NBA commissioner David Stern spent yesterday making one public appearance after another, flying from the Senate hearing on steroids in Washington to a National Braille Press gala last night at the TD Banknorth Garden. The Boston event honored Stern along with world-class blind climber Erik Weihenmayer and drew a contingent of Celtics past and present. At a time when Stern, the NBA, and the Celtics are increasingly concerned about the image projected by players, the gala provided an opportunity to foster good relations between the players and community, and highlight the Celtics' charitable efforts. Just the kind of positive publicity Stern likes to generate.
As part of the new collective bargaining agreement, the NBA and its players' union devised several new initiatives designed to improve the athletes' accessibility and professionalism. Players will be required to attend pregame autograph sessions and participate in pregame giveaways of T-shirts, hats, and wristbands. Inactive players will greet fans and community groups on game nights. The league increased the players' minimum number of community relations appearances from 10 to 12. Players must make themselves available to the media for at least 15 minutes after practice. And among other new rules, there will be a dress code Stern expects to include sport coats and collared shirts, and exclude bluejeans. When it was mentioned that some of the league's most highly regarded players, such as Tim Duncan, dress more casually, Stern said, ''Well, the job description has changed."
''We're working on a job description," said Stern. ''It's to help the players understand what the job is. The job is not only to go to practice and win games. The job is representing the NBA to all constituencies. Community relations. Public relations. Sponsor relations . . . Maybe for a variety of reasons we pulled back too much. Or maybe we got spoiled by a generation of players who did these things as a matter of course and as we got younger we moved away from them. So, we have to slowly remind ourselves [what to do].
''Sometimes I worry that our players' intensity can be misconstrued and their effort can be misconstrued. They are the most intense, the most dedicated. I think the younger base of our fans understands that, but perhaps, the mid-to-older aren't quite as attuned to it. We'd like to use our convening power to have people focus on this game and our great players, who they are and how they play, rather than their variance from some norm . . . Being neatly attired in a certain way, that's going to be our norm."
While some fans may view instituting a league-wide dress code as treating the symptom and not the problem, Stern sees it as a small step in re-educating players about proper conduct.
''The dress code is, to me, a continuation of things [after the league mandated teams wear either warmups or shorts for the national anthem last year, but not a mix.] It's a small thing that contributes to a sense of professionalism. It's what the job entails. We've always moved to the fashion of our players. Years ago, the fashion was a jacket and tie. Now, it's a much more casual approach. But our referees are always attired a certain way based upon their job description when they come into the building. Our coaches are attired a certain way when they come on the court. We decided that it was time [for the players]."
Stern noted that some teams have more strict dress codes than the one the league plans to institute. That said, the commissioner also believes code-of-conduct-type rules generally should fall under purview of the league to ensure fairness. When the Celtics' plans for a Code of Conduct came up, Stern called it ''just a restatement" and said it was ''announcing the obvious with an air of discovery." Still, the Celtics promise to be ahead of the curve in all matters relating to professionalism and community relations. Owner Wyc Grousbeck said the team would do ''20 percent more" than what the league mandated. That kind of commitment was one of the reasons the implication of Tony Allen in a recent Chicago nightclub incident in which there was a shooting upset Grousbeck so much.
But Allen was not the only NBA player to be in the wrong place at the wrong time recently. Wizards second-round pick Andray Blatche was shot in the chest last weekend, and the Bobcats' Marvin Ely was robbed and shot at early yesterday morning. While he would not say so directly, Stern is certainly concerned about these kinds of incidents and the image they project.
''What went through my mind when it was the second time is that our players have to be more careful because they are inviting targets in places where they might or might not want to be," said Stern. ''It's going to be our job to remind them [of the dangers]. It's something that we clearly have to be concerned about. But really, less for the image and more for the safety."
General manager Chris Wallace signed a two-year contract extension yesterday with the Celtics, through the 2007-08 season. Wallace is entering his ninth season as GM and shares responsibility for scouting players, making personnel decisions, and advising executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
When Ainge assumed his post in May 2003, Wallace took on a less public role, and his long-term future with the franchise was seen as in doubt. Since then, Ainge and Wallace have developed a strong working relationship.
''From my perspective, Chris is a guy that I've been grateful to for his help and loyalty in my transition to this job," said Ainge. ''He brings experience to the mechanics of the business. He has an understanding of the game worldwide. And he is well respected and well connected. He is a valuable asset to us and to me."
But for the next few months, Wallace will be immersed in scouting the international basketball market while keeping track of the college scene.