounced himself pleased with the sweeping rules changes that took effect this season, allowing teams to openly play zone defense, cutting down the time that teams have to get the ball across midcourt from 10 seconds to eight, and banning defenders from camping out in the lane without guarding someone.

Stern said he was particularly happy to rid the league of isolation offenses that reduced the game to one-on-one play.

Quote of the week

"My thought is I don't know what was in George's drink that day or what he put in the water." - Stern on Karl's comments about coaching opportunities.

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