BY EVAN WEINER
THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
There is an old television industry joke whenever the name Gumbel is bandied about. It goes something like this. "Which Gumbel, the good Gumbel Greg? Or is it the bad Gumbel Bryant?" The "bad" Gumbel, Bryant, let loose with yet another opinion last week on his thoughts about the National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern and the NBA’s owners induced work stoppage.
The NBA owners have locked out a certain segment of the employees — the players.
Gumbel's "editorial" on his HBO “Real Sports” show is rather pointed and is a personal attack on Stern and his role in the negotiations between the owners and players.
What Gumbel didn't point out is that David Stern works for 29 owners and they apparently are supporting him in his role as NBA owners’ negotiator.
If the 29 NBA owners were upset with Stern, he would have been replaced at the bargaining table with someone else. In the 1994 Major League Baseball strike, the owners dumped Richard Ravitch as the chief bargainer and replaced him with Randy Levine.
What is troubling about Gumbel's characterization of Stern (Note, I do not get along with Stern who can be bullying and sarcastic and condescending although he is the commissioner who has raised the bar and has forced other sports owners, leagues and entities to ramp up in their pursuit of modern technology. Stern also took a page out of the old Ed Sullivan show by making a NBA game an event rather than a mere athletic competition by pointing out what celebrities were at games and having celebrities promote the game as in the NBA is Fan-tastic. Stern has pushed his product globally although he has gotten lucky during his career with favorable United States federal legislation such as the 1984 Cable TV Act and the 1986 reform of the tax codes which enabled owners to increase revenues from cable TV and municipal officials desire to become "major league cities" and build publicly owned arenas and giving owners sweetheart leases.)
Gumble likened Stern to a southern plantation owner prior to the Civil War.
“If the NBA lockout is going to be resolved any time soon, it seems likely to be done in spite of David Stern, not because of him,” Gumbel said. “I say that because the NBA's infamously egocentric commissioner seems more hell bent lately on demeaning the players than resolving his game’s labor impasse.
“How else to explain Stern’s rants in recent days?" said Gumbel in his opinion piece. "To any and everyone who’d listen, he has alternatively knocked union leader Billy Hunter, said the players were getting inaccurate information and started sounding Chicken Little claims about what games might be lost if players didn't soon see things his way.
“Stern’s version of what’s been going on behind closed doors has, of course, been disputed. But his efforts were typical of a commissioner who has always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys.
“It’s part of Stern’s M.O., like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials, his moves are intended to do little more than show how he's the one keeping the hired hands in their place.
“Some will, of course, cringe at that characterization, but Stern’s disdain for the players is as palpable and pathetic as his motives are transparent. Yes, the NBA's business model is broken, but to fix it maybe the league’s commissioner should concern himself most with the solution and stop being part of the problem.”
Stern, who used to stop by the Westchester Democrats functions, is no racist nor does he have a "modern plantation overseer" mentality. The NBA is Stern's life and he wants to sell a presentable product to consumers and he zealously guards over the league. Back in 1983-84 Stern was part of an owners/players group, which faced numerous problems. The league was too black, too many drug addicts were on rosters, the owners were losing money and there was a possibility of contracting seven teams.
The NBA of David Stern's days as a counsel in the late 1970s included the use of a telethon to save a franchise — Indiana — and tape delayed games on CBS in the finals.
The 1983 collective bargaining agreement which was authored by Stern, Russell Granik, Gary Bettman (who invented the salary cap) from the owners side and National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Lawrence Fleisher and his players is credited with saving the NBA and allowed the new Commissioner Stern (he got the job in 1984) to sell the game globally.
Stern got help from Phil Knight and NIKE and other advertisers in promoting Michael Jordan globally. Stern and the NBA marketers were able to turn a conception — the 1983 NBA is too black — into a global behemoth.
If Gumbel wants to use the plantation mentality mantra let him also discuss this nugget from 1964. It seems Los Angeles Lakers owner Bob Short was ready to evict his resident superstar Elgin Baylor from the NBA in a labor dispute as Tommy Heinsohn recalled.
The National Basketball Players Association came into existence in 1956, but it would not be until 1964 that the players would relax their collective muscle and threaten the owners with a work stoppage in demands were not met. The nationally televised NBA All-Star Game in Boston almost did not come off for two reasons. There was a blizzard and there was an All-Star vote to boycott the game without a new collective bargaining agreement.
The owners never took the players association or player demands seriously and beginning in the fall of 1963, the players became more assertive.
"That was the All-Star Game in which the association was finally recognized as a bargaining unit," said Heinsohn, who was the head of the group and a Boston Celtics player at the time. "There was a new Commissioner, Walter Kennedy. Maurice Podoloff, who had been the Commissioner, refused to meet with us. Gave us lip service at times and just infuriated the players.
"It all came to a head at this All-Star Game because Walter Kennedy, even when Larry Fleisher who was the Director of the Players Association. We met with Kennedy in Stamford, Connecticut and he promised to give us a hearing in front of all the Governors and we brought in all the officers in October, 1963 and they had all of us cool our heels in the hotel lobby and never did see us.