David Stern has a special place in the hearts of Charlotte NBA fans. Or at least he should, as it would certainly seem like Charlotte has a special place in the departing commissioner's. Stern has put not one, but two NBA franchises in Charlotte during his tenure as commissioner, which will come to a close Saturday. Sure, he played a major role in removing one as well, but he made haste replacing the Hornets with the Bobcats, and then the Bobcats with the Hornets. He's like a time machine ... a smart, bespectacled time machine with a wry sense of humor.
You would be hard-pressed to find another NBA city that has had the kind of relationship Charlotte has had with Stern. He oversaw the birth of the first professional sports franchise the city ever had with the expansion Charlotte Hornets in 1988. When the relationship between owner George Shinn and Charlotte went south, Stern sided with Shinn on the move of the franchise to New Orleans, which didn't exactly made for the warmest relationship between a city and a commissioner. He even owned that franchise at one point, albeit once it had left the Queen City.
Clearly he still viewed Charlotte as not only a viable but desirable NBA hometown, even if few people (including those in Charlotte) did. Despite the ill will Shinn and the Hornets' move left behind for many fans in Charlotte, Stern made a concerted effort to return the NBA to the city Shinn and, later, ticket sales had championed decades earlier. Unfortunately, owner Bob Johnson, and perhaps Stern himself, severely underestimated just how turned off Charlotte was to the Association at the time.
When Johnson bungled efforts to spread Bobcat spirit (a real thing) across the region, most notably with the failed C-SET network, and irked many local business leaders who were slow to jump on board, it did nothing but stunt any growth potential the Bobcats had at the time. The play on the court didn't help. (Go look up C-SET, it was around from October 2004 until June 2005 and made the Titanic's run look good.)
But Stern remained adamant throughout that Charlotte could once again provide the rousing support it once did when it was a young NBA town fawning over the original Hornets. And when Michael Jordan gained majority ownership of the Bobcats in 2010 Stern presided over another league milestone as Jordan become the first former player to become majority owner of a franchise.
Of course Jordan and Stern will forever be linked in NBA history as well. Jordan helped usher the league into a new age and into the stratosphere after Larry Bird and Magic Johnson saved it, all under Stern's watchful eye. Jordan and Stern continue to have a relationship, and the commissioner joked about calling Jordan when the Cats aren't doing well, "...which is a lot" he said. Buuuuuurn.
Jordan made the move to change the name back to the Hornets next year, a notion Stern originally laughed at, but naturally supported once he saw the groundswell of emotion surrounding the effort. Charlotte is improving under new head coach Steve Clifford, a talented young point guard in Kemba Walker and a great free agent addition in Al Jefferson. But the franchise still lacks a truly marquee player and has yet to ever make a push, or even a win, in the playoffs.
With the most recent lockout resulting in changes to revenue sharing and an effort to instill greater parity in the league, Stern's most recent changes to the league in partnership with the Players' Association has helped the Bobcats and other small market teams considerably with greater penalties added to the luxury tax spenders, meant to curtail the bigger spenders from making the NBA an oligarchy. Per Forbes estimates, the Bobcats had their first year in the black with a positive operating income since 2008.
Still, as Stern's reign comes to a close on the first of February, you have to think he'll keep one eye on the box scores coming out of Charlotte. Perhaps he'll be looking for more ammunition to bust Jordan's chops, or to finally congratulate him on a monumental win. Regardless, he'll see one of the living legacies that will remain even after he vacates the office. Because of all Stern's goals and visions for the NBA in his time as commissioner, growth has to be at the top of the list. Expansion and growth allowed Charlotte to be part the NBA, and later the NFL. Many thought Charlotte too small to support a professional sports franchise, much less two. David Stern helped change that.