Former NBA commissioner David Stern died yesterday at age 77, three weeks after suffering a brain hemorrhage, and much of the coverage was along the lines of this:
Stern, wrote NBC Sports BayArea’s James Ham, rejected attempts by the Maloof family to move the team to either Anaheim or Seattle and “forced [them] to acquiesce and chose to re-enter negotiations with Sacramento on a potential new arena.” Ham quoted a Stern statement from 2016 that he’d told skeptics in the NBA office, “You know, guys, I used to do this when you were kicking the slats out of your crib. We’re going to keep this team in Sacramento. Between the mayor and the new owners, we’re getting that arena built. And stop, because now you’re pissing me off.”
That isn’t quite how it went down, though, or at least not the whole story. In the case of the Anaheim relocation in 2011, Stern gave the Maloofs plenty of rope to propose a relocation, but the owners got cold feet after they didn’t like the lease and TV rights deals being proposed. The Maloofs then proposed a new arena deal in Sacramento, which failed in a public vote after the owners themselves switched to opposing it. In 2013, attention switched to Chris Hansen’s bid to buy the team and move it to Seattle, but Stern carefully tempered his comments, noting that the NBA constitution requires taking into consideration “support for the team in the prior city” and any possible arena upgrades there before approving a move; the commissioner also repeatedly urged Sacramento buyers to up their bids for the team, and Sacramento city officials to guarantee public subsidies for a new arena, under pain of a potential move. Yes, eventually the NBA owners voted down the Seattle move, reportedly after Stern advocated for the team staying in Sacramento — but Stern was advocating for the team to stay after using the move threat to extract a higher purchase price and more arena subsidies, which is a different thing altogether. And even after the Kings’ future was supposedly secured in Sacramento, Stern wasn’t above rattling sabers about the team moving to Seattle after all if an arena wasn’t built posthaste.
And too, let’s not forget that Stern was in part behind Seattle losing its NBA team a few years earlier, blaming local officials over and over again for not “supporting” the Supersonics by building them a new arena, and threatening that “if the team moves, there’s not going to be another team there, not in any conceivable future plan that I could envision, and that would be too bad.” (Which could be another reason Stern was opposed to letting the Kings move there: It would have made it look like he wasn’t serious about his threats.)
The point here isn’t to badmouth Stern after his passing — after all, his job was to be NBA commissioner, and trying to leverage both new owners and cities for the most cash possible is exactly what the NBA owners were paying him to do. And he certainly seemed to have a more coherent strategy for it than some other sports leagues I could name. But it’s important not to let rose-colored mythologizing get in the way of actual history: David Stern was a guy who, faced with a bunch of owners looking for a quick cash grab from a move, replied, Calm down and let’s see if we can keep the team in town and get the money and also keep another potential expansion target in reserve, because that’s how you make the real money. Now stop, because you’re pissing me off. R.I.P.