It’s time, now that Michael Jordan has turned 50 and David Stern has announced he will retire next year, that we see the two men for what they have always been: Mirrors of the other, a peculiar if brilliant pairing that perfectly suited two peculiar, brilliant, difficult men.
Like Bird and Magic, Jordan and Stern were equals in the arena that most defined their careers. For Jordan and Stern, coming on the heels of Magic and Showtime and Bird and his Celtics, it was as much about building the brand as it was competing on the floor. Stern and Jordan carried the NBA together, bound not just by an insatiable appetite for greatness and success but by enough shared personality traits that they are, on closer examination, much more like one another than Magic Johnson and Larry Bird could ever be.
While the end of the greatest era in NBA history happened years ago, when Jordan finally and truly retired, it’s now, with His Airness at age 50, that the nostalgia has begun to set in. We have parsed Jordan’s greatness, his time as a player, his aging and what it says about our own, and we have come to the obvious conclusion: An era that gave rise to the NBA as we know it has shifted fully from moment to memory.
But lost in Jordan’s wide and engulfing shadow is how Jordan and Stern are in many ways the same man — as if the surface differences that separated them hid the core of similarities. On one side of that divide was Jordan, drafted into the league in 1984. On the other side was Stern, elevated to commissioner that same year.
They arrived together — one a player, one a bureaucrat, both visionaries who would change everything, working the same game with the same attributes on two sides of parallel universes that only now can we fully see as connected.
“The stars had aligned for both of them, that they came around at the right time to raise the bar for the NBA and create in some ways where we are today as a league,” Jerry Colangelo, the director of USA Basketball, told FOXSports.com. “We owe both of them a debt for what they did together for the game.”
Jordan was a marketing genius, one of the first athletes to understand the power of his own brand beyond and above his sport. Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s — Jordan took their money, lifted their image in the American conscience and reaped the benefits. Even today, a decade after retiring, he has a higher Q rating than any sports star. The only thing he did better than basketball was brand management.
Stern, too, had an innate understanding of the potential for taking the game and making it a vehicle for goals far beyond the hardwood. He added seven teams under his watch, relocated six others, made basketball an international force and instituted a controversial dress code that nonetheless was Jordan-esque in its pinpoint understanding of how image is more powerful — and lucrative — than fact.
Both men were relentless competitors as well, in ways that were impressive if not exactly joyous to experience. Even today, Stern and Jordan will jump at the chance to point out with double expletives why what you said, or did, is not just dumb but weak (or weak-minded) and deserves to be crushed and you in turn humiliated.
They are mercenaries, hard-wired to punish anyone who deserves it, whether it’s Jordan punching a teammate or belittling his general manager or Stern intimidating players and opponents or severely fining a veteran-laced basketball team for sitting its players. And those are just the anecdotes that have become public.
With both men, the kind interpretation would be that they are driven guys hell-bent on success and so they will, at times, wield a competitor’s brutality that overshadows the kinder, gentler parts of their personalities. The less-kind interpretation would be that they are success-obsessed bullies — dictators in their own spheres who bucked no dissent and rose to power on brute force as much as personal brilliance — who don’t just attack opponents unmercifully but really enjoy it. Both would be right.
You’d also be hard-pressed to find someone who could refute the mounting evidence that both men, in their older age and greatness, have become, at least to many, simply mean-spirited bullies.
Still, each helped the other revolutionize the NBA, make it global and make themselves and many, many others very wealthy. The drive that makes a man a titan often makes him seem surly and mean-spirited as he prepares to step away from chasing immortality and power. Some switches you don’t just flick off. Some parts of ourselves, especially those we have crafted religiously for most of our lives, do not go away when the goals they were meant to chase have been met.
The fact is, Jordan is easily the greatest NBA player of all time, and arguably the greatest athlete ever; and Stern is easily the greatest NBA commissioner of all time, and arguably the greatest commissioner in any sport at any time.
For too long, we have operated under the misconception that Jordan had no equal of his era — no Bird to his Magic, no Wilt to his Russell — to match him or his greatness, to push him higher, to serve as an enhancer to all he did. That’s simply wrong. He had a peer, his only peer, in David Stern.
Now, soon, both men will have officially stepped away from the game, leaving only their ghosts to shape the future of a league they crafted in their images.
Magic and Bird had the great fortune of one another — challengers, comrades, friends and enemies before frenemies became a thing, two geniuses who had the added benefit of each one’s brilliance and passion and need for greatness crashing headlong into the other.
How great for them and for us. But with Jordan now officially old, and Stern now officially on his way out, let’s not overlook the Jordan-Stern nexus that was every bit as important in making the NBA the force it is.