My favorite David Stern story with a Charlotte connection:
This was the day NBA owners voted to let the Hornets move to New Orleans. Just before the news conference, I saw Hornets part-owner Ray Wooldridge emerge from a room looking terrified red-faced and shaking. NBA Commissioner Stern walked behind him, clearly agitated.
I found someone whod been in the room, and heres what I heard: The Observer had caught the Hornets under-reporting home attendance as a way of lobbying to move. Stern found out that this had been Wooldridges idea. So Stern got in Wooldridges face, poking his finger within an inch of Wooldridges nose again and again.
Stern was treating one of his owners like a puppy whod just pooped on the carpet. Wooldridge deserved it for embarrassing the league, but this story also said a lot, for better or worse, about Sterns 30-year tenure as commissioner.
Stern announced Thursday hell retire in 2014. Ive always liked and admired him. When he came on, the NBA couldnt get its championship series on live television. Now the NBA is an international brand.
However, the curmudgeon began to outweigh the visionary. Stern can out-debate almost anyone. But at some point he decided cajoling and intimidating people was a better course than winning them over.
The NBA referees have an annual preseason meeting. First they have to pass a conditioning test, and then they meet on any new rules interpretations. Stern addressed them a few years back, and heres what Im told he said in so many words.
I can fire you all today.
Thats no way to inspire the troops. But its often how Stern operated of late: Ruling by fear. This is a shame because anyone that impressive shouldnt need to be scary to make a point.
Its unfortunate that many in and around the NBA will remember Stern for his exasperation, because thats not his legacy. Stern shepherded the NBA through drug scandals and labor wars.
He was a litigator, a marketer and a risk-taker. He saw emerging cities like Charlotte and Orlando as growth opportunities when the rest of the sports world saw them as triple-A backwaters.
The Charlotte experience both with the Hornets and the Bobcats is a testament to Sterns judgment and persistence.
First George Shinn sold the league on Charlotte as a major-league city. Stern bought the argument and the Hornets delivered with years of sellouts.
Then Shinn decided the Charlotte Coliseum wasnt suitable. He and Wooldridge were so clumsy in their efforts to get a new arena that the city appropriately didnt want to do business with them.
Stern determined the problem wasnt Charlotte or its government. It was ownership.
So he let the Hornets move to New Orleans and simultaneously set about replacing the Hornets with an expansion team.
Charlotte ended up with an uptown arena versatile enough to host the Democratic National Convention. And the NBA retained a market it discovered back in the 80s.
This is leadership and vision. Stern has always displayed both in abundance.
I just wish hed been better at treating people the way hed expect to be treated.
Five passing thoughts
• Adam Silver, Sterns successor, has similar intellect and thats hard to match. I suspect hell be more of a consensus-builder and more of a listener.
• Putting an expansion franchise in Seattle should remain high on the NBAs to-do list. The SuperSonics had great fan support.
• I think the Los Angeles Lakers will be terrific, but their roster is now so old that their season hangs totally on keeping veterans healthy, which is no given. Kobe Bryant defines high mileage.
• Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap mixed-and-matched so much in the preseason that its hard to gauge what his rotation will actually be once games start counting.
• Several national prognosticators pick the Bobcats to finish in front of the Magic in the Southeast Division. After last season, that would count as progress.