Michael Jordan started settling for fall-away jumpers. Larry Bird missed a dunk in a playoff game. Magic Johnson shoved a referee.
And now, David Stern is losing the spring in his legs.
The greatest commissioner in the history of American professional sports isn't acting like it lately. On the eve of another NBA season, Stern tossed up another brick, and now we're at the point where we expect it. Two years ago, he ushered in the regular season by instituting a dress code. Last year, it was a new ball that nobody asked for.
This year, it's a blanket pardon for all the referees found in the offseason to have violated the rules against gambling. Three-peat!
In hindsight, Stern said Thursday, the rule probably wasn't a very good one after all, so never mind, they're getting a do-over. "My bad," Stern said, in essence.
A few listeners to his annual preseason news conference call waited for him to call all the other fouls on himself from years past. It didn't happen. So all were left to ponder the fact that in the season after an NBA referee's indictment for betting on games he officiated and taking payoffs from mobsters, the undisputed ruler of the sport was giving refs who hung out in casinos a get-out-of-jail-free card.
And all were left to wonder how that squares with telling grown men what to wear on the bus on the way to games, and shoving a new ball onto them without consulting them, and suspending players for an entire season when they choke coaches and punch their way into the stands, and going zero-tolerance on disputing on-court calls, and booting players who jump off the bench but not onto the court during a fight ...
And so on and so on ...
At best, the reaction to these conflicting judgments has been confused head-scratching; at worst, it has been shouts of "How two-faced can you get?"
Many in the public and the media, who once thought banning the bling, do-rags and saggy jeans was exactly what the league and decent society needed, are now wondering how the NBA can Big-Brother the players to death but let the officials skate on something as basic to their integrity as staying out of casinos. Their credibility was questionable enough even before Tim Donaghy got caught, and this casino revelation can't possible have enhanced it.
Stern's public response, however, is: We'll try to do better next time.
With misbehaving players, however, that wasn't, isn't and never will be good enough. The NBA didn't used to be the go-to league for double standards, but it sure has caught up now.
So, to those who eagerly applauded the crackdown on throwback jerseys, who called the players spoiled brats for complaining about the ball, who loved the leaving-the-bench rules back when it didn't affect your favorite team, who thought those prima donnas deserved to be kicked out for rolling their eyes at fouls they didn't agree with ... see what I've been talking about all these years? Do you get it now?
Based on the reaction to these latest events, it sounds like more people get it now than before.
If that weren't enough, also getting a pass through the turnstiles - for now, Stern said - are Knicks owner James Dolan and coach Isiah Thomas, busted in civil court last month in a sexual harassment suit by a former team vice president. No discipline for either of them or the team, Stern said last week, not until all possible appeals are exhausted.
Again, selective obedience to the letter of the law. At least nothing came out of that trial that damaged the image of the league. All the defendants wore collared shirts, didn't they?
Once the boldest, most visionary, most mold-breaking commissioner ever, Stern has now become too beholden to his biggest patrons (sponsors and advertisers fearful of a league that's too "urban") and too blind to the real threats to the game's credibility (the refs he protects, not the players whose clothing he monitors).
If this is how Stern is going to handle the crises of last summer, the NBA can't possibly gain fans who already habitually put the league down. Nor can the fans who hung in there through the undeserved criticism defend it as well as they used to.
It has left me as unhappy at the start of a new season as I have been in years.
And it has made me think about the commissioner who once was the standard by which all others were measured, the way I thought about Michael Jordan during his years with the Wizards:
"I don't want to remember him like this."