- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
LOS ANGELES -- This was not the opening address David Stern ever expected to make at the NBA Finals.
This was Stern welcoming the world to Kobe versus Dwight Howard and insisting to a skeptical audience that LeBron, some five days later, now knows he was "wrong" about how he reacted to Cleveland's failure to get here.
You'll recall that dream matchups don't necessarily insulate commissioners from uncomfortable press conferences. Stern endured two or three of those here in L.A. in the space of a week this time last year, when the Tim Donaghy scandal repeatedly intruded on the historic resurrection of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
So this, by comparison, was pleasant.
If the worst thing Stern has to do this month is track James down on the phone, hit him with a $25,000 fine for ducking the media after the Cavaliers' season-ending loss in Orlando on Saturday night and coax an apology out of LeBron for the sportsmanship he stunningly didn't show -- an apology that James himself had an opportunity to deliver when he spoke to the Cleveland media Sunday -- this will be a banner June for the Commish.
"LeBron and I discussed it, and I'll leave the rest for him to talk about, but I think [the fine] was important," Stern said of his phone chat with the newly minted MVP, which occurred Wednesday after James left the hospital following his five-hour surgery to remove a benign growth from his jaw.
"It was inappropriate," Stern said, "for me to give someone a pass here."
Stern didn't exactly get one, either. In addition to fielding questions on his about-face on LeBron, after initially saying he didn't intend to fine him, Stern was asked Thursday night why he hasn't delivered more transparency in the wake of L'Affaire Donaghy, ongoing perceptions of fixed games in the playoffs and the Tennessee congressman who this week likened the NBA's minimum age of 19 to a "vestige of slavery."
All those questions, though, came largely without the tension and suspicion that never stopped wafting through the Staples Center during the 2008 Finals, with Stern saving his sharpest response for the "slavery" parallel drawn by Rep. Steve Cohen.
"That would be like you saying that the talented people of the NBA -- college graduates some -- and talented graduates of many universities are not eligible to be congressmen because they have an age limitation of 25," Stern said.
"What the Congressman didn't understand -- and we'll be happy to share our view with him -- [is] this is not about the NCAA. This is not an enforcement of some social program. This is a business decision by the NBA, which is [that] we like to see our players in competition after high school. I don't know why our [nation's] founders decided that age 25 was good for Congress, but I guess they thought that was about maturity. And for us it's different. It's a kind of basketball maturity."
Indeed. You can (and should) question the NBA's policies on a variety of fronts, which is something Stern swears he welcomes.
"We wake up every morning," Stern says, "and ask, 'What are we doing wrong?'"
Yet the suggestion that the 19-and-over rule is either racially motivated or that it forces players to attend college is way, way off. As Stern points out, players who don't want to attend college have the right to play overseas or in the NBA Developmental League until they are 19. This is purely a maturity thing ... as well as a rule that the NBA Players Association had a say in.
Another comparison Stern loves to make is that it doesn't matter if you know how to drive at 13 or 14. You have to wait until you're 16 to get your driver's license, which is the same principle that the NBA is employing.
The most worrisome disclosure of the day had nothing to do with LeBron or congress or even referees. Stern said he anticipates league-wide revenues in the 2009-10 season, in the face of the ongoing global economic downturn, dropping "maybe as much as 10 percent."
Although he later suggested to a smaller group of reporters that the drop might not be that severe, such a dip would potentially lower the salary cap for the 2010-11 season to a level that -- in the words of league president Joel Litvin -- makes "a significant impact" in terms of slicing into the amount of spending money that many teams expect to have available for the ballyhooed Free Agent Summer of 2010.
"But that's not to say the sky is falling," Stern said.
It really wasn't even falling here last June even when it seemed to be.
Real sky-is-falling talk is best saved for the regrettable (and frightening) event that the league and union can't hash out a new labor agreement in collective-bargaining negotiations before the current deal expires in 2011.
"There's a lot at stake," Stern said of the talks that will commence this summer, "and I'm optimistic."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
No major issues for Stern to tackle at these NBA Finals.