Don’t Hail “King” David Stern

During labor disputes, sports commissioners are typically relegated to useless entities. But during the NBA lockout commissioner David Stern bucked the trend and assumed the persona of the evil king by wielding his mighty ax and chopping off the schedule one limb at a time. It was the only real power he had. But he had so much fun he decided to take it a royal step further. “King” David couldn’t prevent Carmelo Anthony from being traded to the New York Knicks last season, but he was determined to use his power to stop the NBA-run New Orleans Hornets from sending Chris Paul to the storied Los Angeles Lakers. “Basketball reasons” he explained. Yeah, sure.

Little did he care that it was a three-way deal that would have benefited the Hornets and the Houston Rockets, two franchises badly in need of transfusions. Yes, Paul teaming up with Kobe Bryant would have been fascinating, but the Lakers would not necessarily have been a better team because by losing Pao Gasol and Lamar Odom in the deal they would have decimated the most successful and proven frontcourt in the league. Nevertheless, this trade would’ve been good for league parity, “King” David’s biggest rallying cry.

But instead, he weaseled his way to get Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for a (ahem) “King’s” ransom, which gives the desperate Hornets some collateral to attract a buyer with. However, the real dream-come-true for “King” David is that the the Clippers are a small market operation trapped in one of the biggest markets in the league because Donald Sterling has long been one of the worst owners in sports.

The Chris Paul/Blake Griffin combo will produce tons of highlights and, at least for now, the Lakers/Clippers rivalry finally exists for the first time since 1984 when the Clips rolled into town from San Diego like a tumbleweed. Everybody’s happy, right? Of course not. Nuking the original trade left the following fallout: The Lakers are steaming mad not only by having Paul yanked away, but now he’ll be playing in their arena for the other occupants. Odom, after pretty much claiming his feelings were hurt, was traded anyway for virtually nothing, making the Lakers an easier match for the Clippers; the Rockets were left to scramble to sign free agent Samuel Dalembert, and the NBA’s credibility is in damage control. The “King” has spoken.

So what’s next, Your Majesty? Going to bring back the reserve clause? Abolish free agency? Declare martial law? No, wait! Here’s an idea fit for a “King.” How about a syndicate system where two or more franchises have common ownership? They can make any player go anywhere they want. Major League Baseball tried that in the 19th Century to the tune of historic failure. The concept was originally designed to keep the poorer franchises afloat with richer owners owning stock in other teams in addition to their own. However, as human nature often dictates, greed took over and the end results were unavoidable.

The worst case involved Frederick and Stanley Roberson, owners of the National League’s Cleveland Spiders, a very good team during the 1890s that featured none other than Hall of Famer Cy Young in his prime. The St. Louis Browns (who would become the Cardinals in 1900 after being called the Perfectos for one season) annually fielded the worst team in the league despite playing in the fourth largest city in the country at the time.

Before the 1899 season the Robersons began buying their way into the Browns franchise. Once they gained controlling interest they began transferring the contracts of Cleveland’s best players to St. Louis so they could combine the good team with the big market. This practice among owners, while not uncommon, was usually done clandestinely. But what the Robersons were doing was way beyond flagrant and they were able to get away with it because there were no regulations preventing it.

Meanwhile, the Spiders were left with has-beens, rejects and minor leaguers and went on to set every possible record for futility by going 20-134 and finishing 84 games out of first place. Naturally, attendance dropped like a safe (in fact, the Spiders had to play 112 of their games on the road to avoid abuse from what few fans remained) and the franchise folded after the season. This brought an end to syndicate ownership for good.

The reason for this comparison is because “King” David is dragging the business side of the NBA down to the shady levels of 19th Century baseball. Since the Hornets are operated by the league, he saw an opportunity to intervene by ramming his own authority through that franchise just to make sure a superstar goes where “King” David wants him to go, not where the player wants to go, or even where the GM wants to trade him to. This is very different from a typical meddling owner and it reeks of the worst kind of power play imaginable, especially coming off a lockout where the players’ freedom of movement was a major focal point.

[Side note: Do you think Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, still smarting from the LeBron James disaster, would have objected to the original Chris Paul trade so vehemently if the Hornets had regular ownership? David may be “King,” but the owners hold the mortgage on his castle. That could be one of the many rubs here.]

This isn’t the first time “King” David has had a hand in underhandedness. He helped orchestrate the one-sided trades that sent Pao Gasol to the Lakers and Kevin Garnett to Boston in order to resuscitate the Lakers/Celtics rivalry because the NBA product had grown stagnant at that point. An obvious giveaway that the fix was in was that Gasol came from the Memphis Grizzlies, who just so happened to be run by former Laker great Jerry West, and Garnett came from the Minnesota Timberwolves, who just so happened to be run by former Celtic great Kevin McHale. Convenient, huh?

Not only that, L.A.’s GM was former Laker Mitch Kupchak and Boston’s GM was former Celtic Danny Ainge and neither of them had much success to that point, to say the least. Those guys didn’t become geniuses overnight and there’s no way Donald Sterling had anything to do with acquiring Chris Paul. All these situations were the “King’s” edicts.

The best thing that could happen to “King” David’s power and glory is if in 2013, Chris Paul becomes a free agent and signs with New York, the biggest market of them all, which was his first choice all along (allegedly). It could very easily happen – unless “King” David decides to intervene again. Frighteningly, that could very easily happen too.

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