With NBA thriving, Stern stays humble

But among the players, commissioner praised for taking league to next level

Pro Basketball

February 15, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES - Twenty years of running a sports league, especially one that has become as successful as the NBA, should give a man the right to gloat.

The league, under David Stern, has raked in billions of dollars, introduced a salary cap copied by other leagues, and spread its tentacles globally. It has opened offices in Europe, Asia and Australia while welcoming players from around the world.

Yet, when given the opportunity to boast last night, Stern said his proudest moment since taking over stewardship of the league on Feb. 1, 1984, was the human face the NBA has attained in the past two decades.

As the All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles for the first time since 1983, Stern said the continued good health of Magic Johnson, 12 years after he won Most Valuable Player honors in the 1992 All-Star Game, just a few months after the former Los Angeles Lakers great retired from basketball with HIV, made him proud during his tenure.

"I think the most memorable things that have happened have to do with our ability to impact others," Stern said in his annual address to the media during All-Star Weekend. "For those of you who remember, this was a nation that was behaving in an ugly way with respect to HIV prior to Magic Johnson, and he changed the debate on AIDS and HIV in this country and in the world.

"If you're getting the impression that I think Magic is a pretty historic figure, both inside the NBA and outside the NBA, you are right."

And if you got the impression that Stern is a pretty historic figure, both inside and outside the NBA, you would be correct as well.

"He's big. He's big, man," said Minnesota Timberwolves guard Sam Cassell (Dunbar). "He's got a lot of pull. He's built the image of the league. From 1993 when I came into the league, the league was there. It was there, but he's taken it to another level."

The NBA, which was drowning in red ink and so lightly regarded that its championship series games were aired via tape delay just before Stern took over from former commissioner Larry O'Brien, is now widely thought of as the second-most popular professional sport domestically behind the NFL.

In the process, Stern has delivered millions of dollars to the players, the best of whom now earn contracts in excess of $100 million, even with a salary cap that holds the players to 57 percent of basketball-related income.

Stern's tenure "has been great," said Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal. "He's done a lot for the league. He's spreading us very well. He's gotten us a lot of marketing partners."

In that vein, just this week during the All-Star buildup, the league announced a new marketing arrangement between Houston Rockets center Yao Ming and McDonald's, as well as two exhibition games next fall in Beijing and Shanghai between the Rockets and Sacramento Kings.

Stern said last night that television ratings, attendance merchandise sales and gate receipts are up from last year.

"We think the pendulum is moving in a very nice direction," he said. "Our job is going to be to continue to move it."

The game and Stern do face challenges. At a time when one of the league's most dominant players is LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers' phenom who jumped to the NBA from high school at the age of 18, Stern continues to press for a 20-year-old minimum age to play in the NBA.

"I just think it would be a good idea, as a league, if we were not associated with the prospect of pulling kids who are now 10 years old, bouncing the ball and telling their parents that they are going to be the next LeBron James, because everyone in this room knows they are not, and then they will be left with virtually nothing," Stern said.

Stern also has vocal opposition, from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for allowing players to play in international competition, risking injury while their clubs getting little, if any, compensation for the time they lose.

Stern said he believes that Cuban has a point about insurance and cost, but he doesn't think that the Dallas owner has much support among the NBA Board of Governors.

He said progress continues toward getting a new collective bargaining agreement, which expires at the end of next season, and hopes to have a new deal in place within the next few months. Stern said the owners and players have agreed that veterans, who had been allowed to report up to three days later in camp than rookies this season, will go back to reporting on the same day.

In keeping with his desire to bring a kinder, gentler image to the NBA, Stern said one regret in his time was banning former New York Knicks guard Micheal Ray Richardson from the league for drug use, and for having to lock out the players in 1999 to get labor peace.

"Locking out is the least pleasing thing that I've ever had to do with respect to a sport that I've spent my adult life trying to build," Stern said.

Tonight's game

What: NBA All-Star Game

Matchup: Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference

Site: Staples Center, Los Angeles

Time: 8:45

TV: TNT

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