NBA Commissioner Stern Helped League Grow

Audie Cornish talks to sportswriter Stefan Fatsis about National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern, who has announced he will step down in early 2014.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The National Basketball Association's regular season begins next week, and it will be the last full season run by David Stern, the league's commissioner since 1984. Stern announced yesterday that he would step down in early 2014. For more on his legacy, we're joined once again by sportswriter Stefan Fatsis. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: Now, Stefan, of course, the league really benefited over the years from players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, but when David Stern took over, the NBA wasn't exactly a global brand. I mean, how much credit should he get?

FATSIS: I think Stern should get a lot of credit. The NBA was really on the margins when he was working as a young lawyer for the league and was named commissioner. This was an era - the late '70s, early '80s, even after Magic and Bird had joined the NBA - when some playoff games were broadcast on tape delay. Stern used marketing, deal-making, discipline to overhaul the league's business and its image. Today, the NBA is a $5 billion a year business, a billion of that comes from television. Games are shown across most of the planet. Player salaries have soared 20 times to an average of $5 million.

CORNISH: But it hasn't always been smooth sailing. I mean, it was just last year the NBA had a shortened season because of a labor dispute.

FATSIS: Yeah. The second under Stern. And there've been plenty of crises over the years. TV ratings were awful just a decade after Michael Jordan's hiatus from the game. There was that brawl between players and fans in Detroit. There was a gambling scandal involving a referee. There have been franchise failures. Stern, though, has approached each bump with a sort of stuff-happens equanimity. He reminds the public all the time that businesses are cyclical. Behind the scenes, he's been honest, tough, decisive. His critics say dismissive and autocratic. But without those qualities, the NBA is nowhere near what it is today.

CORNISH: Has the NBA hinted at who night be next in line to take over from David Stern?

FATSIS: No hinting. They said that his longtime deputy, 50-year-old Adam Silver, was named commissioner-elect and will take over on February 1, 2014.

CORNISH: Now, the new season starts Tuesday night with three games, including the defending champion Miami Heat hosting their Eastern Conference rivals, the Boston Celtics. Some big teams have made some big changes. So can you run through some of them?

FATSIS: Yeah. Ray Allen, a shooter from Boston, has gone to Miami. He's going to join LeBron James and Dwayne Wade there. The challengers to the Heat should come from out west. Last season's runners-up, the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Denver Nuggets are looking good; the Los Angeles Lakers, who added two of the game's biggest stars, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to a team that already includes Kobe Bryant and Pao Gasol. Last year's New York media sensation, Jeremy Lin from Harvard, he's playing in Houston now, and he's joined there by a compelling rookie named Royce White. He suffers from anxiety disorder. He's going to be driving to as many games as possible with the team's consent because he's afraid of flying.

CORNISH: And, Stefan, I understand the league is also going to crack down on something called flopping.

FATSIS: Yeah. Flopping is that act of exaggerating contact in an attempt to deceive the referee and draw a foul call or to deceive fans into thinking that a foul should have been called. And depending on who you talk to, it's reached epidemic proportions in the NBA, guys flailing and falling at the slightest touch. So the league said it's going to review tape of possible flops and issue fines up to $30,000 for a fifth flop with suspensions if you flop even more. The players' union is contesting the penalties, but the players really don't seem to mind. Kobe Bryant said shameless flopping, that's a chump move.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: OK. Finally, let's talk about women's basketball. The Indiana Fever won the WNBA championship this week, three games to one over the Minnesota Lynx. And one of college basketball's most respected coaches made a proposal to change the game. Tell us more.

FATSIS: Yeah. Geno Auriemma, the coach of the University of Connecticut, suggested that the height of the rim in women's basketball be reduced by 7 inches from the standard 10 feet. And his rationale is pretty sound: Women players are on average shorter and smaller than men. A lower basket could help improve shooting, generate more offense, and that could attract more fans. It would be very tough to implement. There's not a lot of practice being done on 9-foot-5-inch hoops right now. But you've got to admit this is an interesting idea.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis joins us most Fridays to talk about sports and the business of sports. You can hear more of him on slate.com's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Stefan, thank you.

FATSIS: Thanks, Audie.

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