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What if the NBA Had a Black Commissioner in 1981?

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"They were partners. That's the only way I look at it. They were partners. They're complicit just like he is, because you cannot allow this man to do all this stuff, for all these years, and be held blameless. You can't." -- Olden Polynice, former Clippers player on the NBA's accountability in the Sterling case.

Since the TMZ/Deadspin exposure, through two nights of jaw-dropping CNN interviews and still today as each morning brings another little progress report, many have complained: "How did the NBA put up with Donald Sterling for so long before the recordings leaked?" Indeed, how did they? Let me ask the question a different way: What if in 1981, when Sterling first bought into the league, the NBA commissioner had been African-American? Would a black NBA commissioner have specially sensed exactly who Sterling was? Almost 40 years ago the NBA had arrived at precisely that racial fork in the road.

During the 1974-75 NBA season, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy announced he was stepping down. The league owners would select a successor soon. The African-American community was excited by the prospect of then-NBA deputy commissioner Simon Gourdine becoming the first African-American commissioner of a major North American sports league. Gourdine possessed excellent pre-NBA credentials: an Army captain in Vietnam, assistant U.S. attorney in New York, general counsel for Celanese Corporation.

"He's not a yes man," Kennedy told the New York Times, "He's never hesitated to tell me when he didn't agree with me." Since joining the NBA in 1970, Gourdine served as the league's legal counsel, then was promoted to vice president of administration in 1972, then named as the league's second in command in 1974. He had has worked his way up and, like Adam Silver who was deputy commissioner to David Stern, Gourdine perfectly was positioned as the heir apparent.

A January 1975 Ebony magazine article entitled "The Best of All Worlds for a Black Pro" waxed complimentary about the NBA's racially integrative leadership in sports, and noted Gourdine's status in particular:

The NBA began its 26th campaign in October, with some 215 players, approximately 132 (61 percent) of whom are black. Five of the league's 18 franchises have black head coaches... and two clubs [have] black general managers. The NBA also employs the highest ranking black administrator in professional sports. On November 12, 1974, 34-year-old Simon P. Gourdine, a former U.S. Attorney, was elected deputy commissioner of the NBA. Commissioner Walter Kennedy is retiring June 1, 1975, and it is conceivable that when the NBA Board of Governors elects his replacement (possible in January) it's choice will be Simone P. Gourdine.

Conditions were ripe for such optimism. Hank Aaron had broken Babe Ruth's all-time home run record that summer. Muhammad Ali redeemed himself by heroically knocking out a then-villainous George Foreman and, in a prolonged pre-fight stint in Zaire, struck a sympathetic chord with oppressed black African nationals. Nixon had been jettisoned and the Vietnam war had finally, officially ended. In the spring of 1975, Frank Robinson debuted as MLB's first black major league manager. Salad days for those on the left.

The NBA, perceived as a black league was, however, seen as a conservative button-down product compared to the really black league; the big afros and freewheeling funk aesthetic rival ABA. In 1975, the NBA displayed for the first time in history two black head coaches in a North American major sports league final (Al Attles for Golden State and K.C. Jones for Washington). CBS had the television broadcast rights to the NBA Finals, and play-by-play man Brent Musberger, in his pre-game comments, blithely skimmed over the landmark moment: "Not much being made of it," quipped Musberger. "That's progress." (Incredible progress you might say because it did not happen again until 32 years later in 2007, when Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith met in the Super Bowl.) Perhaps CBS was being sensitive to Madison Avenue trying to sell a black league to white-dominated corporate sponsorship community, or the network truly believed they were in televising a sport that was at the forefront of new era or racial progress. CBS, after all, had boldly signed two African-Americans -- Oscar Robertson as the color analyst and Sonny Hill as the sideline correspondent. These were progressive things to do at that time.

Gourdine saw himself in the right place at the right time. He wanted to be the next NBA commissioner and tactfully justified himself as the right choice with comments in the Ebony magazine piece:

"An organization will look at its structure and determine which product is selling, and the market to whom it is sold. It will then hire people who will smoothly sell the product," said Gourdine. "In this case... the product is basketball, and nearly two-thirds of the people who play it are black." He went on to state that "we have younger, more progressive owners in the NBA... and they have exhibited a disinclination to be establishment and entrenched." He added that "with each successive year, the National Basketball Association has proven itself to be one of the most innovative and open minded sports organizations in this country's history."

The NBA was way ahead of everyone. So would the world really have a problem with Simon Gourdine?

The NBA owners passed over Gourdine in favor of Lawrence O'Brien, a man who had no previous sports league experience. O'Brien had been Postmaster General and the national chairman of the Democratic Party. It was said that he would be helpful in the political struggles the NBA faced with anti-trust challenges from the player's association (the "Oscar Robertson Suit") and the imminent merger between the NBA and ABA. O'Brien, with a young lawyer named David Stern at the point, negotiated through the merger and settled with the players. Yet for the next seven years the league tumbled into near financial ruin, plagued by cocaine, fighting and low TV ratings.

It was the fortunate confluence of the advent of cable television, the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and business savvy of the 1984-appointed new commissioner David Stern who inherited the most marketable athlete of the 20th century, Michael Jordan, that turned the league around.

That reborn NBA included Donald Sterling, who bought the San Diego Clippers in 1981. And you can see now how one could wonder, would there ever had been a Donald Sterling had Simon Gourdine been named commissioner in 1975?

But by 1981 Gourdine had had enough. "There were never any barriers against me," he said with dignity. "It's just how long do you want to stay after being passed over?" And in a kind of exit interview article with the New York Times in June 1981, with the league at its marketing nadir, the man remained realistic but positive, and eerily prescient.

If anything, the percentage of blacks will get higher. Those fans who want a change in that will have to find another sport. We are not colorblind in this society. Race will have a role. There is a degree of resistance that is historical and reflects the attitude that exists in America, but it's not an attitude that can't be overcome.

Thus, in 1981, as Donald Sterling was walking in the NBA door, Gourdine was walking out. Maybe, as he headed toward the elevator holding a cardboard box containing a potted plant and other personal effects, Gourdine passed Sterling who was moving in the opposite direction coming off the elevator. Maybe Gourdine's racism radar blipped causing him to hesitate and glance over at Sterling, feeling his gut telling him to protect the league. Maybe. But it was time to go. Simon Gioudine got on the elevator.

Gourdine enjoyed a full post-NBA life becoming commissioner of consumer affairs under Mayor Ed Koch, then NYC deputy police commissioner, chairman of NYC civil service commission, general counsel for NYC board of education, and along the way, executive direction for the NBA Players Association.

At least at the time of his departure from the league office in 1981, Gourdine maintained that race was not a factor in his not becoming NBA commissioner. ''I always thought
basketball was different from other sports,'' he said.

These owners have not been around as long. They are entrepreneurial people who had to knock down barriers themselves, so they're not inclined to erect barriers for other people. If sports ever has a black commissioner, it will be in basketball.

Gourdine passed away in 2012. Today, in the wake of Donald Sterling, some like to cite the fact that African-American Mark Tatum is currently the NBA deputy commissioner. But Adam Silver just got there. He's only 51, and he has handled things very well.

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