An appreciation of how David Stern handled race and helped the NBA blossom

Our weekly look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.

First Quarter: David Stern and race 

The NBA does as good of a job as anyone of commemorating the life and mission of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, it puts on games all day and has some of his famous quotes on T-shirts, but I’ve always felt there was more of a natural connection between this sports league and Dr. King than the others.

With David Stern’s memorial on Tuesday — the day after MLK Day — the relationship appeared crystal clear.

In a quote that wasn’t likely to appear on a shirt or anyone’s Twitter feed, King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” presented great clarity for not only his fears of the future, but it also pertains to the NBA’s mission of being embraced by the masses when Stern took over as commissioner in 1984.

While King didn’t have that level of clairvoyance when he was jailed in 1963 for his relentless pursuit for equality, recognition and freedom for black people, he stated this:

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”

David Stern became NBA commissioner in 1984. (Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images for Jazz At Lincoln Center)

The “moderate” that King referred to was the observer Stern had to win over in order to make the league popular. Stern had to convince that audience that the NBA players weren’t on drugs or selfish or “too black” and flamboyant to be embraced by crowds that didn’t look like them. And more importantly, Stern had to persuade corporations that didn’t believe the NBA was worth investing in.

Let’s be clear here: Stern’s job was to save the NBA, to market the game and to make everybody money — including the already wealthy owners. It was not to be a racial champion at the expense of anything else, nor was his mission anywhere near King’s.

(Yahoo Sports illustration)

King’s mission was selfless, historic and straightforward, and it cost him his life. It’s only been in the last 25 years that King has been sanitized and turned into a cuddly figure for the sake of celebrating him.

Stern had a job to do, and if it didn’t make economic sense, there would be no comparison on even the most minute level.

He was no martyr.

But Stern was a smart man, evidenced by his laser-like observations.

The tacit beauty of Stern’s approach — his genius, honestly — was that he knew the diehards would always be around — he was one of them. And he knew there was a segment of society he could never win over, for a variety of reasons and stereotypes.

But where he made his greatest impact was with the people in the middle, who didn’t have strong opinions on the league itself but were sports fans. In a direct way, his message was subtle: “You can handle these black athletes being on your television screen. You can like Magic and Michael and Julius without thinking the worst. They can be pitchmen and spokespersons and an indispensable part of your leisure time.”

It certainly helped that Stern had Larry Bird, a white star in Boston, and Magic Johnson, a smiling, agreeable star in Los Angeles who leaned into the league’s growth. Stern made the players feel like they were partners and it would be beneficial for all if they played along. He actually demanded it.

And he seemed to demand it of the public in his own way. At his best, he made the so-called moderates think they were their best selves during a time that wasn’t so progressive. The NBA grew with businesses and fans because Stern masterfully played to people’s ideals of themselves — that even though these guys were different, the players could at least entertain them and they, the fans, could take joy in their excellence.

Stern’s tenure was a deft walk between bringing the moderates along and appeasing them by sometimes placating their fears. The dress code and his handling of the 2004 “Malice at the Palace” were examples of the other side of the ledger, with Stern’s belief his league couldn’t survive if the moderates were turned off by the players of that day, that if he couldn’t bring the fans to meet the players, the players would have to step back to meet the fans where they were.

Many who spoke of Stern at his memorial talked about him being someone who stood up for what’s right, especially in the instances of Magic Johnson contracting HIV in 1991, and Stern spearheading the implementation of the WNBA in 1997.

What Stern realized — and perhaps what other sports leagues haven’t accepted yet — was inclusiveness and not giving into fears or stereotypes are lucrative endeavors that can bode well for everyone.

In some ways, Stern accomplished what King feared he could not through that letter in a Birmingham jail in 1963.

Second Quarter: East All-Stars

Media members have been part of the All-Star selection process for a few years now. It’s the NBA’s way of ensuring integrity in the voting and not allowing fans to hijack the event for the likes of Tacko Fall or Alex Caruso (no diss to them).

The media ballots were due Monday.

Here’s mine for the Eastern Conference:

Frontcourt

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid: This wasn’t as much of a painstaking process as it might’ve been a month or so ago, before Toronto’s Pascal Siakam faded from the conversation. Antetokounmpo is the MVP, and the Bucks could go for 70 wins if they choose. Butler has transformed the Heat from pretenders to a team that’s one player away from challenging the Bucks this spring.

Embiid is the most interesting case. Not because of how the 76ers have performed without him, with Ben Simmons leading the way, or even the team’s inconsistencies. But his production has tailed off a bit from last year, down across the board in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and blocks.

You could make a case for Domantas Sabonis in Indiana, as his play has increased and his team is a half-game better than the 76ers with far less top-level talent. He’s versatile, reliable and keeping the Pacers afloat until Victor Oladipo makes his return from surgery.

But … nah.

It’s Embiid.

Backcourt

Kemba Walker, Trae Young: Yes, Trae Young is playing on one of the worst teams in the league, and defensively, he’s a sieve. But he spent the first half of the Hawks’ season without his running mate John Collins, who was suspended for PED use.

Young is a young player on a young team with a young coach. Although he can have a great effect on winning, he can’t mask the team’s shortcomings just because he can shoot from 35 feet.

The responsibility of carrying a franchise is no easy feet as a second-year player, and, usually, winning has to come into play. But exceptions are made for exceptional performers, and averaging 29.2 points and 8.6 assists qualifies as “exceptional.”

Walker was the lock. His numbers aren’t as eye-popping as Young’s, as Walker’s 21.7 points per game are his lowest since 2016, the last time he didn’t make an All-Star team. But he’s acclimated himself well in Boston, and for the first time plays with teammates who are also a threat to create their own offense.

Ben Simmons made me think, but these two could probably set a record for smallest starting backcourt in league history — and no matter which side they’re on, it’ll be entertaining.

Third Quarter: West All-Stars

Frontcourt

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard: The All-Los Angeles frontcourt was an easy prediction the moment these stars aligned this offseason.

James isn’t the supernova he once was and essentially plays point guard while being listed as a forward by the NBA. But he’s still LeBron James and the Lakers look nothing like the scattered, drama-filled outfit that took the floor last season. James’ numbers — 25-11-8 — are pretty damn impressive regardless of the era or circumstances.

Davis, while still being second on the marquee to James, has found his space in James’ massive orbit. He leads the Lakers in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, while surprisingly being their best free-throw shooter (86.6 percent). Playing with James isn’t easy, but the two have made it work.

Leonard probably will face stiff competition from Nikola Jokic and Rudy Gobert, for no reason other than nightly availability. But his performance has been outstanding, making him worth every bit the maintenance plan he’s on with the Clippers. They’re title contenders because of him, and he’s the biggest reason why the Clippers are the only team the Lakers likely fear in the West. This January, he’s ramped it up: 32.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists on 50/35/89 splits. When the Clippers win, he’s a ridiculous plus-21.1 per game in just 31.1 minutes.

That spells superstar, not just All-Star.

Backcourt

James Harden, Luka Doncic: Remember the side eye many gave a rookie Doncic when he garnered the third-most votes for last year’s midseason showcase?

Nobody would dare bat an eye this time, as Doncic can make a case for being the most valuable, consistent player in his conference — including LeBron James. He’s performed with a maturity and mastery nobody could have expected, nearly putting up a triple-double (29.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, nine assists) for a Dallas team that features just him as a star.

Harden (36.6 points) is leading the league in scoring, again, but his recent slump has made the discussion more interesting, as his efficiency has dropped a bit. Still, though, look at the numbers (7.4 assists, 6.2 rebounds). Donovan Mitchell (24.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists) has been solid for a Jazz team that’s second in the West, but his numbers don’t yet jump off the page. Damian Lillard (27.9 points, 7.6 assists) makes things interesting in Portland, but the losing record gives pause.

In the end, it’s the Beard and his endless dribbles behind the 3-point line. Hopefully it’s not a 15-miss night. But that could be entertaining, right?

Fourth Quarter: Sneaker time!

In addition to All-Star Weekend approaching in Chicago on Feb. 16, Nike (which owns Converse) is going all-out with its shoe releases. From the retros to the current incarnations, it’s guaranteed to be both nostalgic and innovative. (And very cold! It’s Chicago in February!)

If you’re a sucker for the Jordan III like me, these will be on your list among a few others.

In order, from left to right: Jordan III "Red Cement", Jordan VI "Defining Moments", LeBron XVII "Monstars", Converse Pro Leather Black High Top.

(Screenshots courtesy of Nike)

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