NBA Commissioner David Stern gave America a clumsy glimpse into the mind of a lawyer Wednesday when he asked Jim Rome if he was still beating his wife. Apparently, this rhetorical device is used in response to loaded questions in law school. I didn't go to law school. Like many others, when I heard Stern's question, I actually wondered if Rome -- a friend of mine -- beat his wife.
It was an inappropriate response.
It's a shame because Rome threw Stern a softball. He asked if the lottery was rigged in a way that made it easy for the commissioner to laugh the question off, or even give a terse answer before quickly moving on to something else. Instead, Stern tried to pick a fight. Now, rather than discussing the most compelling NBA Finals in over two decades, we're still talking about the lottery, and the Chris Paul trade, and everything the NBA ever did that looked the littlest bit shaky. Stern blew it.
He has to face reality. Many people think the lottery was fixed. Most of them are irrational, but those who ask the question are not. The team the league recently owned, for whom it struggled to find a buyer, won one of the rare lotteries where the top pick was expected by many to blossom into a franchise cornerstone. That same team made front page news in December when, "for basketball reasons," officially became part of the sporting lexicon. Those two events do not a conspiracy make, but they're enough to make reasonable people ask questions.
It's basketball. Like it or not, much like boxing, there will always be an air of skepticism surrounding anything that happens in this game. We've seen point-shaving scandals dating back to purported eras of innocence. All-time great coaches have had their accomplishments stained by the actions of the scurrilous. And common sense tells us basketball officials have more control over outcomes than any arbiters outside of home plate umpires. Bit players can swing things greatly, as you'll probably hear as Henry Hill, who ran a point-shaving hustle at Boston College, is remembered.
The man in charge of the sport's most prominent league cannot act as if he has no idea why people have doubts. There have been questions for decades, and dismissing those queries only ensure they will never go away. Stern, per usual, may be the smartest person in the room. He may have been the smartest person on Jim Rome's show. But at this point, after all things Hornets, the hasty way the Donaghy case came and went and a lottery result that demands scrutiny in the face of obvious conflict of interest have made that irrelevant. David Stern is very smart, but his credibility is at an all-time low.
Maybe people should be too smart to believe every NBA team, Ernst & Young and the journalists who could have viewed lottery had they wanted would be privy to an elaborate conspiracy (and federal crime). That simply doesn't matter.
Stern knows being right isn't worth the fight sometimes. He seemed to make such a call during last year's lockout. His owners were running the risk of irreparably damaging a league set to enter a Golden Age. He knew the thirst to cripple the union and guarantee future profits could blow up in everyone's faces. But he showed up to every press conference and carried his bosses' water. When the cameras were on, he abandoned all the good sense he's acquired in his 69 years on Earth and 34 in the NBA and faked it. He never sounded happy about it, and there was a discernible trepidation in his voice as he drew lines in the sand for Dan Gilbert and others.
But he did it, because that was what he had to do. So why can't he do it now for the public? They obviously need reassurance.
Who cares if Stern should have to make people feel better? He shouldn't have had to tell his players to put on suits so as to make fans more comfortable, but he did it. In fact, the NBA has gone to great lengths to get players to do whatever they could, even things they found culturally insulting, because it was necessary for the league. The individual interests of players -- especially on things with little consequence in the grand scheme -- would no longer interfere with the goals of the league that made it all possible. But Stern himself refuses to toe that line, as if he has no obligation to his customers.
That's the deal he signed up for when the league took ownership of the Hornets. It may have been necessary, but the conflict of interest was obvious. From the moment the league acquired the team, it should have been ready at every turn for questions about malfeasance. Stern knows conflict of interest is about the appearance of impropriety, not its actual presence, and this whole situation looked bad. All of these things, even before the Chris Paul trade was shut down, demanded the commissioner put on his best face on everything and assure anyone watching this deal was on the up-and-up.
Rome gave him an easy opportunity to do that. 15 years ago, Stern would have chuckled and given whatever answer would make everything better. The last year or two make it easy to forget there are few PR men in sports better than David Stern. He can be every bit as charming as he wants. Wednesday, he didn't feel like it.
Hopefully, it was worth it. Now, more people than ever wonder about the lottery. Rather than explain it to them, Stern decided to talk about them like they're stupid and to Jim Rome as if he were above it all. He's not. Rather than come to his fans' level to make sense of things, he stooped so low that few will hear what he says next.
Which is a shame, because people still have questions, and David Stern still owes them answers. Without them, they'll continue to draw their own conclusions. Again.
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