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David Stern needs to fix his mistake and bring a team back to Seattle
Sonics fans will never forgive NBA commissioner David Stern, of course. But helping Seattle get another team before he retires in 15 months would help Stern's legacy.
Times staff columnist
So David Stern, the visionary turned villain, is retiring. In 15 months, he'll be gone, ego on ice. Before you start high-fiving and volunteering to escort him to oblivion, did you hear what might be his swan song?
Stern, one of Seattle's greatest sports enemies, is primed to be an ally at the end of his Sonics-depriving tenure as the NBA commissioner.
This is so "Karate Kid, Part II." Stern wants to be Sato to your Mr. Miyagi. After years of trying to fight you and forcing you to stay away from your love, he hopes to make everything better. He is determined, according to a recent story from Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojarnowski, to bring the NBA back to Seattle. But most important, he wants to expunge that enormous mistake from his legacy.
To which you should have this reaction: Go for it, but don't expect us to buy you a rocking chair.
Stern doesn't just want to retire. He wants a commissioner's version of the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar farewell tour.
Remember Abdul-Jabbar's touching send-off 23 years ago? He received a rocking chair, a motorcycle, a sailboat and enough trinkets to decorate a recreation room as he traveled to NBA cities for the final time. If Stern tried to do that, he'd get eggs and tomatoes — all hurled at him with full velocity. Though he has a robust ego, Stern wouldn't dare expect public displays of affection. But in his final 15 months on the job, he's certain to do everything possible to be remembered as a genius and not a jerk.
I call it the Ebenezer Scrooge Principle. Stern can see the end of his tenure, and if he left today, perhaps it would be the equivalent of weeping over his own unkempt grave because, even though he's a visionary who benefitted from a perfect storm of NBA stars and turned the league into a global success, he has become more known as a condescending, stubborn and heavy-handed dictator.
He has made shortsighted decisions out of anger. He has allowed — and in some cases, encouraged — teams to relocate to smaller markets, which makes little longterm sense for the league. He has alienated dedicated fans by holding cities hostage for new arenas.
The Sonics' mess is one of the greatest fiascos sullying his legacy. And that's why Seattle, which hates Stern the most, is primed to benefit from his desire to exit on more positive terms.
It might be a futile pursuit. Fans and media love to bash pro sports commissioners these days. They're easy targets, especially during times of labor strife. But without question, the NBA would be a stronger league if it returned to the largest United States market currently without a team.
The NBA's television contract expires in 2016, and returning to the nation's No. 12 TV market could help attract a more lucrative new deal. Much of Stern's legacy is tied to taking over a league in which the teams' were worth a combined $400 million in 1984 and turning it into a business that saw its revenue climb above $4 billion last season. Surely, Stern wants his successor, deputy commissioner Adam Silver, to inherit a healthy league. The return of the Sonics could play a role in that handoff.
Wojarnowski reported last week that Stern is pressuring the Maloof brothers to sell the Sacramento Kings to the Seattle group led by Chris Hansen, the investor who plans to build a new arena in Sodo. Of course, Hansen isn't willing to do to a city what Clay Bennett did to Seattle. There will be no phony attempts to keep the team in its original city, no good-faith, best efforts.
If Hansen buys a team, it will be with the transparent understanding that he wants to move it to Seattle. So, he'll only buy a team if it is out of viable solutions in its current city and the owners have no choice but to sell. That wouldn't eliminate Seattle's guilt in playing the role of poacher, but after what happened here four years ago, you shouldn't be so naïve. This is the game that must be played, and if you want the Sonics back, you have to win them in this conflicting way. Stern has left the door open for expansion, but at this point, it remains unlikely.
Can you trust that Stern is sincere in his unstated desire to restore Seattle's Sonics tradition? Of course not. But you can nod his way and look on with skepticism as he attempts to finish his 30-year run in dramatic fashion. The next 15 months will mean much to Seattle's chances of resurrecting the Sonics.
Stern can't win back Seattle, just as he can't erase what his arrogance did to an otherwise stellar run as the NBA commissioner. But he can fix a foolish mistake, provided he doesn't prematurely ruin another city to do so.
That's a difficult task to pull off. Stern put himself in the predicament, however. If he figures it out, he'll receive some credit, though redemption is out of the question. It's not a rocking chair, but we stopped exchanging presents — and pleasantries — with Stern long ago.
The Stern farewell tour should only stop in Seattle if he's the one who comes bearing gifts.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer.
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