David Stern’s legacy when it comes to the history of the NBA and basketball, in general, is one that has long been cemented. At his helm, the NBA became the global sport it is today and his induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame signals the role he had in expanding the game.
To many Lakers fans, though, his legacy — fair or foul — is something much different.
One of the most contentious moments in recent NBA history was the veto of the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers. A move that would have paired two of the best players in NBA history in Paul and Kobe Bryant, the circumstances surrounding the veto still induce anger for Lakers fans present day.
With the Hornets in search of an owner and their star point guard Paul looking for an exit, the league was placed in a tricky spot as both owners of the team and the ones with final say in a trade that would greatly change the outlook of the league.
The result was an agreed-upon three-team trade sending Paul to the Lakers that was vetoed by David Stern for unclear reasons. Years after the fact, former NBA vice president of basketball operations Stu Jackson revealed that Stern vetoed the deal because it made the Hornets too good and, ultimately, unappealing to potential buyers as a potentially mediocre team with a high payroll.
It did not help matters with Lakers fans that, days later, Paul would be dealt to the crosstown rival Clippers for seemingly a worse return in the immediate future.
In a piece on the 10-year anniversary of the veto, Andrew Grief of the Los Angeles Times talked to a number of figures involved in the matter, including now Lakers owner Jeanie Buss. A defense of Stern was offered by Buss, who said Lakers fans should no longer blame him for the veto.
“I feel like our fans felt like, ‘The league just wants to punish the Lakers.’ Like, ‘The league is working against the Lakers from being successful.’ And that wasn’t the case at all. And it wasn’t David acting as commissioner. It was David acting as a person protecting the Hornets.
“What I want the fans to know, to come away with, is the league doesn’t try to keep us down. That was never David Stern’s intention in that and it wasn’t fair that David was booed when he came to L.A. after that. He didn’t deserve that. David was the greatest commissioner of all time for what he built and what he stood for in this league. I miss him every day.”
It’s unrealistic to expect Buss, a sitting owner in the league currently, to say anything but nice things about someone like Stern. As previously mentioned, Stern is responsible for so much of the success the league saw through the ‘90s and 2000s.
But it’s possible to appreciate and recognize what Stern for the game while also still holding him accountable for his role in the vetoed trade. The effects of that decision still linger, especially as Paul still played at a high level a decade later as he led the Suns to the Finals in 2021.
Between that veto and the Suns' Finals appearance in 2021, the Lakers underwent a full-on rebuild and won another title, events that may not have happened if the franchise was able to trade for Paul.
Stern was one of the most influential figures in the history of the NBA who also played the biggest role in one of the most controversial moments in the league’s history as well. For that, it’ll be hard for Lakers fans to ever stop blaming him.