David Stern’s 10 Most Infamous Acts As Commissioner

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Perhaps no commissioner in any of the major sports has ever had as much to do with the growth and success of his league than the NBA’s David Stern.

Of course, as with anyone in a position of extreme power, a few misdeeds are unavoidable along the way.

Stern, 70, will celebrate his 29th anniversary as NBA Commissioner in February. He has announced that he will retire in 2014, after he has surpassed 30 years as the boss, a tenure longer than any other major sports commissioner in history.

As some have speculated, Stern’s choice to wait until just after his 30th anniversary is likely spurred by Stern’s ego. The NBA as we know it is directly a result of Stern’s efforts to market the league: emphasis on individual stars; keeping big market teams relevant; and efforts to distribute the league’s wealth of money and talent to a handful of contending franchises while still making smaller markets profitable.

The league is as popular as ever, despite a lockout just last year.

Not everything is so sunny for Stern, though.

Stern soaks up the boos at the NBA Draft. Vince McMahon would be proud. Screencap via @Jose3030 via yahoo.com

Heavy criticism has been lobbed at Stern after he fined the San Antonio Spurs $250,000 last week for sending star players Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home to rest rather to Miami to play in their 4th game in 5 nights, all on the road. The game was televised nationally by TNT, and was supposed to be a matchup between two marquee franchises of the league.

Defenders of the Spurs and their coach Gregg Popovich, who made the decision, question Stern’s choice to get involved in how a team coaches its players.

This is just the latest in a career of controversial moves by Stern. Here we will count down the commissioner’s most infamous acts and decisions.

Did I miss one? Let me know on Twitter or in the comments.

10. The “New” Synthetic Basketball

This didn’t last long. Image via foxnews.com

In 2006, Stern introduced a new basketball to be used in every NBA game.

The synthetic microfiber ball was supposed to be more consistent on bounces and easier to handle, but the exact opposite was the case. The ball also caused cuts on players’ fingers, leading to an outcry by the players and a grievance filed the the NBA Player’s Union.

For the first two months of the season, Stern, as he is wont to do, largely ignored the complaints from his players. It’s still unclear what the motivation for his insistence on staying with the new ball was when his players so clearly hated it (but I bet it rhymes with “funny”).

On December 11 of that season, Stern admitted defeat and agreed that in January the standard leather basketballs would be brought back. Six years later and the old reliable orange leather sphere is still out there going through the net (unless it’s being handled by the Wizards. Sorry, I had to).

9. Stern Fines Gregg Popovich $250,000 for Resting Players 

I mentioned this situation in the opening, but I’ll expound a little here. You’re probably familiar with the details, it being so recent and all, but there are a few points worth rehashing.

First, Popovich has rested players several times over the years, and last year sent home his “Big Three” before games against Portland and Golden State. The league didn’t punish the Spurs then, and there is no rule against what Popovich did.

The key factor here is that the game was a signature NBA game to be broadcast on TNT, one of the league’s premier partners and a source of massive revenue for the league. Stern was no doubt upset that Popovich elected to essentially make a mockery of the schedule (the Spurs were playing their 4th road game in 5 nights, while Miami was off for 4 days prior to the game) on such a public platform.

Popovich was undoubtedly trying to “stick it to the man,” as he and Stern have had a complicated history with one another.

Stern has always been disappointed with the Spurs no-frills approach, their resistance to becoming a marketable team of personalities and the low ratings their Finals appearances have garnered over the years. Oddly enough, the Spurs insistence on playing basketball the right way, with quality people over flashy stars, and placing a premium on winning above all else hasn’t been enough for Stern.

Getty Images via ruleyork.com

Popovich, meanwhile, has surely had an axe to grind against Stern and the league. If you think it’s an accident that he chose this game, under these circumstances, to pull his guys, you’re crazy.

Popovich’s enmity for Stern reportedly goes back to an argument the two had about the 2004 U.S. Men’s Basketball team. Popovich was an assistant on Larry Brown’s staff that year, and Stern wanted the players to do some promotional activities. Popovich refused. According to various reports, the two had an unfriendly exchange and have never quite seen eye to eye since.

Whichever side of this debate you fall on, you have to admit that a commissioner dictating who a coach plays is a dangerous predicament for the league. What if Pop had played his Big Three and one of them had suffered an injury? Stern may have opened a Pandora’s Box he shouldn’t have.

Time will tell if this entry shouldn’t end up higher on this list.

8. The 1985 Draft Lottery

I’ll be honest: I’m dipping into conspiracy theory territory here.

In 1985, the New York Knicks were mired in a stretch of mediocrity not familiar to the franchise. Coincidentally, the league’s first draft lottery was being held that year to determine who would receive the top overall pick in the draft. The big prize that year was Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, a player expected to make an immediate impact and become a superstar upon his arrival in the NBA.

It’s never been confirmed that Stern did anything illegal in the lottery drawing, but the motive was certainly there. The league would greatly benefit from one of its signature franchises to return to dominance, and New York is obviously one of the biggest media markets.

Watch in the video below where the man placing the enveloped in the tumbler forcibly slams two of them against the sides of the ball. It’s difficult to see in the video, but those who believe in Stern steering the next big superstar to the Knicks will say that he reached for the envelope with the bent edge (which occurred as it was slammed into the hopper).


Of course the Knicks received the top pick and Ewing. Ewing would go on to a Hall of Fame career, and although he never led the Knicks to a championship, he certainly helped restore relevance to the team, no doubt propelling the franchise and league to greater fortunes.

The fact that many believe this rumor based on Stern’s other dealings is enough to land the 1985 lottery on this list. Allow us a couple more lottery-related entries at #7 and #6.

7. League-Owned New Orleans Winning the 2012 Draft Lottery

Lottery shenanigans seemed likely again this year when the New Orleans Hornets, a team currently owned by the NBA, were awarded the top selection in the draft. Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, almost unanimously considered a rare talent, was the prize.

The issue here was that the league had struggled to find a buyer for the franchise for months, and after New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson purchased the team, many thought that Stern was trying to sweeten the state of the franchise for his new business partner (more on that later).

The Hornets had only a 13.7% chance of winning the lottery (the Charlotte Bobcats had the highest chance at 25%), but win it they did. They selected Davis, and a new era of optimism around the struggling New Orleans franchise was born.

Image via jimrome.com

Like the Knicks in 1985, this lottery raised eyebrows around the league and its fans immediately.

Many saw the league’s history of lottery winners – from Cleveland getting hometown star LeBron James in 2003, Washington getting John Wall after owner Abe Pollin had passed away in 2010, Cleveland again winning with Kyrie Irving in 2011 after James broke the city’s heart and the Knicks acquiring Ewing – as proof that Stern was dictating the landing spot for Davis and trying to make a good faith gesture toward his newest owner.

Again, this is a far-fetched notion, but the fact that it is so easy to believe further demonstrates Stern’s lasting reputation as a commissioner who will place his business interests over the integrity and competition of the league.

6. Stern Ignoring Tanking

Perhaps no single word in the NBA lexicon frustrates me as much as “tanking.” If given two words, I would say “Joey Crawford,” but tanking is almost as bad.

Tanking refers to the practice of a team losing games intentionally to improve its chances at winning the draft lottery and getting a high draft pick. In the NBA, because individual players mean so much, and because the right one can immediately tun a franchise around, it is of paramount importance for teams to get elite talents on a fairly regular basis.

Want more ping pong balls? Rest your starters with “tendinitis” and hope no one steps up. NBA/AP photo via cleveland.com

Tanking is what led to the league adopting the draft lottery in the first place, but that hasn’t been enough to stop teams from doing it anyway. Sadly, every season ends with paying customers watching glorified D-League lineups go through the motions while their owners and GMs hope for the next LeBron or Derrick Rose.

Despite minor discussions about a play-in tournament for the 8th seed in the playoffs, Stern hasn’t done anything about the tanking epidemic that has grown over the last few years.

That’s what made the aforementioned Popovich situation so amusing; he’s mad about a well-run team resting some aging stars, but he’s fine with a half dozen of more teams purposely putting less than their best product on the floor night after night while fans pay to see it.


That’s five. Now five more to go. Click below to continue reading and remember the time David Stern…

  • Decided to dictate what clothes players could and could not wear.
  • Vetoed a trade with quite dubious reasoning.
  • Helped stick a knife in the back of a great great NBA city.

And more!

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About Keith Mullett

Keith is an Ohio-based sports and pop culture junkie who began writing for MSF in June 2011. His ramblings about sports, music, movies and books can be further enjoyed by following him on Twitter @keithmullett.

In addition to his work for MSF, Keith operates a blog called Commercial Grade, in which he critiques television commercials from the perspective of the average viewer.


  1. Paul Taylor says:

    Terrific article. David Stern has ruined the NBA for me.Profit over what is right is pure greed. May he live in infamy as an example of a contemptable mix of ego and power.

    • Keith Mullett says:

      Thanks for reading, Paul. I’m glad you liked the article. I agree, Stern’s ego is the one thing that has defined his tenure. I still love the NBA, and that’s what makes me so passionate about anything that threatens to undermine its credibility, including the commissioner.

  2. I live in Seattle and will NEVER watch or attend an NBA game period!!! Stern should be given a life term in a cell with RATS,he would feel right at home.

  3. Stern’s suspensions of Stoudemire and Diaw in the 2007 Suns-Spurs series should be mentioned on here… Or at least in the Tim Donaghy section. Completely changed that series for the worst. #1 spot on.

    • It was a stupid rule, but it was enforced exactly according to the rule. And since the Spurs beat the Suns in 4 playoff series in that era and went a combined 16-6 against them … they had their number with or without that game.

  4. The worst part about it is that it will probably be more of the same once he retires. His successor/disciple Adam Silver is a exact copy of Stern, so we are in for more poor leadership.

  5. Stephen Boyd says:

    “D’you eat?”

    “No …. d’you??”

  6. Maybe one day people will once again believe in the free market. The Sonics owed Seattle nothing. Teams are the property of the Owners not the City and not the Fans. Blaming business people for Seattle’s failure to build an arena is ludicrous. How much is the new “proposed” Seattle arena costing and how much are taxpayers paying? give me a break

  7. I think the Vancouver deal smelled bad from the beginning. Ownership first wanted a team in the US but Stern said no. Vancouver gets a team and then later moves to Memphis, something fishy here. I am may not know all the details but it seemed like shenanigans at place here.

  8. “Popovich, meanwhile, has surely had an axe to grind against Stern and the league. If you think it’s an accident that he chose this game, under these circumstances, to pull his guys, you’re crazy.”

    You just admitted he’s rested guys in this situation before! All the evidence is that with the same pattern (2-week road trip, 4 games in 5 games, big conference matchup coming up), he would have rested them for the final game of the trip no matter who it was.

  9. I love the NBA, yet watching it for over thirty years now, it is crystal clear Stern has manipulated drafts, player/organization moves and anything else he could in order to make more money. Officials with grudges against a team who were then assigned to referee a big game involving said team was a staple of the late 80’s – early 90’s. While I appreciate you mentioning one name, Joey Crawford, you missed a whole bunch more. The one that really stands out to me was the Bulls/Steve Javie kerfuffle. He absolutely hated every player and especially Phil Jackson.

    There were times that the game resembled WWF wrestling more than basketball, at least regarding dramatic story lines and perceived slights.

    Stern certainly saved the game, but he also controlled it like a tyrant and that won’t change anytime soon.

    • What about the 1994-95 Bulls that were screwed over in the Knicks series. The Bulls were still top team that year without MJ and god forbid they win a championship without him. That would have made the league look bad. The foul call on Pippen-Starks play was absolute bs. The call changed the series. Even though I am a die hard Bulls fan I have to admit that D Rose lottery win was a fraud. The Bulls had less than 1% chance of getting #1 pick and they still got it but hey Im not complaining on that one lol

  10. ScramblinSooner says:

    Excellent point. The guy that wrote the article needs to do some serious fact checking as well. Schultz’s case was pulled by Schultz himself, after the lawsuit the city of Seattle had brought against the ownership group. They were hours away from a decision from the bench when the city settled with Bennett and the other owners, knowing they stood to lose the case outright.

  11. Stern is probably the most universally hated little Jew around.

  12. Stern runs the NBA like the Democrats and Republicans run American..It’s OK to screw over people as long as you make a profit.

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