David Stern is seen elsewhere as a savior of the NBA, but Seattle need not apologize for seeing the former commissioner as a petty tyrant who took business too personally.
I owe David Stern a thank you.
It’s a little late for that realization, since he died Wednesday. But emotional contradiction is often the case when it comes to complex characters. Such people can exhilarate and infuriate, sometimes in the same paragraph. It becomes difficult to know whether to salute or slug.
Those readers who’ve followed me since the mid-2000s, when Seattle’s hoops history began to unravel from the NBA’s, know how I feel about what he did. I’m going to get to that.
First, a story about the NBA commissioner when he was merely irascible, before he became contemptible.
Barry Ackerley, the owner of the the Seattle SuperSonics from 1983 to 2000, was in the early 1990s trying to put together a deal for an arena on acreage he owned in Pioneer Square. He wanted it to house his NBA team and an expansion NHL team. When the deal collapsed — no Seattle owners could be found for an NHL team, particularly ones willing to be tenant No. 2 to the contentious, litigious Ackerley — he switched plans to get the city to upgrade the Coliseum, the team’s original home.
In a column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I wrote, “I would rather sleep in a bed of broken lights bulbs than make a deal with Barry Ackerley.”
The city’s political leaders didn’t take my hint. By 1995, they had given him almost $100 million in public funds to re-open the remodeled building as the basketball-only KeyArena.
The city issued 20-year bonds to cover the construction costs, but Ackerley negotiated a 15-year lease term. That difference became the incentive for prospective owners from Oklahoma to buy the Sonics in 2006 from the team’s subsequent owner, Howard Schultz, knowing the worst that could happen was playing the remaining four years of the lease in Seattle before relocating the team. The team subsequently settled a lawsuit and left in 2008.
But before all of that, Ackerley sought to revoke my season press credentials to cover his team, even though credentialing was a function of the league, not of the teams. Some Sonics people were aghast, telling me off the record that it was the broken light bulbs remark that set him off.
I found out ahead of the draft in June, when a police officer gave me a quiet heads-up that Ackerley wanted me arrested for trespassing in the downtown hotel ballroom where the Sonics were staging their draft event.
That didn’t happen, but word of the dispute got back to NBA headquarters. By the time the season rolled around, I was told that Stern issued a league-wide directive that media credentials could not be revoked on the basis of critical coverage. The addendum became known informally as “the Art Thiel rule.”
For that, I thank Stern.
That was before he started believing he was the inheritor of the divine right of kings, certain that nothing he did was subject to earthly authority.
From 1984 to 2014, Stern oversaw the NBA’s growth from a faltering enterprise considering a shrinkage via mergers among weaker teams, to a global colossus with a huge international footprint. He negotiated hard with the networks and the players union, castigated owners, players, coaches, referees and reporters, and created a marketing tornado that made the NBA compelling entertainment for multiple generations as well as a beacon for social and racial consciousness.
In the words of longtime NBA writer Marc Stein of the New York Times, “He was a workaholic, a perfectionist and, yes, often a bully.”
And he set up Seattle to be stripped of the Sonics.
Eleven years after he attended the KeyArena opening, saying Seattle “should be very proud of what’s going on here tonight,” he found himself addressing the state Legislature in Olympia. He was helping Schultz extort public funds for remaking KeyArena without taking any responsibility for ballooning player salaries, nor offering funding help from the NBA, nor admitting that his business, not the building itself or the fan support, made KeyArena economically obsolete.
In so many words, Frank Chopp, then speaker of the state House of Representatives, told Stern to drop dead. Seemingly used to being carried by sedan chair everywhere he went, Stern was furious with the repudiation. He neither cared nor understood that voters funded the Key in 1993, the baseball stadium in 1995 and the football stadium in 1997, and were fed up. All Stern wanted was revenge.
That summer, he set up Clay Bennett, a businessman who helped Oklahoma City host the the New Orleans Hornets after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, get paid back for the favor. Stern allowed him to buy the Sonics from Schultz and his 57 partners for $350 million.
On Nov. 7, 2006, two weeks after the NBA approved the sale to Bennett, voters in the city of Seattle passed by a 71 percent plurality Initiative 91, which restricted taxpayer-funded subsidies for professional sports teams by requiring that leases produced a modest profit. Stern took it as another insult from Seattle.
“If that initiative becomes law,” Stern said, “the Sonics will leave and there will never be another team in Seattle on my watch.”
It did. He was right. And he was wrong.
Granted, the city left itself vulnerable to predation, with its modest remodel, too-short lease, multiple instances of poor arena management and inability to raise private capital locally to out-bid Bennett to keep the Sonics. When, in July 2008, the city’s solid legal defense against Bennett’s spurious claim of a breach of the lease was dropped for a $45 million cash settlement, the Sonics were allowed to move to Oklahoma City and Seattle was seen as stupid.
Stern had his revenge.
For all of his creditable efforts at helping rescue, stabilize and energize the NBA, when it came to Seattle, he made the mistake of taking business personally.
He may be seen elsewhere in the hoops world as a savior. In Seattle he will be known as a petty tyrant who cared more about his power and reputation than a 41-year relationship that brought sports joy and inspiration to a region.
Thanks. But no thanks.