David Stern, who made sure Kings extorted Sacramento for cash instead of Anaheim or Seattle, has died

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.)

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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.


15 comments on “David Stern, who made sure Kings extorted Sacramento for cash instead of Anaheim or Seattle, has died

  1. For all this talk about Stern being this great visionary who grew the game, let me ask: what did he actually do, other than happen to be the guy in charge when Magic, Larry and MJ showed up?

    • I also see reference to the huge increase in franchise values, which, it true of all four major sports over that same timespan. It is almost like exogenous factors were driving sector growth, not brilliant management.

    • Do the names Chamberlain, Erving, Russell, Walton, Frazier and Hayes mean anything at all to you? How about Maravich and Abdul-Jabbar?

      The NBA had stars long before Johnson, Bird and Jordan showed up. Big, Big Stars.

    • John, sadly yes. As well as this, word for word.

      https://youtu.be/_s9yZhBTiFI

      Even recognize John Havlicek and Jerry West in the clip.

      Boston Garden. Buffalo Auditorium. Center Coliseum. Chicago Stadium. Cobo Hall. The Forum. Freedom Hall. Kemper Arena. McNichols Arena. Milwaukee Arena. The Omni. The Salt Palace. The Spectrum. Veterans Memorial Coliseum (Arizona and Portland).

      A time long forgotten. When arenas and coliseums were named for their city or a human being. Not a corporation. Wrigley Field doesn’t count …..

      We can all thank Sacramento for starting the corporate ball rolling down the hill. In 1985, Atlantic Richfield aka ARCO plastered their name on the new Sacramento Kings Arena (ARCO Arena I. ARCO Arena II came along in 1988). Who’d have guessed back then it’d become a world wide trend. Sacramento, you trend setter you!

      The early to mid 70’s. A more innocent time in sports. Sports was an escape from the political and social upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s. Or maybe I was just that naive a young adult.

      All of this prior to Commissioner Emeritus David Stern.

  2. David Stern was hardly without his major missteps and contentious decisions: multiple lockouts, keeping Don Sterling around for far too long, the dress code controversy, stringing multiple fanbases around (Seattle and Sacto chief among them), the works. I think it’s okay to acknowledge that his legacy does include significant stains and drawbacks, and that not everything he did to help build the NBA into what it is today — one of the most globalized, profitable leagues on the planet — was done purely for the benefit of the fans and the sport at large.

    Even if it isn’t… well, decorum died in 2016, anyway.

  3. >which failed in a public vote after the owners themselves switched to opposing it.

    Goddamn have I really been following this shit closely for that long. I remember this clearly and as though it was pretty recent.

  4. Stern was no angel and he did all the things listed above (for better or worse, and definitely always for the benefit of the owners above all).

    That said, the story has long been told of where the NBA was when he took over… the storied Finals (TM) were being shown on tape delay after the CBS late local news.

    There are plenty of negatives to point out, but he is rightly creditted with turning around a moribund league with limited tv appeal.

  5. It’s worth noting here of all places on the web that the Sonics relocation happened after less than 10 years after Seattle had paid for a remodel of the Sonic’s arena according to their specifications and Mr Stern publicly praised the finished work. Soon after, the NBA arena business model changed and the new owner of the Sonics wanted the city to pay for a shiny new facility built on the new model. The city, already paying for new pro baseball, football, and basketball venues strongly voted down adding a second NBA arena. Mr Stern took the opportunity to wrangle the sale of the team to owners that overpaid for the team, boosting franchise values throughout the league, to a group openly desiring a team in their own hometown. This gave the league the cudgel that benefited the NHL and MLB, the market hungry to steal your hometown team unless you give us the new place we want. Stern was a leader of the gang of grifters that this blog documents so well.

  6. Either way this city is getting fleeced by The Kings or Measure U or Prop 6. At least Golden 1 Center is Light Rail accessible for me.

    • Let the fleecing continue!

      City to spend $340 million on renovation of the Sacramento Convention Center, the Sacramento Community Center Theater (excuse me, SAFE CU Preforming Arts Center) and temporary conversion of the 1927 Memorial Auditorium into a theater while the other is out of commission.

      City to loan $27 of the $33 million to SSEH, Sacramento Soccer & Entertainment Holdings LLC, for MLS “soccer specific” stadium. Loan payback is via property taxes on SSEH’s 31 acres in the Railyards, property taxes SSEH would normally have to pay.

      Cost of stadium has has jumped from $252 to $305 million per Sacramento Bee news article by Tony Bizjak dated November 11, 2019 behind paywall. Article titled “New fan amenities added to Sacramento soccer stadium design, driving up cost above $300 million.”

      However, these “new fan amenities” are the very same disclosed in SoccerStadiumDigest article titled “New Sacramento Republic FC Stadium Renderings Unveiled” dated April 3, 2019.

      So, does that mean SSEH knew the stadium’s $50 million cost increase and sat on it for 7 months, after the awarding of the MLS franchise. Or SSEH was ignorant as to the cost increase, I find the latter hard to believe (education and ignorance are choices).

      Lastly, Ron Burkle did not become a billionaire by spending his money (see Pittsburgh Penguins and PPG Paints Arena; https://www.cbc.ca/sports/hockey/penguins-reach-agreement-on-new-arena-1.651171 ). Again, I find it hard to believe SSEH is going to spend $500 million, $200 million for the MLS expansion fee and $300 million for the stadium. Stay tuned. I believe there will be more tif in Sacramento’s future, that we may or may not find out about.

  7. I’m old enough to remember how things were in the NBA when Larry O’Brien was commissioner and they were NOT GOOD. I was a diehard Sonics fan growing up in Seattle all the way back to when the stars were Lenny Wilkens and Bob Rule, but haven’t watched an NBA game on TV since 2013 because the league had become so structured and just wasn’t FUN anymore. I chose to watch college and prep hoops and now that I’ve moved to the Philippines, it’ll be the PBA, MPBL and colleges. It’s still basketball.

    Still, it did grow and grow and grow, and Stern deserves a lot of credit for that. A lousy human being who could be charitably called Machiavellian, but probably the most effective commissioner in pro sports since Pete Rozelle. I have to give the devil his due.

  8. In fairness to Stern, under his watch the NBA was the first to play regular season games overseas (basketball is more universal than the other three stick and ball sports), created the WNBA and the NBA development league (although I’m not sure how much development is actually done but with many players going pro after their freshman year…40 years ago it was a bit of a shock that Magic Johnson left college early).

    It is also part of his legacy that, like Hollywood, the NBA kowtows to the communist China dictators. Stern and Silver are interested in the money

    • I suspect that the people running China today have A LOT more in common with NBA franchise owners than they do with actual communists. Name me a world leader that isn’t more interested in money than ideology. Hint: It would have to be someone who could but doesn’t sell military hardware to rogue nations… I can’t name one, can you?

      Nevertheless, Stern famously mailed Videotapes of NBA games to Chinese state television in the 1980s to try to build support for the game (the NBA’s version, of course).

      It seems to have worked. Everyone in the NBA is richer because of that sort of effort at expanding the brand. And let’s face it, where money is concerned pretty much all of us practice subjective morality. Especially world leaders, CEOs and sports league commissioners.