A Stern Departure: The NBA Brand’s Best and Lows

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Last week David Stern announced that he would be stepping down as the NBA commissioner in 2014. He will have spent 30 eventful years on the job with some highs and lows. Like him or not, Stern is a serious brand building son-of-a-gun. In fact, I’m a little scared of the man. It’s hard not to respect a man that has done so much to grow a game from unpopular, through the violent and drug-filled 80s and the amazing 90s. And to continue to grow through controversial and urban 2000s to the league’s mega global and flourishing current state.

Stern has been put into some tough positions. The majority of the teams owners are white males and most of the players are black. Stern, who works for the owners, is often stuck in the middle but is clear about his allegiance. He’s the face. He’s the one to take ownership for decisions that often have racial undertones. It comes with the job. The racial stigma can’t be avoided. It’s the cards that he was dealt and in many ways a bed that he has made over the last three decades. With all that said, he commands respect. Below we break down some of highs and lows of the NBA brand while on Stern’s watch.


Global Expansion

Stern’s biggest impact has been taking professional basketball global. The NBA is HUGE in China (Yao Ming had something to do with this). The NBA and the Euroleague almost never have conflicts and are quite compatible. The number of international stars in the league continues to grow season after season. Back to China… if you’re a Houston Rocket (or a popular former Rocket), you’re pretty much guaranteed to be a star in China. See the video above of Tracy McGrady, whose NBA career has likely ended, recently being mobbed by fans in China. On a global scale, the NBA is in great shape.

The Dress Code

Stern wanted to bring a classier energy to the game and he accomplished that with the NBA dress code. Let’s face it. Guys were showing up to the games wearing durags and chains. It wasn’t a good look for the players, the teams and the league. Also, remember that this came down post Detroit brawl. Stern had to make changes that would make the league’s players more “likeable” or “professional”. In my opinion, everyone looks better and the league’s sponsors can relax a little bit. Besides, it hasn’t removed one ounce of fun from the game.

Marketing of the Superstar in the Jordan Era

With only five players on the court for a team, it’s natural for the best players to stand out. But it went to the next level when Michael Jordan came around. Sure, he was an amazing talent who had amazing work ethic on and off the court; but NBA did a great job in accepting and promoting the star power of the individual player. This move brought the NBA completely out of the dark ages.

Rookie Payscale

This has protected team salaries from ballooning ridiculously. We’ve seen it in every league. Without rookie salary structures, GMs (who are human beings after all) are willing to shell out tons of cash to players who are unproven in the pros strictly based on hype and potential. If a team makes a mistake on a player, it could set the franchise back a decade or more. The rookie payscale also rewards player longevity and commitment.

Gilbert Arenas Gun Fiasco

Remember when Gilbert Arenas pulled a gun on Javaris Crittenton? Stern nipped this crap in the bud. Arenas’ career hasn’t been the same. Ironically, the Washington Wizards used to be known as the Washington Bullets. To try to eliminate the violent stigma, they changed their name. Well, Gil and Javaris didn’t help matters. The fiasco wasn’t good for the league but the way Stern handled it was Grade A.

Not Stern’s Fault

Malice at the Palace

This was just a mess. No one expected it. It was a “perfect” storm of two hard-nosed teams with some tough players getting mixed up. To add, I don’t think this would have happened in any other NBA city but Detroit (maybe Philly). Stern and Co. handed out appropriate punishments and thank goodness nothing like this has ever happened again. It for sure wasn’t good for the NBA brand but they’ve bounced back nicely. The one criticism was the lack of focus the NBA put on the actions of the unruly fans. Fan criticism largely came from the media and public opinion.

On The Fence

The Twitter Rule

While talking to team member Y.B. about the NBA’s anti-tweeting (social media) rule, we were torn on if we thought it was a good move for the NBA’s brand or not. The rule says that players can’t tweet or use any form of social media from 45-minutes before their game until after they’re done with their post-game responsibilities. As a guy who’s all about social media, this is kind of a bummer as I love to read tweets from the players pre and post game. Of course you can’t have guys tweeting during games (though halftime tweets would be super entertaining). I understand the rule and get why it was implemented. It just simply takes a little fun away from the players and social media savvy fans and media.

College/Draft Rule

The one-year rule that restricts players from coming into the league straight from high school was implemented in 2006. The first year of the rule restricted guys like Kevin Durant, Mike Conley and Michael Beasley from going straight to the league. This has hurt the college game by creating crazy turnover of teams. For instance, the 2012-2013 University of Kentucky men’s team is the first UK team in a long time that’s not returning a single starting player. For the NBA though, they’re benefiting from the improved quality of play by rookies. The one year in college is basically an audition for the pros. The players technically only have to take one semester of college classes. The top players are building their brand and the NBA teams are able to draft ready-made stars. So for the NBA it’s a win, but the college game is in much worse shape because of the lack of continuity the rule creates. Lastly, the racial undertones of this rule are evident. In baseball, a largely white sport, players are allowed to enter the Majors directly from high school. They have to stay in college for a minimum of three years if they choose to enter college. The NBA rule reeks of the notion that black youth (and their parents, handlers or caretakers) can’t be trusted to make their own decision of whether or not to go pro from high school.


1999 and 2011 Lockouts

Lockouts are never good for anyone. People lose money and fans lose enjoyment. As mentioned earlier, Stern works for the team owners. Owners like Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavs) have seen the value of their team fall so they see Stern strictly as a guy that’s supposed to represent their voice. That’s not to say they don’t have any respect for his track record, but they are focused on the bottom line. The 2011 lockout seemed to serve no purpose as players are still being offered high contracts as free agents without the owners even batting an eye.

Patrick Ewing Lottery

The conspiracy theorists say that Stern wants the New York Knicks to be contenders because a good team in basketball’s Mecca is only right. Based on the video above, some say the Knicks’ envelope was frozen. Some say a corner of the envelope was folded. You make the call. Stuff like this has made the NBA seem questionable by many ever since. The Knicks ended up drafting Patrick Ewing #1 but it never turned into a championship. Poor Spike Lee.

Chris Paul Trade Veto

After the 2011 lockout ended, a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers from New Orleans and Pau Gasol to the Rockets from the Lakers was vetoed by the league. The New Orleans Hornets, who were league-owned at the time, totally had their hands tied. They were trying their best to trade their disgruntled superstar but the ownership (the league and its owners) weren’t happy as they felt that a large market team (the Los Angeles Lakers) was getting the leg up in the deal. It’s another case of heavy-handed leadership by Stern. The Hornets’ GM, Dell Demps, had no chance of being able to make an independent decision. Stern has a way of imposing his will. In the recent years (the final years), it seems as if Stern has come down with decisions that have resulted from pressure from unhappy owners. This veto was not good for the brand. It was confusing, micromanaged and was an act of jealousy and bullying.

Kings and Lakers x Tim Donaghy

If there’s one NBA playoff series that conspiracy theorists can point to is the 2002 Western Conference Finals matchup between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. There’s not one game that is called ‘fixed’ in the three major U.S. sports more than Game 6 in this 2002 playoff series. Check this out for a rundown of some of the shenanigans. This was before the Tim Donaghy fallout. The Donaghy scandal of 2007 was the cherry on top. The general reaction of fans wasn’t one of shock after finding out an NBA referee had been gambling on and trying to fix games. This just goes to show the general apathy Stern and Co. had shown toward controlling and improving the quality of NBA officiating. This was a huge brand boo boo.

Microfiber Basketball

The NBA tried to introduce new technology to the game in the 2006-2007 season with the microfiber basketball. This move only lasted one season as players complained of cuts on their hands and the awkward bounce of the ball. The microfiber ball was a major fail. In business, if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.

What do you think worked or hurt during Stern’s career?

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About the Author

Chris Craft is a Christian, husband, father, and the author of The Foundation: Branding for Successful Real Estate Professionals and O.P.E.N. Routine: Four Components to Personal Branding Excellence. As the founder of content creation agency Nao Media, Chris helps churches and businesses produce written content and have better conversations with their members and stakeholders. Chris is also the host of The Chris Craft Show, which helps its listeners renew their mind with edifying stories and insights.