Farewell, Stern: History of the commish vs. Celts

Farewell, Stern: History of the commish vs. Celts
January 29, 2014, 1:45 pm
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On Saturday afternoon, David Stern will officially relinquish his throne as commissioner of the NBA. This will mark the end of a legendary 30-year run, during which The Commish came to mean many things to many people.

At his best, Stern was a visionary. He globalized the game. He globalized the league. He built a television -- and real life -- empire. Bottom line: Stern will leave the NBA in a much better place than when he found it. And working under the assumption that nobody’s perfect, there’s not a whole lot more you can ask for.

At his worst, Stern was smug. He was condescending. He was a tyrant. He provided the basketball world with a glimpse into what life’s like under a dictatorship. He was self-serving and ruthless. Even worse, at times, it seemed that he got off on being ruthless. That he enjoyed it. Forget Austin Powers. Stern was Dr. Evil’s real long lost brother.

Along the way, he got pretty lucky. First, by assuming power at the dawn of a new basketball golden age. I mean, within six months of Stern taking over, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson met in their first head-to-head NBA Finals and the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. Larry O’Brien basically handed Stern a Royal Flush, and all he had to do was scream “All in!” Or in this case, grab on to Larry, Magic and Michael’s capes and never let go.

Not to mention, while Stern deserves so much credit for turning the NBA into a worldwide brand, the advent of the Internet and new technology in general certainly made it easier. It lowered the degree of difficulty compared to his predecessors.

But whatever. That’s fine. The point is that he did it. He was dealt a great hand and he played it like a boss. He was given technology and manipulated it to his every advantage. He did what he needed to do, and usually did it well.

There were some hard times. The league’s (once) lingering cocaine problem. Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement. The Malice in the Palace. Latrell Sprewell’s choke job. Kobe Bryant’s rape trial. Tim Donaghy. The deaths of Len Bias, Reggie Lewis, Jason Collier, Eddie Griffin, Bobby Phils, Drazen Petrovic and Malik Sealy. Two season-shortening NBA lockouts.

Stern also helped navigate the league in the shadow of the Challenger explosion, the Gulf War, the Iraq War and 9/11.

And let’s not forget the release of “Kazaam.”

Through it all, Stern made a lot of friends and a lot of enemies. He was a great leader and a greatly flawed leader. And that’s just based on what we know. You can only imagine some of the things that went on behind the scenes over these last 30 years. Conversations and stories that will never be told, but could probably inspire an entire movie about “Emperor Stern.”

But at the end of the day, the guy is a legend. Love him or hate him, you’ll never forget him. He changed basketball. Someday soon, he’ll be in the Hall of Fame and they’ll create an entire wing around everything Stern accomplished. And obviously, the world didn’t always love the way he went about those accomplishments. Things he did. Things he said. Unquestionable mistakes that he made. And even when Stern admitted fault, he did so defiantly. He was so smug in a way that made your skin crawl. Or just made you laugh. Either way, Stern is an iconic character.

And above all else, was a great commissioner.

Good night, sweet prince.

OK, so as far as the Celtics go, Stern’s reign brought a little bit of everything to the table. Over the those 30 years, Boston made the playoffs 21 times. They won 13 Atlantic Division titles. They played in six NBA Finals, and most importantly, they won three championships. That’s pretty good. Especially when only nine different franchises won a title in David Stern’s NBA.

On the other hand, of the nine years that Boston missed the playoffs, six of them came in succession and together they represent the bleakest and most trying stretch in Celtics history.

Now that’s obviously a relative term. No one’s ever going to feel bad for Celtics fans. There are two teams in the NBA right now (Minnesota and Sacramento) with a longer active streak than the six playoff-less seasons the Celtics experienced in the 90s. Clippers fans once went 15 years. Warriors fans went 12 years. Maverick fans went 10. Still, a six year drought is real. And it takes a toll. The Nets franchise has never gone longer than five years without a playoff appearance. Same goes for the Pacers, Suns and Rockets. The Lakers have never gone longer than two years. The Spurs never longer than one. And of course — wait, what was I walking about?

Right. David Stern. He was there through those hard times. He was there through the good times. He was always there. And as a result, Stern and the Celtics’ paths crossed a great deal over the years. And on occasion, Stern stepped up and gave the Celtics a hand.

In 2003, he ruled that the team could terminate Vin Baker’s contract. In 2012, he made the Thunder give the Celtics a draft pick as punishment for being sneaky about Jeff Green’s heart condition.

But let’s be honest, talking about the controversies is a lot more fun.

So here are 10 classic cases of the Celtics vs. David Stern.

(Note: All the quotes are from the Boston Globe, including stories and columns by Dan Shaughnessy, Bob Ryan, Jackie McMullan, Ian Thomsen, Peter May, Gary Washburn and Shira Springer. There’s no active link to most of them, but they can be found with a subscription to the website Highbeam.com.)


Case 1: Showdown with Jesus

Year: 1984

Background: Four months into Stern’s tenure, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird faced off in the commissioner’s first NBA Finals. Two week’s later, the commissioner met his first conspiracy theory —

The scene is the visitors’ locker room at the old Forum. The Lakers had just beaten the Celtics in Game 6 (to force a Game 7) and Bird was asked for his thoughts:

“Stern told a fan that the NBA needed a seven-game series, that the league needed the money,” he told Shaughnessy. “When the commissioner makes a statement like that to a fan, you know it's going to be tough. When Stern makes a statement like that, things are going to happen. You just don't make statements like that and not expect anything out of it. He's the commissioner and he shouldn't be saying anything like that. The NBA wanted a seventh game because they wanted to make more money and they got their wish. There is no reason for me to lie. He said it. He's a man and he'll live up to it. He may say he said it in jest. But I'm out there trying to make a living and win a championship."

Stern never lived up to it. In fact, he never discussed the accusations publicly. Although through a league rep, he eventually called Bird’s comment “ridiculous.”

Case for Stern: The Celtics had a 35-to-17 edge in Game 6 free throw attempts. Bird himself had 13.

Case for Celtics: It’s a little curious that Stern never fined Bird for those comments. I mean, Larry said some pretty volatile stuff. That is, unless everything he said was true.

And anyway, Bird was just out there trying to make a living and win a championship.

Verdict: The refs may not have screwed with that game, but that doesn’t mean Bird’s story was inaccurate. The lack of fine leads the court to believe that Stern said something that he shouldn’t have, even if it was a joke. And that Bird had every right to put the young, hot shot commissioner in his place.

Court rules in favor of the Celtics.


Case 2: Beware of the Chief

Year: 1987

Background: It’s Game 5 of the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals. More importantly, it’s the game where (raspy font) Bird stole the ball, passed it underneath to DJ who layed it in and OH MY GOD! There’s only one second left! What a play by Larry Bird!

Anyway, with less than a minute left in the second half of that game, Robert Parish famously unleashed a round of hammer punches on Bill Laimbeer’s head. Laimbeer went crashing to the ground. Anticipating a riot, security immediately ran onto the court. To this day, Parish’s onslaught may be the most brutal and ill-intentioned on court beat down since Kermit Washington clocked Rudy Tomjonavich.

And Parish wasn’t even called for a foul.

But after the game, Stern stepped in with a fine and a Game 6 suspension.

“If it requires taking something away from the game (suspending a player), we'll take something away,” the commissioner said in a statement.

Case for Celtics: The obvious point is that Parish wasn’t called for a foul. But the more important point is this: Parish’s was just doing his part to contribute to NBA history. I mean, that game eventually went down as one of the greatest of all time. Bird’s steal went down as one of the greatest plays of all time. All the stars had to align for that to ever become possible.

You can’t change one thing about what happened earlier in the game and assume that the rest would have played out exactly how it did. Even if Parish wasn’t called for a foul. That beat down had to happen. He was just fulfilling the NBA’s destiny.

Case for Stern: Chief literally sucker punched Laimbeer (three times!) in the face. That’s kind of a big deal. Even if there wasn’t another player in the league more deserving.

Verdict: The court rules in favor of Stern, especially since Parish probably wasn’t going to play in Game 6 anyway because of an ankle injury.

As a result, the Pistons felt jaded by the suspension, saying that it shouldn’t count for a game that Parish would have missed otherwise.

But Stern wasn’t having it:

"Parish was en route to Detroit when the suspension was made," he said. "So the intention seemed to be to play him. You can't very well suspend someone with the provision that it applies when his team decides he is physically able to play."


Case 3: No Relief for Reggie

Year: 1993

Background: As everyone knows, Stern and the NBA infamously refused to provide the Celtics with cap relief after the death of Reggie Lewis. That decision stunted Boston’s growth in the following years and no doubt contributed to team falling into the abyss. To make matters worse, the season after the decision on Lewis, the league passed a new rule saying that if another situation like that ever arises, a team gets half of that player's salary taken off the cap.

The Celtics were obviously furious with Stern and the league, and that fury boiled over in March of 1995, when the commissioner attended Reggie Lewis Night at the Garden.

This story is from a column by Will McDonough:

Upon arriving, the commissioner went to the Celtics' private room, which is open every home game to team officials, friends and visiting dignitaries.

When Stern entered the room, he was immediately confronted by Red Auerbach. One of those in attendance said, "Red went crazy," and described how Auerbach whiplashed Stern verbally. Auerbach charged that the NBA, under Stern's guidance, refused to give the Celtics a first-round draft choice as compensation for the death of Lewis, and forced the club to carry Reggie's large contract under the salary cap until it expired.

Red roasted Stern. "I wouldn't call it that," said Stern yesterday. "Whenever I go into the room, Red gets on me about something. I'm used to it. But I still love him."

Then Celtics owner Paul Gaston made it a daily double, criticizing Stern for not standing up to the Wall Street Journal or the Globe or any of the media reporting allegations that drug use may have been involved in the demise of the late team captain.

Auerbach says he didn't go crazy but acknowledges he was not kind to Stern. Gaston says he wasn't harsh with Stern but did mention the Wall Street Journal, Globe, etc.

Case for Stern: It’s not like he had the power to just snap his fingers and give the Celtics cap relief. He had to convince all the owners to get on board. Ultimately, it was a handful or so of those heartless ingrates who stood in the way.

Case for the Celtics: It’s absurd for Boston to have been punished for such a tragedy. And the fact that the league eventually passed a provision to address that very thing means that the league realized how absurd it was. IN this case, you can only assume that there was another reason the owners didn’t want to help out the Celtics. Most likely, because they were the Celtics.

Verdict: Stern is a persuasive man. A man who usually gets what he wants. And if he really wanted to do the right thing, he could have.

Court rules in favor of the Celtics.


Case 4: Everything Red

Year(s): 1984-2006

Background: That story about Red accosting Stern in the private room is only one of many classic interactions between the two. Red loved going after Stern. He loved messing with him. Red treated Stern the way Seth treated McLovin.

There was the time that Stern was on camera presenting the NBA Coach of the Year award, made reference to the award’s corporate sponsor, but forgot to mention that the trophy itself was named after Auerbach.

Here’s Stern telling the story of what happened next:

"Red called me up to express what could mildly be described as his displeasure, directed that his name be forcibly removed from the proceedings, or else he was going to come down and remove it himself," Stern said. "By the end of the phone call, he accepted my assurance that it would never happen again and that the Red Auerbach Trophy would henceforth always be presented with mention of the person after whom it was named. He was very proud of that."

Then there was the time (2001) when Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker were snubbed in the All Star Game.

I'm really upset at David Stern and the league." Auerbach said. “They should have picked (Antoine) Walker. Let me ask you this: Would you trade Antonio Davis for Walker? It's just plain dumb. Picking Sprewell over [Paul] Pierce was bad enough. But this was worse, and I will tell him that.”

And he did tell him that.

"Red expressed his displeasure to me as only he could," Stern said. “The situation was that we needed a backup center for Dikembe Mutombo. It was a tough one, but we went by position, the same way we did in the Western Conference with Vlade Divac. I know how he feels. I don't blame him. I'm sure he will share those feelings with me again in his own inimitable style.”

And finally, around that same time, McDonough (never a friend of Stern’s) caught up with Red, and the Celtics legend went off:

“I like David Stern as a person, and I consider him a friend, but he's always giving Boston the short end of the deal," Auerbach said. "I called up to complain before the game was played. We didn't have a single player picked to be in Washington. We had no one in the game, or the slam-dunk contest, or the 3-point contest. Ridiculous.

“Then take this schedule we are playing right now,” he continued. “It's a killer. A few years back, I complained when they gave us eight straight games on the road. It's unheard of. No one else has a schedule like that. So I complained. The next year they cut it to seven in a row. Big deal. Last year it was six. Now it's back up to seven. Why us?"

Case for the Celtics: He’s Red Auerbach.

Case for Stern: N/A

Verdict: Another victory cigar for Red.


Case 5: Uncool to Cooz

Year: 1994

Background: Bob Cousy is an NBA Hall of Famer. He’s one of the greatest Celtics of all time. In his prime, Cousy was an entertainer and one of the driving forces in keeping the league afloat back when David Stern was still in middle school.

Cousy made $30,000 his last season in the league. By comparison, this season, Kris Humphries makes $33,000 a quarter. Obviously, those were different times. It’s not like Cousy was struggling to support his family. But that kind of money can only last so long. So, as he got older, Cousy began selling off memorabilia as another source of income. And why not? He was Bob Cousy. But it wasn’t long before the Celtics great began receiving letters from the NBA telling him to stop, because he was infringing on exclusive rights.

Finally, Cousy was fed up and put in a call in to David Stern — the details of which The Cooz passed along to Jackie MacMullan.

"I finally called David,” Cousy said, “and told him ‘Please ask your people to stop sending threatening letters to my people.’ David said, `What are you doing?' I told him, `Just some trading cards.' He chuckled, then said, `Cooz, it's simple. If you use an NBA logo, we'll sue you.'

Case for Stern: Legally, I guess he has a point.

Case for Celtics: It’s not like Cousy had any intention, or even the prospect, of turning this memorabilia business into a multi-million dollar empire. It’s not like Stern would have ever received a panicked phone call saying: “Sir, sales over at the NBA store are plummeting, we think it has something to do with Cousy.”

He was just an NBA legend trying to make a little extra money. Money that he probably needed, because why else would he bother?

Verdict: Another instance of Stern living by the letter of the law, in the face of logical compassion. There would be no NBA without guys like Bob Cousy. They have the right to profit from the league as much as Stern himself does.

Court rules in favor of the Celtics.


Case 6: Lottery Loop-Hole

Year(s): 1993-94

Background: In 1993, the Orlando Magic won the NBA Lottery despite finishing the season with a 41-41 record and having a 1.5 percent chance of their lone ping pong ball emerging from the pack.

As a result, the NBA decided that they needed to make it even harder for the better lottery teams to land the No. 1 pick and revamped the lottery. In the new look, teams nine through 14 would each have only a 0.5 percent chance of winning the top pick. The change was effective immediately.

In related news, this the same summer that Reggie Lewis died, the Celtics were stuck with his contract and the team was expected to miss the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. They weren’t was supposed to be that bad, though. They were supposed to be the exact kind of team that would be affected most by the new lottery odds.

Celtics GM Dave Gavitt wasn’t happy, and took it as another thinly-veiled assault on the Celtics.

“Why should we be in favor of it?" Gavitt said. "It was tabled three times last week. But I figure that it'll pass."

"We just don't think there's any reason to change it. I think it's just a reaction to last year (when No. 11 Orlando got the first pick). But that was, what, a 1-in-66 shot? Well, I think we can wait another 65 years."

Case for Celtics: It had been an emotional summer. And emotional few summers, with Bird retiring the year before. Everyone was a little crazy and overly sensitive.

Case for Stern: Gavitt’s “But that was, what, a 1-in-66 shot? Well, I think we can wait another 65 years” line.

Verdict: The lottery isn’t a perfect system. It wasn’t then and isn’t now. All the league can do is always keep that in mind and constantly look for ways to make it better. The Magic winning in the 1993 Lottery exposed a flaw in the system, and Stern fixed it immediately.

The court rules in Stern's favor.


Case 7: The Code of Conduct

Year: 2005

Background: The 2004-2005 season was tough on the NBA’s image, thanks in large part to November’s Malice at the Palace. It wasn’t a great season for the Celtics image either. In their first round playoff loss to the Pacers, Antoine Walker was suspended one game for bumping an official. Paul Pierce was been ejected in Game 6 (a potential elimination game) and then walked off the court shirtless while waving his jersey in the air. The organization was pissed off, and announced a new code of conduct.

It included a dress code, fines for tardiness and benchings for missed workouts. It was aimed to place an “emphasis on respect and accountability.”

The Celtics were proud of this code. They were stepping up and separating themselves from the pack. They were saying, “The NBA might have an image problem, but the Celtics don’t!”

Stern didn’t like it. In the name of “fairness”, he believed that the league and its players should only be governed by one code of conduct — his own. And when asked to comment publicly on the Celtics plans, according to a story by Springer, “Stern called it ‘just a restatement’ and said it was “announcing the obvious with an air of discovery.”

Case for the Celtics: Within reason, teams have the right to make any rule they want, and live with the consequences of how those rules affect their players and any other possible ramifications. THIS IS AMERICA, DAVID.

Case for Stern: I can so perfectly imagine the look on Stern’s face as he described the Celtics code of conduct as “announcing the obvious with an air of discovery.”

That’s Stern’s super-smug power face. I love that face.

Verdict: Smug Stern almost won the court over, but we rule in favor of the Celtics.


Case 8: Menace to Society

Year: 2008

Background: In 2008, the Celtics played the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs. With less than a minute left in Game 3, Al Horford hit a shot in Paul Pierce’s face and started talking trash. Pierce didn’t like it, followed Horford towards the Hawks bench and at one point, threw up this hand gesture in Horford’s direction.

The next day he was fined $25,000 for what was deemed a “menacing gesture.” Some even suggested that the sign was gang related. It wasn’t, and Pierce was quick to kill that rumor.

“I 100 percent do not in any way promote gang violence or anything close to it," he said in a statement. “I am sorry if it was misinterpreted that way at Saturday's game.”

Doc Rivers thought the fine was ridiculous and took a sarcastic shot at the league: “It's silly,” Rivers said. “Unfortunately, everybody's very sensitive about signs. I didn't know that. I know now. I'll be careful when I'm giving signals to the players, I'll tell you that.”

As usual, Smug Stern wasn’t having it:

“He should have gone back to his bench,” he said about Pierce. “He went to the wrong bench, in case anyone wants to go back and look. It was part of an entire package. He was in the wrong place, and I don't think he went there to just say peace and love. We said he was menacing, and in the totality of what he was doing - at the wrong bench telling us that he was really over there saying peace and love with his hand signs - we didn't buy it. We said, `You shouldn't have been there. We're fining you.’”

Case for Celtics: I think it’s safe to that Paul Pierce and Al Horford aren’t secretly rival gang members. It wasn’t a gang sign at all. In that case, it wasn’t menacing at all. It wasn’t any different than if Pierce had just been pointing at him. Not even that bad.

Case for Stern: The part about walking to the wrong bench is accurate. And you know the initial public perception that Pierce had flashed a gang sign must have lit a fire in Stern’s underbelly.

Verdict: Pierce claimed that his gesture meant “blood, sweat and tears” but the fact that Stern repeatedly referred to it as “peace and love” shows that commissioner didn’t give a damn about Pierce’s excuse. He wasn’t even paying attention. He had made up his mind and ready to make an example of the Celtics captain for the mere fact that the term “gang sign” was even brought up.

And he overreacted.

Court rules in favor of the Celtics. 


CASE 9: Fines, Fines, Everywhere Fines

Year: 2010

Background: The Celtics were making their run to the NBA Finals, and along the way, the officiating was pretty bad. As usual. And as usual, Doc Rivers was complaining. He had a problem with the technical foul rule that put Kendrick Perkins in danger of missing a game. He had a problem with consistency. And he wasn’t alone. Phil Jackson was complaining. Stan Van Gundy was complaining. And Stern started dishing out $35,000 fines.

“Coaches are under a lot of pressure,” he said, “and I grew up trying to respect that pressure.” I used to just say, 'It's the playoffs.'"

But not anymore, and Rivers responded to those fines by saying that he was afraid to really comment, but that, “Sometimes, we really are defending our guys. I think everybody's on the league side at the end of the day. Listen, I've been a league guy for 20-whatever years, I love this league and I want this league to do well. I don't think any coach doesn't want the league to do well. Having said that, the coach's job is to do what he can to help the team win. Correct?"

Stern's response: "It's a coach's job to comply with the rules."

Case for Celtics: There are plenty of solid referees in the NBA. There are also referees who are petty, self-involved and overall bad at their jobs. Unfortunately, it’s often the guys from that second group who are on the court during the playoffs, and it’s hard to ever fault a coach for being outwardly frustrated by the whole experience.

Case for Stern: You’re not supposed to criticize the boss in public.

Verdict: But at some point, after so long, if the criticism never goes away, it’s probably time for the boss to look in the mirror and take some accountability. And Stern never did that enough with the NBA’s officiating problem. Even in the aftermath of the Donaghy scandal. Even during the Donaghy scandal. That was an opportunity to change the culture among NBA officials, but Stern barely changed a thing, and the problem persists to this day.

Court rules in favor of the Celtics.



Year: 2013

Background: Last summer, the Celtics were working on a deal to send Doc Rivers and Kevin Garnett to the Clippers, but Stern announced that he wouldn’t approve it because the CBA doesn’t permit trades involving players and coaches. As a result, the Celtics just sent Rivers to LA, and were then considering a separate deal to reunite KG with Doc.

The commissioner didn’t like that either. In his opinion, even if the deals were separate, they were still connected, and wouldn’t get the go ahead. He went as far as to rule that the Celtics and Clippers weren’t allowed to make another trade for the entire year.

Case for Stern: N/A.

Case for the Celtics: Everything.

Verdict: Just an unprecedented act of power abuse here by Stern. Actually, not unprecedented for him, but just in general, there was no logical argument behind Stern’s decision other than: “I’m the commissioner, and I do what I want.”

That’s the same mentally that helped form the not-always-favorable reputation that Stern earned over his 30 years in charge. Then again, unlike this time, and more often than not, what Stern wanted was also what was best.

So with that, it’s another ruling for the Celtics.

They win the overall series, 8-2.

Thanks for playing, Commissioner Stern. And thanks for the memories

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