As I noted in The Stern Button post, officiating controversies and conspiracy theories have dogged David Stern for the last several years. Looking back, I couldn't help but wonder when it all began. Was it the Dwyane Wade Freethrow-A-Thon in the 2006 NBA Finals? Was it when the Kings got jobbed in Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals? Was it when the Jazz got hosed in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals? Was it when the Suns got 64 freethrows in Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals? Or was it the entire second half of Michael Jordan's career? Surprisingly enough, it was none of those. Turns out, the conspiracy theories started in Year 1 of the Stern Regime.
Stern was named Commissioner of the NBA on February 1, 1984. He took the helm of a league beset by fan disinterest, financial problems, and drug scandals, yet he righted the ship almost instantly. Of course, Stern had a little help from fate and circumstance. First, the 1984 NBA Finals featured a classic seven-game showdown between Larry Bird's Boston Celtics and Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers. Then, over the next couple seasons, a new crop of soon-to-be superstars entered the league: Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, and Patrick Ewing to name a few. Further sweetening the pot was the fact that the Celtics and Lakers met in the Finals again in '85 and '87. By the time Jordan's popularity took off in the late '80s, the league was suddenly speeding headlong toward globalization.
It sure seems like Stern was the beneficiary of being in the right place at the right time. Or was he? In retrospect, the good times clearly started with the '84 Finals, which was the ignition point of the Bird/Magic Era. I was recently rewatching Game 7 of that series -- one of the best championship matchups of all time, by the way -- and I was surprised to hear Tommy Heinsohn say, "By challenging the commissioner, I think [Bird] was trying to get the refs on his side." Dick Stockton followed that cryptic statement with the following explanation: "You heard Commissioner Stern...hearsay that someone heard David Stern say that the league wanted a seven-game series, and of course Larry Bird went to town with it." [You can listen to it here; the comments start around the 2:35 mark.]
Eh? I was intrigued. Unfortunately, a simple Google search failed me, so I started poking around The Boston Globe's online archives*. On June 11, 1984, the Globe ran an article written by Dan Shaughnessy called Bird: NBA Wanted 7. After the Celtics lost Game 6, Larry Legend was pissed, but not at the Lakers or his teammates. He was steamed at the Commish.
"Stern told a fan that the NBA needed a seven-game series, that the league needed the money. When the commissioner makes a statement like that to a fan, you know it's going to be tough. When Stern makes a statement like that, things are going to happen. You just don't make statements like that and not expect anything out of it. He's the commissioner and he shouldn't be saying anything like that. The NBA wanted a seventh game because they wanted to make more money and they got their wish. There is no reason for me to lie. He said it. He's a man and he'll live up to it. He may say he said it in jest. But I'm out there trying to make a living and win a championship."
Those were some pretty strong words from Bird**. Was there any validity to the claim? It's hard to say, since Game 6 is the only game of that series I haven't seen. But I can tell you this: The Celtics were in control for most of the game, leading by four after one quarter, by six at halftime, and by 11 with 3:59 left in the third quarter. But then things turned around in a hurry, as the Lakers outscored the Celtics 46-24 the rest of the way, enjoying a 35-17 advantage*** at the line and winning 119-108 despite Bird's 28/14/8. [This information comes from the Boston Celtics 1984 Championship Official Souvenir Book.]
On June 12, 1984, the Globe ran another Shaughnessy article called Riley: Script Is Written For Lakers' Victory. It's mostly a bunch of hippe talk**** from Pat Riley, but it does give a brief follow-up to Bird's anti-Stern comments.
According to Shaughnessy: "NBA commissioner David Stern chose not to issue any statement in response to Larry Bird's charge Sunday that Stern wanted a seventh game because the league needed the money. Stern's office said the commissioner was 'unreachable,' and no one there knew his exact whereabouts. However, NBA spokesman Brian McIntyre spoke with Stern. 'David said Bird's comment is ridiculous. Like every fan in America, he has been looking forward to a seventh game. It's a dream matchup, and everybody has wanted to see a seven-game series since Day 1.'"
It's interesting that Stern chose not to confront Bird's comments head on (and what's up with the "no one knows his exact whereabouts" stuff...what, was he on Air Force 1?). It's even more interesting that he didn't fine Bird or the Celtics; these days, those comments would be worth 100K or more in fines. It wasn't at all surprising, however, that Stern dismissed Bird's claims as "ridiculous," since that's his buzz word of choice whenever any kind of criticism is leveled against him.
Was there a conspiracy? Did Stern have a little chat with the refs before Game 6 about the league's need for a seventh game? We'll never know for sure. But it is, nonetheless, a fascinating piece of historical trivia that Stern never had even a single year as NBA Commissioner without at least one officiating controversy.
* The Boston Globe charges $2.95 per archived article. That seems a little steep to me.
** Of course, this is the same guy who called his own teammates "a bunch of sissies" after the Celtics got blown out in Game 3. Then, when asked if his team had played any better in their Game 4 comeback victory, Bird said, "Yeah, we just played like a bunch of women tonight." Yikes.
*** Did the C's get a few makeup calls in Game 7? Maybe, maybe not. But they had a 51-28 freethrow advantage in that final game.
**** Going into Game 7, Riley guaranteed the Lakers would win. "It's destiny. I believe in the Fates, and I think it's our time. I think the script is written for us to win." This is the kind of motivational crap that Riley's famous (and infamous) for. It sounds brilliant when he's right, and idiotic when he's wrong. In this case, it was the latter for Riley, since the Lakers lost the game 111-102.