Tuesday, July 24, 2007

David Stern's Legacy Comes Down to a Buzzer-Beater

In the twilight of one of the great tenures of any commissioner in all of sports, David Stern's legacy, along with the credibility of the league over which he presides, are on the brink of irreparable disrepair. After more than two decades at the helm of the NBA, Stern is faced with the one catastrophe from which it is most difficult for any sport to recover- public perception of compromised integrity. It was reported on Friday that NBA official Tim Donaghy, after racking up gambling debts with some mobbed-up bookies, may have tried (and presumably succeeded) in influencing the results of NBA games which he was assigned to officiate. If these allegations are proven to be true, David Stern may see all the goodwill that he's managed to build up simply evaporate in the black cloud of corrupt officiating.

When Stern took over as commissioner of the NBA in February 1984, the league, led by Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Julius Erving, had begun to successfully shed it's image of being "unrelatable" and drug plagued. One of the most intelligent and forward-thinking leaders in all of sport, Stern leveraged the success and mass appeal of the NBA's great teams, (the Lakers and the Celtics in the 1980s, Michael Jordan's Bulls in the 1990s) as well as its stars, into an international, fan-friendly juggernaut. It was under David Stern that NBA teams began traveling to Europe for exhibition tournaments against local teams, nurturing interest in the league's stars of the day, as well as inspiring young athletes, like Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, who have since gone on to become the NBA's present-day stars. It was David Stern's vision that led the NBA to focus its marketing muscle in the Far East, particularly China (yeah, Yao Ming helped too!). Finally, despite its obvious imperfections and recent scrutiny, the NBA Lottery, designed to uphold the integrity of the league's bottom-dwelling teams, was also a David Stern brainchild. Sadly, all of this may come to mean very little if the Donaghy scandal is not quickly and decisively resolved.

Despite the inconsistent and subpar officiating in the 2007 NBA Playoffs and persistent conspiracy theories about officials showing favoritism to certain teams and players, no one, not even Mavs' owner and frequently fined critic of NBA referees Mark Cuban, has ever succeeded in proving anything more serious than incompetence against NBA officials. And every time the officials' ability or integrity was called into question, David Stern was there, Thor's Hammer in hand, ready to fine any and all that dared question his league's credibility. Sadly, if the allegations against Tim Donaghy are true, this is all poised to change.

If there is any silver lining to this dark cloud, it is that, for the time being, Tim Donaghy is the only official accused of any impropriety. If the allegations are true, the next issue on David Stern's plate is to determine whether this is a matter of a lone bad apple threatening to spoil the whole bunch, or if the NBA's problem is one of wide-spread, systematic corruption. In the case of the former, it is vital that the commissioner reassert himself as the judge, jury and executioner of the NBA by reviewing any and all objectionable games (possibly adding some asterisks to the record books), issuing swift and blinding punishments to all those involved, as well as updating the checks-and-balances which govern NBA game officials. If the latter is proven, and the NBA is exposed for being a league ravaged by widespread corruption, it will bring an immediate and disgraceful end to the David Stern Era in NBA and relegate the league to the fringes of American sport (see Boxing).

Ironically, like the players he's presided over for more than two decades, the last few minutes of David Stern's tenure, not to mention his long-term legacy, has ultimately come to rest in the hands of a referee. It's fitting that he is now powerless, at the mercy of one of the officials that he has vigilantly protected for so long.

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