Wednesday, March 15, 2000

NBA's Stern recognizes his folly

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        David Stern has seen the future, and it is interactive. The thoroughly modern commissioner of the fashion-forward NBA is resolved to return his game to the cutting edge of contemporary sports.

        He wants to give the fans at home the same eavesdropping opportunities as the cognoscenti at courtside. He wants his coaches wired for sound and his locker rooms equipped with cameras on the theory that more access will mean more audience.

        He may be right. But he was going about it all wrong.

        Six-figure fines for coaches who refuse to wear microphones are not only disproportionate, they are dumb. Give Stern some credit for some smarts, however. He seems to have realized his mistake.

        Barely 24 hours after the Seattle and Toronto franchises were fined $100,000 apiece because their coaches refused to wear microphones for a Sunday game, the league reached a temporary compromise Tuesday that turned a righteous cause into a minor quibble.

        Coaches were given the choice of wearing a wireless clip-on microphone or allowing a boom microphone to be stationed near their bench. It was not an ideal solution, perhaps, but it had the virtue of giving both parties a chance to save some face and get back to business. It showed Stern at his best, responding to a crisis quickly rather than allowing it to fester.

NBA needs some help
        We were starting to wonder. In his zeal to make the NBA more entertaining, Stern was drifting dangerously away from its core, which is competition. The six-figure fines suggested he had lost not only his golden touch, but his perspective; that he would trample people's privacy rights to pander to network television and the World Wide Web.

        To which one could only respond: Whoa, big fella.

        Ratings are down. Michael Jordan appears to be serious about retirement. Jordan's putative heir, Vince Carter, has been left off the Olympic team. The Los Angeles Lakers, who once made basketball resemble ballet, today dominate the game because of a 7-foot bouncer with the soft touch of a sledgehammer.

        The average fan is being priced out of the arena. The average player is an unappealing, overhyped punk. The average commissioner would have to be concerned.

        Stern is not your average commissioner. He has spent his career ahead of the curve, anticipating trends, building a marginal sports brand into a global empire. He has succeeded because he has seen the future more clearly and shaped it more aggressively than his counterparts in other sports. Paul Tagliabue is a pretty bright guy, but compared to the incandescent Stern, he is a kerosene lamp. Bud Selig? Fill in your own joke.

Game vs. glitz
        The NBA's interactive initiative is consistent with marketing trends in other industries, but it is inconsistent with the idea that the game is the thing, and not the glitz. Coaches are naturally reluctant to bring the public into their private conversations with a game on the line. They don't want everyone listening when they admonish one of their players for failing to box out. They don't need the world to know what deficiencies they have diagnosed in an opponent.

        “I follow my conscience by refusing to do less than my best during the heat of battle,” Seattle coach Paul Westphal said. “The league wants me to allow my private strategies, insights, relationships and speech to be monitored, then eventually owned by others.”

        Westphal and Toronto's Butch Carter felt so strongly about the microphone matter that they both volunteered to pay the fine out of their own pockets. The National Basketball Coaches Association was contemplating legal action.

        “I accept a failure of a type,” Stern told the New York Times. “I thought we were all on the same page on this. We are in a new generation that is used to being interactive. We want our fans to be as close as the people in the $1,200 seats.”

        That NBA teams can sell $1,200 seats is a testament to Stern's salesmanship. That NBA coaches can be fined $100,000 for refusing to wear microphones is proof of Stern's fallibility.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at


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