The other day I watched the Malice at the Palace documentary on Netflix, and it helped to crystallize a lot of thoughts I'd been having about the sports league I've enjoyed since I was 11 years old, and my opinions toward its much-lauded former commissioner, David Stern. What follows are those thoughts and opinions:
When David Stern took over as NBA commissioner in 1984, the league was in trouble. TV ratings were so low that the NBA Finals was broadcast on tape delay. Widespread substance abuse problems eroded the quality of play and caused a PR nightmare. And even as prominent voices were arguing that the civil rights movement of the ‘60s had “solved” racism, the media was still racist enough that sports commentators could argue (out loud!) that the NBA was unpopular because it had "too many" Black players in it. When TV news polled sports fans at stadiums and bars, they felt perfectly comfortable looking right into the camera and saying that Larry Bird was their favorite player because he was white.
Even as the league’s fortunes improved thanks to a new crop of all-time great players, better marketing, and a strict drug policy, the racism was still there, waiting to burst into view. It happened during the 1994 FIBA World Championships, when a team including Shaquille O’Neal, Shawn Kemp, and Larry Johnson easily won the gold medal but was criticized in the media for being loud and boisterous in the process. It was okay for them to win, but the white-dominated media cringed at the sight of them expressing pride in their abilities. The team was condemned for “loud” and “thuggish” behavior. The subtext was clear: Black athletes were expected to compete with the greatest intensity, but they were only allowed to express emotion in a narrow, restrained range that white people deemed non-threatening.
The racism bubbled up again during the 1999 lockout, which the media blamed entirely on “spoiled” and “overpaid” Black players, the clear inference being that these guys didn’t really “deserve” the millions they made. Nobody ever wondered if the billionaire franchise owners who wrote those checks deserved their wealth. Through it all, that 1980s memory of an NBA teetering on the edge of an abyss was never far from David Stern’s mind. He was terrified of alienating any white fans, no matter how racist they were. So rather than push back even a little against racist media narratives, Stern always took the cowardly way out. Every single time.
After the so-called “Malice at the Palace” in 2004, where an arena full of predominately white fans in Detroit rioted and attacked the Indiana Pacers, the media quickly turned on the Pacers players. Yes, Ron Artest went into the stands. Stephen Jackson followed to support his teammate. Jermaine O’Neal threw a punch at a fan who came down onto the court. But the riot (I refuse to call it a “brawl”) was instigated by a fan throwing a beer at Artest. And footage from that night shows the predominately white mob relentlessly pelting the Indiana players with drinks, cups, bottles and food as they desperately tried to leave the court. One person even threw a chair. Criminal investigations largely cleared the players of any wrongdoing.
Of course, the footage of white people behaving badly wasn’t what was repeated ad infinitum on ESPN and cable news channels in the days and weeks afterward. All we saw was Artest and Jackson climbing into the stands, O’Neal throwing a punch. Again and again, divorced from any context. In an era before everyone had an Internet-connected video camera in their pocket, those carefully-curated images were the only ones most people saw.
Talking heads in the news media, almost all of them white, quickly demonized the players as “thugs”. They used the riot (again, a riot in which the vast majority of the participants were white) as an excuse to self-righteously rail against NBA players' large salaries, rap music, and basically any expression of Black culture that white people didn’t like. The NBA suddenly had an “image problem”. Once again, David Stern felt the abyss opening up beneath him. And again he panicked.
Forty-eight hours after the riot, without taking any time to sift through the facts and make an informed decision, Stern announced heavy suspensions for Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, and Jermaine O’Neal. He made a point of saying that the decision was entirely unilateral. A year later, he imposed a dress code for all players, dictating what they could wear when they arrived and departed from games, during interviews, and when sitting on the bench if they were injured. It was explicitly designed to keep Black players from dressing in a way that reflected their culture, and instead force them into a look that racist white people would find acceptable. David Stern had stared directly into the face of racism, and bent over backwards to appease it.
Did the NBA ever have an “image problem”? Of course not. It had an “no Michael Jordan” problem. Michael Jordan retired from the Bulls in 1998. To be sure, he left behind some great young players, but none of them could carry the league the way he had. It wasn't until LeBron James arrived that NBA had its next great megastar. Two seasons after the Detroit fan riot, LeBron reached the Finals for the first time. And just like that, the NBA's "image problem" disappeared.
Today, NBA leadership has finally realized that it doesn't need to live in fear of racist white fans anymore. When openly racist LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was finally caught on tape in 2014 saying the kind of bigoted nonsense he'd been saying for decades with no consequences, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned him for life and forced him to sell the team. (David Stern, on the other hand, had a history of looking the other way and even helping Sterling to retain his ownership of the team in 1982 when the NBA tried to force him to sell.)
And even though the COVID-19 pandemic forced the league to finish the 2019-2020 season in a Central Florida "bubble" playing games in empty gyms with no fans, a situation which threatened the league's normally-strong TV ratings, Adam Silver didn't try to stop the players from moving forward with a plan to display custom messages on their jerseys in response to the murder of George Floyd (although they were required to pick from a list of pre-approved slogans). There was backlash in certain areas of the media landscape, but the league ignored it.
I'm not saying that today's NBA is perfect. You could definitely argue that Adam Silver is bending over backwards to appease China's repressive government to retain access to that country's 1.3 billion potential customers, kind of like David Stern once did with racist white fans. But at least the NBA is finally in a place where it realizes it doesn't need customers who think the majority of its players aren't real human beings.