January 11, 2013

David Stern And Wolf Blitzer Talk Hoops

I may look back on this week as one of the the most optimistic weeks in the 2012-2013 basketball season: the Wizards are coming off a thrilling Monday night victory against the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder and John Wall is tentatively scheduled to make his season debut on Saturday at home against the Atlanta Hawks. If the latter turns out to be true, and with Trevor Booker tweeting his return from injury earlier this week, it may be the first time all our guys are healthy enough to play. That doesn't take the sting off our current 5-28 record but it doesn't hurt either.

In between Monday and Saturday nights' games, the team has four days off, the longest layoff in the season other than the All-Star break, which I believe will feature a main event without Wizards participation again this year. While I managed to catch the Spurs-Lakers game Wednesday night, I was really looking for something to satisfy my basketball yen during the team's four days off. Fortunately, the Smithsonian stepped in and hosted a panel discussion with NBA Commissioner David Stern, CNN anchor (and Wizards fan) Wolf Blitzer and the Washington Post's Mike Wise and Michael Lee to discuss the state of the NBA.

I'd have to say when it comes to David Stern, I am not your typical NBA fan. Most fans, just like they did at the NBA Draft this past June, will boo David Stern at any chance they get. I, on the other hand, think Stern is an awesome NBA commissioner. Considering where the NBA was when he took the reins of the the league (arguably the fourth most popular sports league in the country with a drug problem image which couldn't get their finals broadcast live on television) and where it is now (the second most popular sports league in the country with a global following), I think he deserves most of the credit for the transformation that has happened these past 30 years.

However, knowing how cagey and reserved Stern can be, I expected very little of substance to emerge out of Thursday night's panel discussion. Boy, was I wrong. He was incredibly candid, shedding light on subjects in a way I wouldn't expect him to and had never heard in interviews or press conferences before. He talked about the history of the league, the growth in popularity of the game, hopes for the future and some things he'd just as soon not relive or just plain forget. He may have even let his guard down a little.

It's clear to me after Thursday night that Stern was, and probably still is deep inside, a New York Knicks fan. It was great to hear about his memories of watching the Knicks play as part of doubleheaders at the old Madison Square Garden (there have been four Madison Square Gardens; Stern's memories are of the third which was located on 8th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets). The Knicks in those days featured Harry "the horse" Gallatin, who was Stern's favorite player growing up. It's also clear that one of Stern's favorite people ever associated with the NBA was Red Auerbach, the legendary coach of the Boston Celtics, whom Stern relied upon for counsel about the game.

He spent most of the time appropriately talking about his tenure as NBA Commissioner. While he stopped short of naming Michael Jordan as the best ever, he gave me the impression that he believes Jordan (and not Magic Johnson or Larry Bird) was the player most responsible for popularizing the league. He talked about his veto of the New Orleans Hornets trade with the Los Angeles Lakers that temporarily netted the Lakers Chris Paul, calling that decision his alone and noting that it is probably the one decision he received the most criticism for making. He still believes that the decision was the right one to make. He also spent time discussing the globalization of the game, including the prevalence of international players in the league and possible foreign expansion of the NBA or the National Basketball Development League (NBDL). I'd heard talk of possible European expansion of the NBA before but his notion of expanding the NBDL into Latin America was new to me. I'd never heard the idea of D-League expansion south of the border before.

He then spent some time on some of the less pleasant times: Kobe Bryant being accused of rape; the brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers at the Palace of Auburn Hills; the Pacers' Stephen Jackson firing shots into the air outside a strip club in the early morning hours in Indianapolis; and the Tim Donaghy betting scandal. Donaghy was an NBA referee who admitted to betting on NBA contests for himself and others; Stern described this episode as the "absolute worst."

He also discussed the fine he levied against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season for sending some of their star players home before a nationally televised game against the Miami Heat. The fine was controversial because it was not the first time teams decided to rest their players but it was the first time they had been fined for it. Some in the media thought Spurs' coach Gregg Popovich did it deliberately to get under Stern's skin. Stern indicated the fine was his decision and that the fine was a result of the team not notifying the league of the players' absence ahead of time. In a revealing moment though, he described the Spurs' actions as a "strategic ploy to throw a game they would have lost anyway." The Spurs, without three starters and their top reserve, lost the game by only five.

Finally, there were some funny moments. The best was when Stern wished he could invent a totally painless tattoo removal process which he could market to retired NBA players who had managed to save some of the money they made. He said he'd make a fortune. I believe he thinks the Knicks' J.R. Smith is a potential customer.

It was Stern's first appearance at a Smithsonian event in more than 25 years and I'm glad I got the chance to go hear what he had to say. Oh and one last thing...Wolf loves the Washington Wizards. I'll have to start tuning in to the Situation Room.

Thumbs up from/for David Stern!

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