Years ago there was a vibrant and sharp young man, a trailblazer who shook up the sports world, the Obama of his industry. He could not be ignored because his talent and presence were just too obvious. And yet, he was also an outcast of sorts, a figure of derision, a punch line of a million jokes.
He was Bryant Gumbel, the best broadcaster in the business and a man the black community didn't feel was "black enough," mainly because he didn't speak "black enough" on the job. Comedians constantly took shots at Gumbel's perceived lack of ethnicity. Almost everyone did, it seemed.
Really. Gumbel was so polished on the air, his nickname was No Stumble Gumbel, well earned because nothing or no one threw him for a garbled loop. And in a short-sighted way, a segment of the black community laughed at Gumbel for "talking white" and concluding that his speech was actually an extension of the man and his beliefs, rather than an extension of his intelligence and skill.
I was struck by how stupid this was, because I knew better. Before he became a rising star at NBC, Gumbel created and ran a magazine called Black Sports, devoted to covering the black athlete in a way that was free of the stereotypes and clumsy depictions so often associated with the mainstream media during that time (blacks were "natural-born athletes" while white athletes were "smart"). And there was nothing in Gumbel's history that suggested he was anything less than a solid journalist with a social conscience, at a time when black faces on the networks were extremely rare.
Those who laughed at Gumbel didn't bother to look beyond the articulation, which was unfair to Gumbel. In hindsight, it was silly. Dare I say, almost as silly as the other day, when Gumbel, on a recent "Real Sports" rant on HBO, refused to look beyond David Stern's role in the ongoing labor negotiations when he likened the NBA commissioner to a "plantation overseer."
Of all the power brokers in sports on all levels, Stern is absolutely the last person on the list to fit such a description. Actually, Stern doesn't even make the list.
So let's get this straight: The only commissioner in sports who constantly pushed for and finally secured black ownership within his league is somehow linked to a slave master?
David Stern, who made more black men rich than anyone in history, lives in The Big House?
Gumbel may not stumble, but in this instance, he did fumble. Badly. Without being stripped. On the 1-yard line.
Gumbel is guilty of doing to Stern what the black community once did to him: ignoring the man's character and taking a cheap and misguided shot at what he thinks Stern is all about.
Rather than try to guess at Gumbel's motives, it's probably better to defend Stern, which is a fairly easy job. I believe I've spent more time in Stern's company than Gumbel has, which makes me a better authority on Stern and where he stands and what he believes in. And it's totally opposite of the flimsy conclusion Gumbel reached -- emphasis on reach.
It always annoyed Stern that the company he controlled, and the men in the owners' club, didn't reflect the same color of the players on the floor. And so, not long after he became commissioner, Stern went about fixing the flaw. The NBA offices took on a different complexion, but that was small stuff. Stern wanted black representation at the highest level. He wanted to crash the old-boy network. He wanted to go where no commissioner had gone before (or since).
And so Stern sought black ownership, even at the risk of his own reputation. He secured black ownership of the Nuggets in 1990 until his hand-picked pioneers, turned out, had holes in their pockets. He then pushed to put an expansion team in Charlotte and lobbied hard for Bob Johnson, the former Black Entertainment Television titan, over Larry Bird, one of the greatest players ever. And when Johnson turned out to be a dud, Stern encouraged Johnson to sell at a discount to Michael Jordan.
Oh, and technically, Jordan is Stern's boss. Does that make Jordan a "plantation overseer" too?
You almost feel silly having to defend Stern, but here's something else. Years ago I went with Stern on a trip to South Africa, along with Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. It was a goodwill trip conducted in the wake of the shift of power to Nelson Mandela. Stern thought it was important for the NBA to have a presence during a time of great change in a country where change was desperately needed. He didn't have to go. But he made a point to share the experience with the three players, to learn about the culture, to educate himself on the principles and philosophy of Mandela and the new regime.
Stern won big points with the players that day. Maybe Gumbel should've reached out to them, to get their take on Stern.
Stern isn't the most charming figure in these labor negotiations. He isn't easy to work for, and even harder to negotiate against. As well he should. A weak commissioner lends himself to a weak league. Anyway, he's merely carrying out the demands of his owners, Jordan among them, in this grudge match with the players' union.
You can disagree with his tactics and his strategy and his idea of what makes for a financially stable NBA. But you can't, under any circumstances, compare the most progressive commissioner in sports to a slave owner.
That's as foolish as, um, someone saying Stern is blacker than Gumbel.
Shaun Powell is a contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.