By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Editor's note: This column appears in the Oct. 28 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

World B. Free, David Stern
David Stern has all the skills to be the leader of the free world ... including World B. Free, left.

We elect presidents for the wrong reasons, so we never get the right one. Shouldn't America's shrewdest leader run the whole show? I stand before you to nominate David Stern, a man who spent the last two-plus decades juggling more egos and agendas than Jack Welch, Colin Powell and Lorne Michaels combined. To borrow a phrase from Hubie Brown, a Stern presidency has tons of upside.

Sure, he'd have to take a pay cut. The Commish makes $8 million a year. That's an absolute bargain, by the way. Think of what Stern would command on the open market, especially for a rudderless sport such as baseball. Imagine him glaring across the table as Donald Fehr argued in vain against revenue sharing, or listening to Peter Angelos rail against an Expos move to D.C., then making the Orioles boss an offer he couldn't refuse. Series games ending after Conan O'Brien? Sluggers growing second jawbones? Playoff games on 15 cable channels? Settled in five phone calls. The man broke MJ and Allen Iverson, for God's sake! Think he can't handle George Steinbrenner?

As for his résumé, we forget how he saved the NBA back in the Kareem era, when the league was more troubled than the cast of "Diff'rent Strokes." Once Stern took over in 1984, the NBA quickly evolved from punchline to money machine. Suddenly, the league was marketing players, not teams. CBS stopped tape-delaying the Finals. You couldn't turn on the TV without stumbling across another "NBA is fannnnn-tastic" ad.

  There's a presidential aura about him as well, something indefinably magnetic: Michael Corleone with a touch of Jon Lovitz. No one straddles that intimidating-approachable line like Stern -- you can imagine having a beer and talking hoops with him, and you can imagine cowering in your office as he rips you to shreds during a conference call. 
  

Fighting and hard-core drugs were weaned out (although shoving and pot-smoking remain in vogue). The slam dunk contest -- which Stern began as a tribute to the ABA -- made the tomahawk basketball's equivalent of the home run. In time, a league considered "too black" had lured new fans who enjoyed seeing Michael Jordan soar, the Celtics and Lakers one-up each other, Dominique Wilkins slam down a rebound on someone's head, Paul Mokeski survive a trip downcourt.

Of course, you can't know about a leader until he's faced down adversity. The Commish proved his mettle in the '90s, after Magic Johnson and Larry Bird retired, MJ caught the baseball bug and the double threat of Riley Ball and overexpansion stalled the game.

As fans struggled to identify with $100 million deals, cornrows, tatts, baggy shorts, posses, groupies, crotch-grabbing and chest-thumping -- and that was just in the owner's box -- Stern stepped in again. First, his '98-99 lockout crippled the union and created a ceiling for salaries. He halted expansion, banned taunting, unveiled rules to increase scoring, encouraged dips into the European talent pool, landed a lucrative new TV deal, even had Dennis Rodman deported. And you know this "rookies entering too early" debacle will be settled before long.

Those are just Stern's credentials. There's a presidential aura about him as well, something indefinably magnetic: Michael Corleone with a touch of Jon Lovitz. No one straddles that intimidating-approachable line like Stern -- you can imagine having a beer and talking hoops with him, and you can imagine cowering in your office as he rips you to shreds during a conference call.

Paul Mokeski
Stern's NBA thrived despite the likes of Paul Mokeski.

He shines brightest at the comical showcase known as the NBA draft. Stern rises above everything -- emerging from the back room like Keyser Soze to announce picks, and shaking hands with towering rookies while turning them toward the correct camera. Nobody can fluster him. Last spring, as Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley joked about foreign players, Stern, at the podium, quipped, "You know, when Kenny and Charles first came into the league, they didn't speak English, either." You can't beat this guy.

Admit it, you'd feel better with The Commish leading the Free World. Here's a president who can manipulate reporters, act instead of react, avoid scandals, even speak extemporaneously without us holding our breath. Personally, I think President Stern finds Osama bin Laden, breaks Saddam Hussein, jump-starts the economy and generally whips us into shape. But that's just me. I think Christmas should be moved to Larry Bird's birthday. I'm an NBA junkie. I love this game. And it would fall apart without David Stern.

(On second thought, maybe he shouldn't run. Forget I mentioned it.)

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine.




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