- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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In a wide-ranging ESPN podcast discussion Monday, NBA commissioner David Stern said that he will not try to stop players from playing overseas next season in the event of a lockout and acknowledged that there is "no shortage of suitors" interested in buying the New Orleans Hornets and moving them to another city.
Stern also revealed, in his annual visit with ESPN's Bill Simmons, that some owners in the league would not be opposed to contracting the Hornets in upcoming labor negotiations, but insisted that the league's goal since assuming operating control of the Hornets in December has been to "make it unattractive to move [the franchise] or contract it."
Near the end of the 55-minute podcast, Stern likewise revealed that he favors increasing the NBA's current drug-testing requirements -- four random tests per season -- to ensure that the use of performance-enhancing drugs does not seep into the game.
Some of the main topics Stern addressed during the interview include:
"If, in fact, there's a lockout, then the player is free during the course of the lockout to do what he wants to do if his contract is in effect. I don't want to play that game with anybody. ... If we have a collective bargaining arrangement with the union and there's a lockout, then last time around [in 1998] players were free to do what they're going to do, because they've been locked out."
Why the NBA felt the need to buy the Hornets from longtime owner George Shinn
"We just followed the crowd. Baseball took over the Montreal Expos, the NHL took over the Coyotes, and we stepped in to make sure that the Hornets would be well operated and be made stronger. ... There was no more money that a principal owner was going to put into the team, and the negotiations [for Shinn to sell the team] had dragged on for so long that we thought it was the time to show a little love for New Orleans. So we stepped in, we continued the strong day-to-day management, we added some strengthening features, we talked with the governor and the mayor, both of whom have been tremendously cooperative together with the business community, as well.
"We're out there looking for the new season-ticket campaign which has just been launched, and we're hopeful that when we put this together there will emerge a buyer who wants to own the team in New Orleans. There [is] no shortage of suitors who have contacted us who want to buy the team and take it someplace else. ... [But] that would not be our first choice at all. That's not why we stepped in and bought the team."
Charges that the league has exposed itself to a serious conflict of interest by taking over operating control of one of its franchises for the first time in NBA history
"You'd be surprised at how uninvolved we are [in New Orleans]. The only place we get involved is advice on ticket sales, groups, renewals, suggestions when they ask us if we have additional personnel they can hire. They set the budget, we approve it, and we've approved anything that they previously wanted to do on the player side. It's kind of interesting.
"... The uncertainty about the marketplace was really badly affecting the value of the franchise, and we thought that the franchise was being demonstrably undervalued, so we stepped in, and we'll see. Maybe we're wrong, but I think we're right, and we're comfortable with the decision. The [NBA's other] owners endorsed [buying the Hornets] in a very robust fashion."
Conspiracy theories suggesting that one of the league's motivations in buying the Hornets was to give itself the ability to easily contract one team for leverage in upcoming labor negotiations
"Well, I guess all I would say to that is that wouldn't be a conspiracy. I know that there are some owners who might share that view. ... Anything that we do gets done by a majority of the owners. All you're stating is a potential third option. But right now we are steaming full speed ahead with every single possible [intent] to make that team successful in New Orleans, and I think we're going to succeed. So we're going to make it unattractive to move it or contract it."
Cities that have expressed interest in taking on an existing NBA team in a franchise relocation
"I think maybe or maybe not on my watch, when Seattle has plans for a new building, I think it's a very prime city for an NBA franchise. We've been visited or contacted by three different groups that are putting up a building in Las Vegas. ... We've had visits from Anaheim, we've had visits from, believe it or not, Vancouver."
Cities that have NBA-ready buildings
"Well, for sure Kansas City. ... There's a brand-new building in Pittsburgh, there's a good building in St. Louis, there's a good building in Tampa/St. Pete. ... I know [Anaheim's Honda Center has] got some years on it but I'm told it's a serviceable building.
"So there are lots of potential cities, but our goal here is to keep all of our teams where they are ... but recognizing that that hasn't been a goal that we have successfully achieved in the past."
Stern's own year-to-year contract
"It ends every year. ... And has been [that way] for more time than you can imagine. ... Every year it just keeps going until either one of [us] decides that I don't ... that I won't come back."
"I think that we could add a test or two just to be on the safe side beyond what we have, but that's for a negotiation with the players. Other than that, I think what we're doing is great. I think that we demonstrate to our fans, when things are quiet, suddenly you'll hear we suspended someone because they did something they shouldn't have done, and that lets everyone know we're there and we're testing and we're acting upon the tests no matter what it is that tests that way. And I think that's helpful for our fans and for our players."
The NBA's long-held claim that steroids generally can't help basketball players like they've helped baseball players
"You know, it would be easy for me to say that, and I hope it's true. But I'm not sure anymore. ... I don't know. I mean, I believe that. I don't believe they help speed or kinds of things that our players do. ... I'm pretty sure that we don't have a problem. I go to sleep at night not worrying about that because I think we've got it completely covered. But you know, you always worry."
How optimistic Stern is about avoiding a lockout before the current labor agreement expires June 30:
"It's not that I'm either optimistic or pessimistic. What I am is determined to knock as many heads together, including my own, and work as hard as possible between now and probably June 30 to see whether we can't make a deal. That's what it is."
How damaging an extended work stoppage would be to the league's long-term health at a time that fan interest in the game, judging by the recent upward trends in ticket sales and TV ratings, is seemingly booming
"You've got it. But that said, the [business] numbers are not lying. And we need a better revenue-sharing system. And if you're just going to share losses, it's not a good thing. You need some revenue. We need a system where all of our teams have the opportunity to compete and to make a few dollars. That's not a bad desire for collective bargaining for a sports league, and it's great for our fans."
Senior writer Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann