David Stern successfully sold the "blackest" sport to a white audience. He globalized basketball. He kept the NBA at the forefront of the technology wave. And yet, by the end of his 30-year tenure he had yielded the one thing he was best known for: control.
Look at the past few years. The Seattle SuperSonics took off for Oklahoma City after Washington state legislators shot down Stern's attempt to get them to pay for a new arena.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh took their careers into their own hands, opting out of their contracts early, forcing teams to manipulate their payrolls just for the opportunity to sign them, then choosing where they wanted to go.
And no sooner was the new collective bargaining agreement ratified last year when Chris Paul departed a small market for Los Angeles and Dwight Howard embarked on a sixth-month odyssey that brought him to L.A. as well.
Oh, and the reason that CBA took so long to get done in the first place was because Stern couldn't keep the hard-line owners from setting the initial tone.
The new wave of new-money owners wasn't beholden to Stern in the same way as Jerry Buss or Jerry Reinsdorf, men who had been around long enough to watch their franchise valuations skyrocket during Stern's time at the helm. Guys like Dan Gilbert bought in at the market's peak and spent close to a half a billion on their franchises only to see their assets diminish. So they had pushed negotiations to the brink of imploding the season. Then, in order to get a decent number of games in, they had to settle for a deal that was well short of the total domination they had targeted. There was no hard salary cap, there were no salary rollbacks and the revenue split didn't tilt toward the owners.
The owners still won this round. They never lose. (The best the union did was a tie in the 2005 negotiations.) It's just the owners didn't get the blowout victory they sought, and it cost them games and goodwill from the fan base.
So I guess that's how we should see Stern as well. He had a big lead for most the game, then let the score get closer at the end.
He still will leave as a success story when he departs in 2014. His vision of elevating basketball to a soccer-like popularity around the world had the dual effect of expanding the market to the far reaches of the globe and broadening the talent pool available to the teams at home.
And his league took to the Internet and social media better than anyone. It's as if Twitter was made for the NBA.
Maybe Stern was too successful. He directed a league that made players -- the vast majority of them African-American -- wealthy, famous and influential. He often said that was his proudest accomplishment, that the league he took over in 1984 managed to overcome the racial baggage that created a dynamic subtext to every rule change and reaction and flourished. The culmination was an African-American former player (Michael Jordan) buying a franchise from another African-American owner (Robert Johnson).
But the byproduct of that player empowerment was ongoing sagas like the Decision and its aftermath, followed by the Dwightmare. The sporting public might have grown willing to buy players' jerseys and the products they pitched, but they were less tolerant of those same players taking it upon themselves to determine the league's balance of power.
The reaction wasn't Stern's responsibility. Nor did it even come to reflect his viewpoint. He changed his stance from authoring the rules that incentivized players to stick with one team for their careers to reluctantly accepting player movement -- particularly after he saw what that movement did for TV ratings and website hits.
Stern made the NBA a superstar-driven league. Which is why, when he exits the vehicle, it feels like he will be leaving through the passenger-side door.