David Stern's legacy at stake this time

That David Stern would go down among the very best commissioners of all time was less a talk radio opinion than it was one of life's mortal locks. You had death, you had taxes, and you had David Stern chiseling himself into the Mount Rushmore of professional sports.

But if Stern allows a second round of NBA games to get slashed and gashed on his watch, or if he follows the lead of his old lieutenant, Gary Bettman, who once delivered the eulogy for an entire NHL season, then his legacy will look about as orderly as the Palace of Auburn Hills looked the night Ron Artest jumped into the stands.

"And that legacy," said one longtime friend of Stern's, "is something David cares a tremendous amount about."

If people often struggle to define the role of a commissioner -- is he a neutral gatekeeper, or a highly compensated stooge for the owners? -- they can easily grasp a commissioner's most basic responsibility:

Make sure the games go on.

Stern lost 32 games per team to the lockout of 1998-99, and many players, executives, and fans are worried that the full 82-game slate will be sacrificed at the altar of greed this time around.

If that happens, if the NBA shuts down for business at a time when the sport is more interesting than it's been since Michael Jordan retired, then Stern will surrender history's benefit of the doubt.

He will always have the game's globalization on his résumé, the Dream Team and the exploding mass appeal of a league once so troubled, so burdened by the perception of widespread drug use that it broadcast the championship round on late-night tape delay.

Nobody can take those trophies off David Stern's shelf.

But every commissioner has his or her Waterloos. Bud Selig canceled a World Series and allowed his sport to be overrun by steroid-pumped frauds. Pete Rozelle played football in the immediate wake of the JFK assassination, a regret he carried to his grave. Roger Goodell had Spygate and Michael Vick and, now, a labor war he's expected to resolve.

Stern? He had Latrell Sprewell, the malice at the Palace, and that June 20, 2007 phone call from the FBI informing him it was about to blow the whistle on one of his refs, Tim Donaghy.

Weeks later Stern would say, "I can tell you that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA, or a commissioner of the NBA."

Until now, anyway. Eleventh-hour negotiations between the players and their bosses never stood a chance Thursday, and so the NBA boarded up its windows and bolted shut its doors in an attempt to secure dramatic concessions from the workforce.

Stern can talk all he wants about an allegedly broken system, about the 22 teams bleeding money, about hundreds of millions in league losses. He's still going to be the primary fall guy in the fall if the season doesn't open on time.

As it is, the NBA has a hell of a product to push. Young, exciting stars have separated themselves from the pack, and playoff ratings were up because of it. The Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh amount to a potential dynasty -- those always raise fan interest -- and, better yet, an evil empire guaranteeing the kind of bad-guy, good-guy drama that makes for the easiest possible sell.

Why can't smart businessmen make money on this product? The answer is either: (A) The players' cut of 57 percent of basketball-related income is too high; or (B) Those businessmen aren't so smart in the first place.

We know how the union chief, Billy Hunter, answers that question. The first time I met Hunter 14 years ago, with storm clouds gathering in the distance, he told me, "The league has to remember what Casey Stengel said: 'You can't win without the horses.' No matter how good the NBA is at marketing, if there's no Magic, Bird or Jordan, there's nothing to market."

Hunter's right. The NBA player is the only reason anyone cares about the NBA owner.

Most sports owners are fabulously wealthy men who made their money elsewhere and who chose to buy teams for the sake of their public profiles. Why do you think Fred Wilpon wants so desperately to keep the New York Mets in the family?

Because he knows he would've been just another faceless real estate guy without them.

George Steinbrenner understood that the best tables at the best Manhattan restaurants aren't reserved for shipbuilders, just as Mark Cuban understands that being the owner of the Dallas Mavericks made him something that the dot-com billionaire business could not.

As a rule, sports owners don't get into the game to make big money; they've already been there, done that. They get into the game to become nearly as famous as their superstar athletes, and to take command of the best cocktail parties with talk of their high-priced toys.

But now Stern's poor little rich boys want to take command of the superstars' salaries, and pocket the difference. Once again, remember that no fan ever paid a penny to watch an owner dip his pretzel in Grey Poupon, or slouch in his front-row seat, for that matter. And nobody ever forced an owner to buy his team or to sign off on misguided deals.

James, Wade and Dirk Nowitzki are the entire league now just like Magic, Bird and Jordan were the entire league then. The owners are just along for the ride.

David Stern can't remind them of that, of course, not when he's on the owners' side of the table. The commissioner doesn't have an easy job here, and he's facing a worthy adversary in Hunter, a former U.S. attorney who wasn't afraid to send some Hells Angels to jail or to tell President Carter he needed to release Patty Hearst from prison.

But with the players already offering to take a $500 million paycut over the next five years, Stern needs to find some way to make a deal between now and opening night. He needs to convince his owners to agree to greater revenue sharing and to back away from the notion of a hard salary cap.

If Stern fails, the players, owners and fans won't be the only parties to pay the price. The commissioner's legacy will be locked out, too.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter"