Stephen A. Smith | NBA king separates men from the boys

Posted: March 23, 2007

There's a sucker born every minute, and we've all been hoodwinked for quite some time.

For a long time, the thought was that commissioner David Stern wanted kids in the National Basketball Association. He didn't care about college basketball. Their loss was his gain. But little did we know the miniature czar of professional roundball was telling the truth about keeping kids out with every single move he made - right down to the $15,000 fine he handed to Michael Jordan a few days ago.

If the NBA had its druthers, it would be called No Boys Allowed, a place where you would never have to worry about players running into the stands, or getting paid before their 21st birthday.

They would go to school and get their education. They'd speak fluently, connecting their subjects and verbs better than pugilists. Then they'd come into the league, sign contracts under the present collective bargaining agreement - not the old one - and wouldn't think of cashing in on nine-figure extensions until they were near the age of 30.

Simply because they couldn't.

The latest move by Stern only proves as much. The mere appearance of impropriety on the part of Jordan speaks to that, as well as the $30,000 fine Stern handed to Boston Celtics vice president Danny Ainge for "excessive access" involving freshman sensation Kevin Durant of Texas.

Ridiculous? Probably.

It always seems that way with Stern. Right up to the moment you read the fine print and recall how often Stern attempts to come to the defense of the players association's executive director, Billy Hunter, muttering, "I've mellowed in my older years" along the way.

Image is everything. Especially when it interferes with potential dollars.

"The NBA does not have much influence in that regard," Cleveland Cavaliers guard Larry Hughes said, alluding to when he left St. Louis after his freshman season in 1998 to turn pro. "It's really the agents you have to worry about, or the runners coming to you with different information. So I don't know if it was really necessary to fine Jordan [now part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats] or Ainge.

"The runners and folks like that are telling you who wants you. They're telling you your draft position, what endorsement opportunities are out there for you. It's more so about the guys who are trying to represent you rather than someone representing a professional team."

It's true. Innocence is bliss. But so is the NBA life these days.

What Stern knows is that he has practically everything he wants, and he's not about to mess with it.

There is a rookie wage scale for guys coming into the league. Years ago, there were three years guaranteed on a player's contract; now there are two, with several team options capable of locking players in for five years.

The NBA controls entry into the league with its draft and the salary structure. The league has established a maximum limit on player contracts. There's an escrow tax and a luxury tax for cost certainty purposes. And now there's a 19-year-old age limit.

Why not 20?

"The way things are structured, the later you come into the league, the later teams really have to pay you," one former league executive said this week. "That's why the league can demand [that] an expansion team like the Charlotte Bobcats pay $300 million to come into the league. One look at the collective bargaining agreement is all anyone needs to see if they're wondering why league owners love David Stern. The man has, practically, everything he wants. He probably didn't go for the 20-year-old limit just to give the player's union a bone."

Stern couldn't do that for Jordan.

You cannot reward someone for letting the proverbial cat out of the bag, and that's what Jordan and Ainge were doing. Oblivious, if not flat-out indifferent, to Stern's agenda, Jordan and Ainge were potentially influencing young men to come to the NBA much sooner than the Commish would like.

The younger they arrive, the more money they're positioned to collect later on. That circumvents Stern's plan of maximizing potential at minimal cost, which isn't about to happen on his watch.

This would be the reason the NBA plays tag-along, jumping on the "maturity" bandwagon. Every time someone appears devoid of common sense and decency, it provides the perfect tool for the league to preach the importance of nurturing and tutelage.

"People just don't understand . . . you're always learning something new," Hughes said. "Whether it's year one or year four, you've still got to come out and learn how to survive in the real world. The less concerned you are about finances, the easier life should be for you."

Everyone knows this.

We're just novices compared to Stern.


Contact columnist Stephen A. Smith at 215-854-5846 or ssmith@phillynews.com.

Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stephensmith.

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