Leaders and organizations often go hand in hand. Sometimes it is hard to separate the man from the brand for obvious reasons (Henry Ford, William Chrysler) but there are other times when leaders are synonymous with the company they lead. One perfect example of this is the NBA’s David Stern. Stern did not invent the idea of organizing teams playing basketball for money, but in many ways he has perfected it. When he took over as NBA Commissioner in 1984 the league was just starting to grow again (thanks to two guys named Magic and Larry) after a long period of neglect and falling attendance. Since then the NBA has become a multi-billion dollar worldwide phenomenon/industry (the average team is worth $369 million). Of course it didn’t hurt that a Michael Jordan also arrived on the scene in 1984, but that’s a story for another blog.
With the help of an amazing supporting cast, Stern revolutionized the business of sports. His use of aggressive marketing and expansion, made basketball more than just the sport you watched between the NFL and MLB season. Without David Stern there would be no modern NBA.
Sounds great right? Who wouldn’t love a story about a outstanding leader saving an authentically American sport from the ash-heap of history? But there is a downside. There is a negative to be found and in late 2011 it’s on display for everyone to see.
The current NBA lockout, which threatens to take with it the entire 2010-2011 NBA season, is not only a function of the players demanding a larger (or at least not a smaller) share of the billions of dollars the NBA earns but also a function of those same players wanting to separate the NBA from David Stern. It is really not so much a classic battle of player versus owner but more of a battle for the soul of the league itself. Most players and even a few owners have grown tired of being dictated to by Stern. No one can deny that Stern’s brilliance has made a whole lot of people rich and famous and perhaps it’s true that Stern is just trying to save the NBA from financial ruin down the road. If the economy stays in the gutter and the league can’t groom superstars to replace Lebron and Kobe, there is no guarantee that the NBA will continue to be the money making behemoth it is today. But it seems to me that we are getting to a point where the animosity between the players and David Stern has overtaken the realities of the situation. The leader and institution have become far too entwined.
I doubt seriously that David Stern will walk away from this fight. In reality the odds are good that he will win in the end, it’s what he does. But going forward it’s clear that for the sake of the NBA as a whole David Stern, the leader, will either have to choose to separate himself from the institution or the institution will do it for him, if it survives.