NBA commissioner David Stern, right, introduced Chauncey Billups as the Boston Celtics top draft pick in 1997. Billups is in his second stint with the Pistons. (Craig Jones / Getty Images)
Auburn Hills — From shaking David Stern’s hand as a 20-year-old draftee with a high-top fade and an uncertain future to accepting an NBA Finals MVP trophy from those very same hands seven years later, Chauncey Billups has seen more than most of the outgoing commissioner.
“I’ve spent a little time with him through NBA travels and championship things and whatnot,” Billups said. “He’s a pretty funny dude, joking and laughing. That’s something that people don’t see.”
Stern oversaw a great boom, led by his promoting of stars such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who saved the NBA in the early 1980’s, along with stars like Isiah Thomas, Charles Barkley and Julius Erving before being taken to another strata by Michael Jordan’s popularity in the 1990s.
Stern steps away Saturday, 30 years to the day he took over the NBA, and not before numerous controversies and conspiracies, as he was faced to sell a predominantly black league to a predominantly non-black fan base.
Adam Silver, Stern’s longtime deputy, takes over and has big shoes to fill, at least in terms of Stern’s personality. Stern could be part tyrant and part buddy, with a charismatic wit publicly and an iron fist privately.
“He had a great run as commissioner. He grew the league to what it is today,” Billups said. “Revenue-wise it’s unbelievable in terms of how long he’s been around. It’s an international game now. He’s had a strong hand in that.”
Stern had a hand in getting the NBA Finals off tape delay, at a time seeing a playoff game on television was an anomaly as opposed to commonplace, where every single contest is televised and archived.
Today, the NBA is the world’s second-most popular game behind soccer, and one can point to Stern utilizing the Dream Team to elevate the league in terms of global reach.
Stern has big critics, especially in Detroit, where rule changes came into play that didn’t benefit the champion Pistons teams in 1989 and 1990, as well as the 2004 Pistons — teams that played a physical style, one that wasn’t as aesthetically pleasing to the common fan.
The flagrant foul was implemented after the Pistons repeatedly beat up on Jordan, and hand-check rules were put into place after 2005 to help stars like Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, players who consequently led their teams past the Billups-led Pistons in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
“It’s a tough spot. For him he wanted to make a game that more people wanted to watch,” Billups said.
“When they changed the rules, for being so defensive-minded I think us and San Antonio played one of the best Finals (2005) in a long time but had the worst ratings. It was a dogfight, it wasn’t pretty, but it was good basketball as far as we were concerned.”
That fine line between satisfying the casual fan without completely alienating the die-hards was a tightrope Stern had to deftly walk in his later years, particularly as a newer, younger generation of stars came into the league.
“It’s what the consumer wants, which is his obligation to make it a profitable league,” Billups said. “I didn’t like it then, I don’t like it now. I don’t like that they don’t let you play defense, but that’s how the league has evolved. But in his defense the league is making more money than ever.”
Either way, Billups concedes Stern’s leadership has taken him and many others like him to places he would never imagine and despite his complaints along the way, Billups is grateful for Stern’s part in growing the game.
“Across the world everybody loves the NBA and he had a lot to do with that,” Billups said.
The Pistons reassigned guard Peyton Siva and forward Tony Mitchell to Fort Wayne of the Development League.