David Stern Earned His Tough Reputation in Battles of Labor and Race

But if moving the needle on social and racial advancement were life-affirming benefits of an influential business, protecting its widespread marketability and growing the pie no matter how it eventually was sliced was always the mission that came first for Stern.

“One-nothing,” Stern said when asked if there had been a hierarchal vote on the need to go nuclear, especially on Artest, who is now known as Metta World Peace and was suspended for more than 70 games.

While Stern seldom hid from debate or debacle, the litigator in him on occasion was obscured by the autocrat. Looking back on his controversial 2011 veto of New Orleans’s trading of Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers, Stern admitted in 2016 that he should have better explained his responsibility to execute the best deal possible after the league had taken temporary ownership of the franchise during the search for a buyer.

There would be more behavioral disorder, precipitated by players, owners and even a referee, Tim Donaghy, who was prosecuted in 2007 for betting on games he worked. Labor-management conflagrations would come close to season cancellations. Reactions by Stern — the 2005 player dress code he championed, for one — would be criticized as pandering overreaction to that same segment of society he had denounced for speaking in racial code or objecting to cornrows.

During a painful and costly in-season lockout in 2011, HBO’s Bryant Gumbel went so far as to call Stern “some kind of modern plantation overseer.” Never one to waste a counterpunching opportunity, he told me in a telephone interview: “I have worked harder for inclusiveness and diversity than he could ever understand. So when I heard what he said I sat back and waited for the emails from the people who know me, who have worked with me.”

He named one, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and reminded me of how Dr. Harry Edwards, the civil rights activist, had praised him in the aftermath of the Pacers-fans brawl as “an honest broker of the product who, at the end of the day, respects the men who play in his league and the community from which they come.”

Gumbel’s charge gained little traction, but it rankled Stern — a lifelong Democrat who called President Obama’s election “profoundly transformational” — that his honest broker reputation didn’t necessarily resonate with a younger, less obliged generation.