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Column: Is Stern best commissioner in sports?

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Column: Is Stern best commissioner in sports?

During the ring ceremony on opening night in Miami, a microphone picked up NBA Commissioner David Stern telling LeBron James, ``I'm proud of you.''

No doubt.

Although it doesn't become official until 2014, Stern's recent retirement announcement cracked the door on the debate about his legacy. In one important sense - more on that in a moment - it's an open-and-shut case.

Charles Barkley weighed in during the Celtics at Miami pregame show, calling his one-time boss, ``arguably the greatest commissioner in sports'' because since both arrived in 1984, the average player salary had skyrocketed from $250,000 to $5.2 million this season. Factor in relative labor peace, a decided lack of scandal, expansion from 23 teams to 30 and the explosive growth of the league's fan base internationally, and Barkley's assessment doesn't sound far-fetched.

Stern is a ``player's commissioner'' in nearly every sense, which is why the knocks against him have plenty of merit, too. He inherited one of the best rivalries in sport, Magic vs. Larry, but as Michael Jordan ascended to become basketball's first truly global figure, he hitched the league's fortunes to the drawing power of its stars at the expense of its teams. So while Stern often pays lip service to achieving competitive balance, the dominance of two dozen or so superstars has made the argument moot. Only eight teams have won a championship during his stewardship - compared to 15 in the NFL and NHL, and 18 in major league baseball - and as Stern's cameo alongside James on Tuesday night reminded us, that's not likely to change anytime soon.

If you're one of those superstars, or lucky to have landed in the right place at the right time, it's been a good run. Dwayne Wade qualifies on both counts. His breakthrough season came when Shaquille O'Neal parted ways with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and moved east to claim his last title in Miami. Two seasons ago, James decided to leave Cleveland to take his talents there, too, pulling along Chris Bosh from Toronto in his wake. After a sure-handed 120-107 win over their Eastern Conference rivals, someone asked Wade whether players kept track of how few teams passed out rings during the Stern era like the ones the Heat collected before the game.

``I do. I do. I'm sure a lot of players do,'' Wade replied. If you know the history of the game, you know not many franchises, not many coaches and obviously not many players have won championships in that long period of time from when I started watching basketball.''

During training camp, James was asked a similar question and said, ``The game is different, but the way it's being shaped, it has some similarities.''

He's right insofar as superstars always needed a strong supporting cast - both Magic and Bird had All-Star teammates, and even Jordan needed Scottie Pippen as a sidekick - but these days they have more say over where they play than ever. The labor fight that shortened last season, and Stern's veto of the Chris Paul-to-Los Angeles trade just before it began were an attempt to slow down that movement, but it was a case of too little too late. Just about every superstar looking for a better home already has found one in the past few seasons - the latest example being Dwight Howard and Steve Nash moving to Los Angeles - which is why the biggest name anyone expects to get moved between now and the trade deadline is Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao.

As if the Heat's title last year wasn't impressive enough, they added Rashard Lewis and three-point specialist Ray Allen, putting even more distance between them and the rest of the conference. The story is almost as depressing in the West. Oklahoma City, the team Miami beat in the finals last season, figured to have its hands full getting past those Lakers and the Spurs again this year. And in a bid to save money, the Thunder traded sixth-man James Harden to Houston, deciding they didn't want to take on another long-term contract in addition to the two deals they made to lock up Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

It's not just the players, of course, who've taken notice of how Stern does business. Fans and owners in more than a few of the league's outposts, from Sacramento to Charlotte, know only too well how the league operates. So do the bookies in Las Vegas, where more than one has the Heat and Lakers as odds-on co-favorites.

``It's great to be in that category,'' Wade acknowledged. ``It's special. It's the one thing, when the banner was going up, you look and you say, `Man, this is something that can never be taken away from us.'''

Not to worry. There's likely to be another one or two hanging alongside it sometime soon.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.

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In wake of video controversy, Brian MacLellan says he is disappointed but it was lesson learned for Kuznetsov

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In wake of video controversy, Brian MacLellan says he is disappointed but it was lesson learned for Kuznetsov

When you are a general manager preparing for the draft and free agency, seeing a video of one of your most prominent players in a hotel room sitting next to lines of an unidentified white powder is about the last thing you want to see.

That was how the summer kicked off for Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan when video of Evgeny Kuznetsov began circulating on social media.

“We're a little disappointed that he had put himself in that situation that could be interpreted in a number of different ways,” MacLellan said on a conference call Thursday in his first availability with the media since the incident.

The video was alarming not just because of the presence of the unidentified substance, but also because it came off a down year for Kuznetsov, one in which he managed only 21 goals and 72 points after scoring over a point per game in the 2018 postseason. That one could have had an effect on the other was an easy conclusion for fans and critics to jump to.

Kuznetsov, however, denied ever taking drugs and after an investigation by both the team and the league, it was determined he would receive no discipline. He also released a statement apologizing for the incident.

MacLellan said he was ultimately satisfied with Kuznetsov’s explanation and the findings of the investigation surrounding the video.

“I think we had a pretty thorough investigation by both the league and the club and a number of discussions with Kuzy about what happened and how he got in that spot and how to handle that going forward,” MacLellan said. “I think at the end of the day, we're comfortable on all the conversations we've had, we're comfortable what the league had to say about it.”

While Kuznetsov may have avoided any discipline for the incident, MacLellan still feels confident that it was a lesson learned for the dynamic center and noted that he has high expectations for him heading into the next season.

Said MacLellan, “I think Kuzy learned a lesson about putting himself in certain situations and we're going to move forward and we expect Kuzy to have a good year this year.”

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Nationals extend protective foul ball netting

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Nationals extend protective foul ball netting

The Washington Nationals will become the latest MLB team to extend their protective netting down the first and third base lines, team owner Mark Lerner announced on Thursday. A new netting will be installed at Nationals Park during the MLB All-Star break. 

The new netting will extend from the end of the dugout, where they currently end, and go to the left and right field corners. It will be designed with certain sections that can be raised to allow for fan interaction before the games. 

In his announcement, Lerner stated "I could not help but become emotional last month watching the Astros-Cubs game when a four-year-old little girl was hit by a line drive. I can’t imagine what her parents must have felt in that moment. And to see the raw emotion and concern from Albert Almora Jr. was heartbreaking. Further extending the netting at Nationals Park will provide additional protection for our fans."

This announcement comes fresh off the heels of a national conversation about the importance of netting in ballparks and more that needs to be done to protect the fans. As Lerner referenced, a young fan was hit by a foul ball during an Astros-Cubs matchup in May. The girl was rushed to the hospital and left those in attendance paralyzed in shock, especially Cub Albert Almora Jr. 

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did not expect the league to step in this season for a league-wide change. However, he did mention that it would continue to be discussed and stressed the importance of fan safety. 

As a result, some teams are taking matters into their own hands. The Chicago White Sox became the first team to announce an extension of their current protective netting to the foul poles. 

Preceding the White Sox announcement, both Chicago and the Nationals experienced a traumatic foul ball situation. Chicago's Eloy Jimenez ripped a foul ball down the line and hit an unsuspecting fan.  

The first game with the new netting with be on Monday, July 22 against the Colorado Rockies. 

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