So Long, David Stern

Billups reflects on the 30-year run of NBA’s visionary commissioner

Chauncey Billups
Chauncey Billups ponders David Stern's influence on the NBA.
Streeter Lecka/NBAE/Getty Images
On David Stern’s last day on the job he’s held for exactly 30 years, Chauncey Billups – one of the very few NBA players who can say they’ve been around for the majority of Stern’s tenure – pondered his influence over the changes he’s seen since leaving Colorado for the 1997 NBA draft.

Stern was a driving force behind the NBA softening the rules on what was allowed defensively – not once, but twice, each time to the detriment of Pistons championship-era teams.

Mr. Big Shot didn’t like the result, but couldn’t blame Stern for the initiative.

“It’s a tough spot for him,” he said after Friday’s Pistons practice. “His thing is to try to make the game a game more people want to watch. When us and San Antonio played (in the 2005 NBA Finals), I think one of the best Finals in a long, long time, had the worst ratings. I think it was because it was a dogfight. It was defensive. It wasn’t pretty. It was just good basketball, as far as we were concerned, but scoring 120 and the dunks, that’s what people want to see.

“I don’t know if he really wanted it or if it was just what the consumer wants, which is his obligation to make the league a profitable league. I didn’t like it then; I don’t like it now. I don’t like that the league is offensive now and they don’t really let you be physical and play defense, but that’s how the league has evolved. In his defense, the league is making more money than ever.”

Billups looks around and sees a league that has downsized while getting more athletic at the cost of quality of play.

“Since I’ve been in the league, I think it’s changed a lot as far as talent is concerned. When I came into the league, it was a centers’ league: (Hakeem) Olajuwon and (Patrick) Ewing and David Robinson and (Rik) Smits and Dikembe (Mutombo). It was a big league. Two-guards were 6-7. It was just different. Look at us. We don’t even have a guard that’s 6-7. We’ve got threes playing at 6-3, 6-4 now.

“Athletically, it’s probably a little more advanced, but it’s gone through a lot of different phases and throughout that process Stern has done a great job of keeping our league very valuable. Across the world, everybody loves the NBA and I think he has a lot to do with that.”

Billups, who left Colorado after his sophomore season, was near the front of the wave that carried a younger generation of players into the NBA, spurred by Kevin Garnett’s surprisingly successful preps-to-pros transition in 1995. Just a few years earlier, NCAA title team rosters were peppered with upperclassmen, like the Larry Johnson-Stacey Augmon UNLV teams or the Christian Laettner-Bobby Hurley Duke champions.

“Before, guys would be a little more established coming into the league, because they’d been to college, maybe,” he said. “You didn’t take guys so much on potential as they do now. You take guys on potential now and it’s four, five, six years before you even know if they can play.”

Of course, Stern pushed for and was able to write into the 2005 collective bargaining agreement the stipulation that American-born players were not eligible for the draft until a year after their high school class graduation. In the 2011 CBA, the league attempted to make it a two-year wait but ceded the point to the Players Association to focus on the more contentious issues of revenue distribution.

“I was one of the guys who benefited from that, the potential, and I didn’t really come around for four or five years,” he said. “The rest of the top four, five, six guys were ready to go. Now, it’s like the first 10 guys are all like, all right, we’ll see in four years.”

Billups knows players in general also benefitted from Stern’s decisions on any number of fronts, from growing the game globally to aggressively pursuing network TV contracts by a willingness to make the game more appealing to mass audiences. Even if that meant enacting the rules that took some of the punch out of his team’s defensive arsenal.

“Shoot, I’m forever grateful to be in this league,” he said. “I could have never had a job this good in my life, no matter what I’d done. So I’m blessed to be here and David Stern, he deserves a lot of that.”