Stern’s ability to revel in fans’ boos part of commish’s charm

If someone posted that David Stern was a troll who existed solely on the power of the boos that rained down on him once a year during the NBA Draft, would anyone really doubt that?

OK, not really.

But on Thursday, the NBA commissioner presided over his final draft after 30 years as head of the league, and it has become somewhat of an annual tradition for the crowd in New York or New Jersey, or wherever the draft is being held, to boo him mercilessly.  

When he came out to the podium for the first time in the Barclay’s Center on Thursday night, he came out to a chorus of boos. “Good evening, and thank you for that enthusiastic Brooklyn welcome,” he said, smirking.

His smile widened as the boos continued. “And thank you to our passionate fans, who-” He was interrupted by a chorus of boos, and he smirked again. Then he mentioned Miami’s second consecutive title, and paused to let the chorus boos rain down, his grin becoming that like of a child on Christmas morning.

Once the draft began, though, he was down to business. Mostly.

Right before he announced the first pick overall, Stern said, “the Cleveland Cavaliers select…” then paused, and hearing a light rash of boos, looked at the crowd and put his hand out, palm up, gesturing for more, or at least a higher volume. He would do that again more than once.

He stopped before announcing the third pick, letting a bemused grin cross his face and saying simply — and dryly — “I can’t hear you.” And before the fourth pick was announced, the boos were noticeably louder. So Stern got what he wanted.

Last year, Stern was close to doing what he did on Thursday. He had that same smirk on his face, but he never actually encouraged the crowd to boo. Though this face was priceless. But finally, in his last time as commissioner, Stern got to go full wrestling heel, and he took full advantage of it.

In his 30 years as head of the league, that kind of cocky unaffectedness — even obliviousness — that is Stern has been a double-edged sword. It’s made him one of the best commissioners in professional sports, as he’s supremely confident in his decisions. But it’s made it impossible for him to admit when he’s wrong, and it’s arguably caused him to abuse his power at times.

Stern helped globalize the league, and his first year as commissioner — 1984 — was the same year that Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley would be drafted. Those three players would solidify the popularity of the league for years to come, and are three of the best to ever play the game.

Stern always knew how to market the league, and naturally those players made it much easier. And also, Stern was sporting this glorious mustache in 1984. So there’s that.

In 1985, we have the alleged frozen envelope lottery, where Stern supposedly acted to rig the drawing so that the New York Knicks would get the No. 1 overall pick. (Oh, and spoiler alert, they picked Patrick Ewing.) But even if Stern had done that, which seems ludicrous, is that not a smart business move? And that’s Stern. He’s just enough of the evil, mustache-twisting villain persona that it seems believable on some level.

As the last first round he would ever preside over wound down, Stern made sure to get his final shots in, and boy were they great. Before the No. 21 pick, Stern stopped for a good 10 seconds to soak in the hate, fueled by it. He then quipped: “We’ve had to explain to our international audience that the boo is an American sign of respect.” Before the No. 23 pick, Stern taunted the crowd. “Your enthusiasm seems to be dwindling.”

When Stern came out to announce his final pick, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. “Stop it, you’re ruining all the fun,” he said. And of course, there were some boos mixed in. But the crowd seemed to know that its chants of “Da-vid! Da-vid!” would make him more uncomfortable than the boos. So it was a sort of return troll to the ultimate troller, a gesture of respect.

When Stern introduced the next commissioner (and current deputy commissioner) Adam Silver to conduct the second round, the crowd didn’t know whether to cheer or boo. They’ll figure out how to treat Silver soon enough.

Then Silver brought up a special guest: Olajuwon, the first player Stern shook hands with in 1984, clad in an almost identical tuxedo he wore that night. “I wanted to be here to honor the commissioner as he announces his very last NBA draft picks. I’d also like to thank the commissioner for an amazing 30 years and all that he has done for the league and the players,” Olajuwon said. The crowd couldn’t help themselves — they applauded.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gets booed regularly too, and he often wields his power at times a bit autocratically. When he is booed, though, he remains stone-faced and acts as if he doesn’t notice it. And Goodell has never abused his power with nearly the same kind of swagger as Stern always has. He has never basked in the boos, sporting the most sinister of smirks as he trolls an entire crowd.

That’s what we’ll miss about you most of all, David Stern. Troll on.