(Written By Tom Shanahan)
I saw where Donald Stern said he has “a lot of thank you notes to send out” now that he’s officially retired on Saturday as the NBA’s commissioner after 30 years.
The only people more misinformed that Michael Jordan saved the NBA are the ones who believe Stern saved the league. Jordan built on the Magic and Larry Bird rivalry that truly saved the NBA. Stern was merely in the right place at the right time.
Jordan didn’t arrive in the NBA until the 1984-85 season and didn’t win a title until 1990-91. The league was long turned around by then from the days of the 1980 NBA finals were broadcast on CBS on tape delay after the 11 o’clock news. Magic was a rookie and his Los Angeles Lakes beat the Philadelphia 76ers, and there was a clamor from fans for what they missed watching live.
Stern wasn’t promoted to commissioner until Feb. 1, 1984. He was simply along for the ride, although he can be given credit for not having screwed things up. What I mean by that is Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig was along for the ride during the steroid-fueled home run derby era that left Peter Gammons and other baseball writers weepy-eyed as frauds Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased the true single-season home-run king, Roger Maris.
A true commissioner would have done something about the steroids epidemic before the home run records were shattered. Selig, who I like to call Woodrow Wilson for the way he dressed the night of the 50th anniversary celebrating Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color line, screwed up the era’s legacy by looking the other way.
Selig had an opportunity to join forces with Tony Gwynn and other clean players of the era who were disturbed with what they knew was going on and convinced the Players Association should pass rules to enforce testing.
The NBA was saved simply because Magic and Bird were fun to watch play and listen to discussing their play. Their rivalry elevated the league from Day 1of their rookie years in the 1979-80 season. It helped immensely that the Magic/Bird rivalry was fueled by the reinforcement of playing for two of league’s historic and marquee franchises — Magic and the Lakers and Bird and the Boston Celtics.
They faced each other in three epic Lakers-Celtics NBA championship showdowns — the 1984-85, 1985-86 and 1986-87 seasons. From their rookie seasons through the 1987 championship series, the Lakers and Magic or the Celtics and Bird reigned as NBA champions in eight of the nine seasons.
Bird never made it to another NBA final after the 1987 loss to the Lakers, but Magic advanced three more times. He won in 1987-88 — when Lakers head coach Pat Riley coined and trademarked the phrase “three-peat” that soon became part of sports lexicon. The Lakers lost in 1988-89 to the Detroit Pistons and in 1990-91 to Jordan’s Chicago Bulls (Jordan’s seventh year in the league).
But the crucial element of the Magic/Bird rivalry that saved the NBA is Magic brought Bird out of his muttering Indiana hick shell. The friendship of a beloved black man and a shy country-boy white man soon transcended race for a league that had suffered in the 1970s when labeled with the ignorant image of being “too black.”
Once Bird and Magic struck up a friendship, Magic’s irrepressible smile rubbed off on him. Bird’s sly sense of humor and “aw-shucks” country-boy personality emerged. “Friendly rivals” was the new image of the NBA.
Let’s remember that without Magic and Bird, Stern reigned over an NBA that included the Detroit Pistons as Bad Boys who celebrated dirty play. Jordan’s popularity allowed Nike to exploit the sport (not to mention Asian sweatshop factories) from the youth leagues to the NBA.
Who can cheer for Bill Lambier, Dennis Rodman or Allen Iverson? That was Stern’s NBA if Magic and Bird never came along. Myself, I can only cheer for players I’d want to be my teammate.
If Larry Bird has a foundation, I’m not aware of it. Certainly it’s not as far-reaching as Magic’s. So former commissioner Stern, here is the link to donate to the Magic Johnson Foundation: