To fill the summer of basketball despair, I’ve taken to my usual summer NBA habit — reading old books about the league — with more zest than usual. One old read, David Halberstam’s Breaks of the Game, sits front and center on the eye-level shelf of my bookcase as a prized possession. Until now, though, I never got around to reading his Playing for Keeps, mostly because Michael Jordan always appeared so overexposed. It didn’t seem necessary to read anything extra about him. But Playing for Keeps is a tremendous read (although I say that without quite having finished it yet.)
In any case, I just had to share a piece of Halberstam’s slick prose that relates to David Stern. It struck me as so unbelievably contrary to the image Stern has cultivated (or rather, accumulated) over recent years; the first read of it nearly caused me to choke on my Froot Loops. It recalls Stern’s pre-commisioner days, when he devoted nearly all of his legal career to cases associated with professional basketball.
Later, when (Stern) did the depositions in the Oscar Robertson case, where the Players’ Association had challenged the right of teams to control the players’ freedom of choice and movement, he found himself interviewing players such as Robertson, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Bradley, and Dave DeBusschere. He was enormously impressed by their intelligence and essential decency and goodness. Great athletic stars, who could readily have been arrogant, seemed instead to have an abiding degree of common sense, modesty, and inner toughness. If there was one lesson he was learning, it was that the league was its players, nothing more, nothing less, and that the best of these players, white and black, were uncommon men. More often than not, they were self-made, some of them the first generation in their families ever to be a success. They were men who had often lifted themselves up by the hardest work to reach their lofty positions. In time, when Stern eventually became commissioner, that simple perception served him well. Because most commissioners in professional sports are chosen by the owners, they are to all intents and purposes little more than the owners’ man, but Stern was different. He came in with such a love of the sport that even though he was good with the owners and performed admirably for them, there was a large part of his soul that was committed to the game itself — which meant it was committed to the players.
Halberstam was a decidedly fair and balanced author (© Fox ‘News’, 2001), but are you familiar with THAT David Stern? If David Stern even has a soul, is a large chunk of it dedicated to the players? (I’m ending with two questions because I just don’t know what to make of this narrative on Stern. Nothing. I’m speechless.)