There isn't another sport where the commissioner commands such a respect out of the union rank and file, brings such a presence to it all like David Stern does with the National Basketball Association. The ballplayers don't always like what they hear from him, but they always get a clear-minded and resolute response. Test him, test his and the public's patience for lawlessness, and they have to know that Stern will take back the game every time.
They have to know that Stern will come for them, the way Ron Artest and that reckless night at The Palace of Auburn Hills had come for our sensibilities over the weekend. Commissioners have come and gone through the years with different shows of strength, but Stern wouldn't just be sitting there Sunday night in Madison Square Garden as the commissioner of the NBA, but the commissioner of all sports. He went right up into the stands, grabbed Artest and Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal by the scruffs of their necks, and dragged them right off the court.
He's had to sit on the sideline this season, when so much wrong with sports had been playing out in basketball. The biggest stories in basketball had been some of the biggest stories in sports: Kobe Bryant's sexual assault case, and the Olympic basketball mess, Latrell Sprewell threatening to give less than his best to the Timberwolves without a raise, and a long list of max-out stars demanding to be shipped out with trades. The NBA had to take its hits, but there was Stern swinging back, beginning with running Artest out of the game, with the courage to crush a franchise's championship hopes with these sweeping suspensions.
Stern sounds committed to raising the expectation of behavior, when so many within his sport kept talking about lowering it. Hey, the enablers said, Artest was livid. He was emotional. What would you do if someone on the street tossed a cup in your face? Well, Stern made sure everyone understood that these aren't the streets, that these are his arenas and his code of conduct.
Someone is going to die in one these melees, and Stern refuses to let that blood be on his hands.
"The line is drawn -- and my guess is that it won't happen again," Stern said.
The 73-game suspension is a lifetime achievement award for Artest, the simplest solution to combating the NBA's most complicated and combustible character. When Artest showed up wearing Dennis Rodman's No. 91 for the season, everyone should've understood that he was far closer to implosion than rehabilitation. He's been a constant source of embarrassment for the NBA, his act over the sabbatical to promote his music screaming down the wonderful story of Grant Hill rising again in Orlando. Artest was Exhibit A of the Knuckleheads trying to hijack his sport.
Artest had to go, and he had to go for good. Above all, Stern had to get him out of his league. To bring him back later in the season would've restarted that 24-hour All-Artest news cycle all over again -- the countdown to his return, the highlights of the melee regurgitated over and over as the league made its playoff push. He did it with Latrell Sprewell, and he did it again with Artest: Stern has the credibility to come down hard on his players, while resisting the public's penchant for wanting to turn them into boogeymen.
Stern has always had the moral authority to set the agenda and standard for his league, balancing his background as a socially conscious attorney and a forward-thinking sports executive with a heavy hammer of discipline. He has shaped the NBA beyond its contemporaries in professional sports, leaving the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL in the dust on issues of fairness and race. Long before Stern was commissioner, he was a crusading attorney in his old hometown of Teaneck, N.J., fighting for the rights of African-Americans to live where they so chose in the town.
"The reason this is such a forward-thinking league," Knicks president Isiah Thomas told me a few weeks ago, "is because of David Stern and (deputy commissioner) Russ Granik. They've worked hard to make it that way."
Unlike other sports, it is no longer in the first paragraph of a news story when a minority executive is hired --- never mind a manager or coach. Stern inspired a climate where fired black coaches aren't just hired, but recycled again. The NBA doesn't need committees and blue ribbon panels and mandatory interviews to get people jobs, just the openings.
The NBA has long delivered the pressure for the rest of sports on these issues, and now, Stern does it again with these suspensions. When violence erupts elsewhere, they're going to measure Bud Selig, Paul Tagliabue and Gary Bettman against Stern's iron fist. Everyone will raise the case of Stern vs. Artest, and judge his contemporaries on it.
Most of all, Stern sent a message within his own sport, raging against the blurring lines of the acceptable and unacceptable. Against the backdrop of some of his athletes and the players union trying to rationalize Artest's rage, Stern taught them the difference between self-defense and retaliation. Artest didn't bum-rush into the stands to defend himself. He did it to avenge himself. Stephen Jackson didn't run to his teammates' rescue, but to deliver his own haymakers.
This turned out to be Stern's biggest moment on the job, one of the biggest moments a commissioner has ever had on the job in professional sports, and while Stern was sitting on a stage Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, someone asked him if the vote to banish Artest for the season was unanimous.
"It was unanimous," he said on the day he started taking back the NBA, and maybe everyone started trying to take back a little of sports too.
"One-nothing," David Stern reported.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season With Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, can be pre-ordered before its February 2005 release. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.