New York --On Tuesday morning, the czar of the NBA looked as close to sick as anyone had ever seen him. Staggering to the podium. Surrounded by league officials. Stripped of the arrogance and self-assuredness that normally accompany his every word. But to know David Stern is to know one thing above all else: Someone will pay dearly for this.
You don't spend nearly a quarter-century transforming a league into a multibillion-dollar industry only to watch it potentially disintegrate amid an alleged gambling and point-shaving scandal involving a referee and do nothing. Tim Donaghy will be thrown into a jail cell if Stern has anything to say about it..
"This is the Stern everyone knows," an Eastern Conference official said, one of many afraid to say anything publicly in fear of Stern's wrath. "He's known for knowing everything he needs to know, for always being on top of his game and being extremely protective of the NBA's image. There are people who will question that now, who will wonder if this happened because he was asleep at the wheel, which is ridiculous.
"So in Stern's eyes, this entire fiasco is not only a blemish on the NBA's record, but his own. God help us all."
Stu Jackson, the league's senior vice president known for handing out fines and suspensions on Stern's behalf, should be concerned. As should Ronnie Nunn, the league's supervisor of officials. And most folks sincerely doubt that Bernie Tolbert, the league's head of security, will have his job next week.
To know Tolbert, a good man, is to personally wish for something different. But the proverbial head must roll. As Stern reiterated during Tuesday's news conference, "the only thing we can do [from here on out] is deal with matters as harshly as you can and hope that acts as a deterrent."
Although he certainly exercised that belief on a number of occasions, Stern never had to make such utterances before. For the better part of two decades, he had Horace Balmer, the league's former head of security who retired three years ago and was known by insiders for dispensing a heavy hand at his discretion.
Micheal Ray Richardson was banned from the league for drug use. So was Roy Tarpley. And if any NBA personnel enjoyed a lifestyle that didn't correlate with the salary he was being paid, Balmer insisted the person pay him a visit.
"Horace would call them in the office in a hot second," an NBA security official explained days ago. "It didn't matter what you were doing or how it looked. If Horace thought it was something potentially detrimental to the league, he was all over it. Never mind your guilt or innocence at the time. He just wanted to let you know he was watching you."
Stern didn't hire former FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration agents, ex-Army officials or retain members of the Secret Service as consultants for problems to occur. They're employed to put fear in the hearts of those who'd dare consider violating the sanctity of competitive sports.
"I can tell you this is the most serious situation, and worst situation, that I've ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA, or the commissioner of the NBA," Stern said Tuesday.
Stern went on to speak of how the NBA takes its "obligation to our fans in this matter very, very seriously." Of how he will "do every look back possible to analyze our processes and seek the best advice possible to see if there are changes that should be made."
It was obvious Stern already knew what those changes would be. A new evaluation process. More monitoring. Whatever else the law allows, and, of course, a change in personnel.
Anything less and it would seem like everything's OK.
You don't have to know Stern to realize that couldn't be further from the truth.
Stephen A. Smith writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.