This might come as a shock to some, but I'm a huge fan of David Stern.
The Assassination of Popovich by the Coward Stern
But what's the real reason Popovich did it? Why bench the "Big 3" (and Danny Green, who must be absolutely elated at the company he now keeps) and fly them home?
I know, you're thinking, "Why would a Spurs fan like that guy? Didn't he fine Gregg Popovich $250,000 for not playing his best guys in the fourth road game in five nights? Doesn't he have some kind of vendetta against the Spurs?"
Yes, it's true, I haven't always seen eye to eye with Stern's way of doing things. I admit, there have been a couple times where I've felt the officiating went deliberately against the Spurs in the postseason, in 2006 and 2012, to be specific. There have been times where I've felt that they've been jobbed by the scheduling, or with the team's general lack of promotion, or even on fishy trades that benefited the Lakers.
In the big picture though, all those petty sleights and whack-job conspiracy theories pale in comparison to what really matters, to what Stern has helped foster for basketball fans across the globe. He is more responsible for the success and popularity of this sport than Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird put together. Shaquille O'Neal? LeBron James? Yao Ming? Their legacies are nothing compared to Stern's. It's not even close.
To understand why I admire the man so much, all you'd have to do is go back in time a couple of months, to December 2nd, when the Spurs beat the Atlanta Hawks 102-100. In that game there was this stretch in the third quarter where the five Spurs on the floor were Tony Parker, a Frenchman born in Bruges, Belgium to a Dutch mother and a father from Chicago; Manu Ginobili, who hailed from Bahia Blanca, Argentina, whose grandparents were Italian immigrants; Tim Duncan from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, who only took up the sport of basketball after his hometown swimming pool was destroyed by Hurricane Hugo; defensive bedrock Tiago Splitter, a native of Joinville, Brazil; and new addition Marco Belinelli, who was a teammate of Ginobili's once upon a time in his hometown of Bologna, Italy.
After a couple of minutes the Spurs subbed out Splitter and brought in Boris Diaw, of Cormeille-en-Parisis, France, a close friend of Parker since their basketball academy days in their early teens. A short time later Parker heads to the bench in favor of Patty Mills, from Canberra, Australia. In all, 10 of the 15 men on the Spurs roster are foreign born, and six of them never attended an American college.
Of course the original "Dream Team" that won the gold medal in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona is what opened the floodgates for the game's international popularity, inspiring not just the Ginobili's and Parker's of the world but also the Gasol brothers in Spain, Dirk Nowitzki in Germany, Yao in China and countless others.
Though the idea of letting American professionals play in the games was the brainchild of a Serbian FIBA Secretary General named Borislav Stankovic and was then shepherded along by a few league and USA Basketball executives, among them Russ Granik and Dave Gavitt, it was Stern that got Magic Johnson to buy in. This was no small feat at the time since he had recently retired from the NBA after announcing that he was HIV-positive. The world didn't have the knowledge or information about HIV or AIDS then that it does now, and there was a lot of controversy about Johnson's inclusion in the team, but Stern never wavered in his stance that Johnson should play. Once Johnson was on board, he got Larry Bird to commit, even though he was practically in traction by that point with a chronic back ailment that would soon force his retirement. Getting Johnson and Bird to sign on was the only way they could convince Michael Jordan to give up his summer for the cause. Jordan initially wanted no part of the Games, having already won a gold medal as a collegian in 1984.
Team USA would've assuredly won the gold anyway without those three legends, but there's no telling how much more influence and exposure that team had on the basketball-obsessed youngsters of the world than it would have if the main attractions were Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing.
Though the Spurs have been a contending team for the entirety of Duncan's remarkable 16-year --and counting-- career, it's no secret that they've never been what one would consider a marquee draw either in road ticket sales, apparel, or television ratings. However, they were positively glamorous compared to their opponents on that night, the Atlanta Hawks, a middling Eastern conference club whose flashiest star, Josh Smith, left for Detroit in free agency the past summer. It would've taken quite the leap of faith for league television executives to put this match-up on national television on a Monday night in early December, especially opposite an NFL game featuring two upper-echelon teams in the Seattle Seahawks and the New Orleans Saints.
Yet, there I was, blissfully ignoring the concussion-fest the rest of the country was watching because I got to enjoy instead Duncan's thrilling game-winning jumper to vanquish the woebegone Hawks. I took in the game from the relative comfort of my apartment in Redwood City, California, thousands of miles away from San Antonio or Atlanta, and it didn't concern me in the slightest that I wasn't one of a handful of people within driving distance watching the Spurs play. Thanks to the magic of League Pass, I get to watch all of their games (though I wish I couldn't right now with their injury epidemic).
Stern saw all of this coming a long time ago.
In David Aldridge's excellent oral history on the retiring commissioner, he ran an excerpt from a Sports Illustrated profile from 23 years ago, showing just how prescient and visionary Stern was:
" ... .What Stern does envision is bouncing a scrambled signal of local telecasts of NBA games off a satellite and making pay-per-package deals of those telecasts available to sports bars and private homes that are equipped with satellite dishes. Perhaps as early as next year, a Celtics fan living in Detroit, say, will be able, for a small fee, to watch his beloved Green play 82 games a year."
-- Sports Illustrated, June 3, 1991
It was also Stern, who's unfairly labeled as being in bed with the big-market teams, who ushered in the league's salary cap, which has given teams from every geographical area the ability to financially compete for the title. Sure, there are all kinds of loopholes in the system, but teams that spend over the cap are heavily taxed and those penalties are spread out to the wiser-spending clubs and the league's ever-expanding television revenues gets split evenly as well.
The Spurs have been basketball's answer to the Moneyball Oakland A's, scouring the world for undervalued and untapped talent, finding Ginobili with the penultimate pick of the 1999 draft and Parker two years later late in the first round, but thanks to the salary cap they've been able to hold on to their three future Hall-of-Famers and have won four championships, while the A's, stuck to their meager budget, have to recycle their roster every couple of years, with no continuity whatsoever. Without Stern's cap, it's quite conceivable the Spurs wouldn't have even been able to keep the franchise in San Antonio all this time.
So yeah, maybe it is surprising to read a Spurs fan gush about Stern, but imagine jumping out of a wormhole into his New York office in 1984 and getting to tell him that you're a Spurs fan living in California that gets to watch all of their games --live-- thanks to satellite signals beamed to your home television, that the franchise has won four titles and that their Hall-of-Fame-bound players hail from France, from Argentina, and from some tiny island in the Caribbean. Go explain to him that his league, which barely exceeded $100 million in revenues when he took over as commissioner, would gross over $5.5 billion annually 30 years later, with the games broadcast to 212 countries in 42 languages.
Now that's surprising.
I don't know how fans of other teams feel, but personally I'm going to miss the heck out of David Stern.