Too bad he decided to hang around a season or three too long. How many times have we said that about a famous ballplayer, from Brett Favre all the way back to Willie Mays?
David Stern isn't a ballplayer, but at 69 he's about as recognizable as most of his NBA stars. Across a quarter century and change, Stern took a league he once said was "written off as too black, too drug-infested" and built it into a powerhouse with crossover appeal.
He had earned his rock-solid place among the great commissioners of all time, at least until this week, when Stern committed another unnecessary felony against his own legacy by canceling regular-season games for a second time.
When the first two weeks of real games were called on account of hubris, the commissioner proved that his NBA in 2011 is much like the New York Knicks of 2007, a franchise dysfunctional enough for Stern to publicly declare it was "not a model of intelligent management."
In the immediate wake of a season that played to rave reviews, the NBA won't open on time, if at all. How intelligent is that?
But nobody loses more than Stern. If there existed a handbook on how to be a commissioner of a major professional sport, Section 1, Rule 1 would charge the reader to keep his or her league up and running at all costs.
Stern failed to honor the mission statement in 1998-99, and failed again Monday night, when he stood outside a Manhattan hotel and announced he was locking up the gym.
Two strikes and you're out. This second lockout on Stern's watch, the two stoppages representing the only labor casualties in league history, makes a mockery of the fact the NBA commissioner was once floated as the right guy to save baseball in 1994.
Turns out Stern wasn't even the right guy to save basketball, not this year, anyway.
This isn't to say the league's economic system didn't need changing. While the likes of Bryant, James, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki deserve to be paid Brad Pitt money, at least, too many fake superstars are making real superstar money. It's hard to believe even one father of four ever made his family's day by saying, "Guess what, kids? We're all going to see Rashard Lewis play basketball tonight."
But Lewis didn't sign himself to a $118 million deal. So owners are demanding that players save them from themselves, something a unionized workforce isn't inclined to do.
On cue, the small-market owners are pushing harder for dramatic change than the big-market owners are pushing, and the New School owners are less inclined to listen to Stern than the Old Guard owners who bought their franchises on the cheap.
It's a lot for a commissioner to negotiate, and it proved to be a burden Stern couldn't bear. At a time when his sport was riding a tidal wave of momentum, Stern failed to build either a consensus among his owners or a bridge to his players.
"He's definitely lost some of his power," said one longtime NBA deal-maker who's been involved in everything from contract negotiations to tampering cases. "Because of all the new owners that have come into the league, David had a lot more strength in the last lockout than he has in this one. But he's still the guy running the league, so he's the one whose legacy gets hurt."
A second longtime deal-maker, one who represented some of the biggest NBA stars and who had direct dealings with Stern, said that legacy was of great concern to the commissioner.
"David really wanted to go down as the guy who took the game international," the agent said, "as the commissioner who brought Yao Ming to the NBA and opened the door to China and who maybe someday became the first commissioner to have a franchise in Europe.
"But this lockout is going to hurt him. He's usually Teflon, and yet I think this one is going to stick to him."
Yes, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had more going for him in pursuit of a new CBA and a saved season -- namely, a more popular sport and a revenue pie about $5 billion sweeter than the NBA's. But when it comes to labor conflict between billionaires and millionaires, fans don't care about the hows and whys. They care only about the number of regular-season games lost, and Goodell didn't lose any.
Stern might be ready to surrender an entire season if only because Billy Hunter -- often unfairly portrayed as a negotiating lightweight -- kicked his brass when they cut the very deal the commissioner and the owners are screaming about now.
An 82-game blow could be a fatal one to an NBA trying to stay relevant in a pro football world. For Stern, a pair of washed-away weeks is damage enough.
He still enters the endgame of his career with more wins than losses; no right-minded observer would dispute that. But for the sake of his personal box score and place in the history books, the commissioner would've been better off turning over this labor fight to his likely successor, Adam Silver, just as he's always turned over the draft-night podium to Silver for the start of the second round.
It's too late to turn back now. With his NBA shut down for business one more time, David Stern looks like just another basketball star who should have passed the ball.
Just another guy who decided to hang around one season too long.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter". Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.