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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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The Capitals are not happy about Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are not happy about Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom

John Carlson did not play at all in the round robin and finally returned to action on Wednesday in Game 1 against the New York Islanders. But just on his second shift Carlson, not someone known for fighting, dropped the gloves with Islanders captain Anders Lee. Why? Because Lee had just delivered a late hit to the chest to the unsuspecting Nicklas Backstrom and Carlson was not happy about it. Not one bit.

"It looked real dirty to me," Carlson said. "I think when a guy is kind of coming up and kind of looking back at the pass, I've heard it a lot over the years that they're trying to take that out of the game. More than anything, as a player that's been around, you kind of sense the impact. Nicky doesn't get hit very often, so that should tell you all you need to know. He's probably one of the most aware players in the league. That was my reaction to what happened."

The hit appeared to be to the chest of Backstrom, but the puck was long gone by that point so it was very clearly late. It also seemed to be made worse by the fact that Backstrom did not appear ready for the hit, perhaps because the puck was not close. An unprepared Backstrom was then dropped to the ice by the hit.

Backstrom played only 7:21 for the game and did not appear in the second or third period.

RELATED: BACKSTROM EXITS GAME 1

Carlson was not the only one who was upset following the game.

"It looked extremely late," T.J. Oshie said of the hit. "In the frame I saw, there wasn't even a puck, and it still looked late. It's hard seeing a leader and a player like Backy is not only for our team, but pretty good role model as far as in the NHL, go down like that on a late, cheap play. It's out of our hands."

Head coach Todd Reirden did not have an update after the game saying Backstrom was continued to be evaluated. But even if he did not have much to say on Backstrom's health, he had plenty to say about the hit itself.

“[Backstrom’s] continuing to get looked at," Reirden said. "Obviously, he couldn’t finish the game. It was a late hit on an unexpected player that was in a spot [where] he was extremely vulnerable. So those are some things we saw there. It’s as simple as that. Like I said, late hit, the player wasn’t expecting it and it’s predatory.”

Not surprisingly, the Islanders saw the hit differently.

"I tried to throw the breaks on a little bit there, but I caught him, the end result after that a penalty, a couple of fights."

"It was one of those plays if you come laterally, especially with congestion at the blue line and Anders was making a hockey play. Anders is a strong guy."

Perhaps the biggest difference of opinion between the two teams is what this means going forward. Clearly the Caps thought the hit was dirty and warrants supplementary discipline. The Islanders, however, think the matter is settled.

"It was settled and then the game continued on," Lee said.

"I think the hit was made, they responded, Wilson went after Lee, they fought and that's probably the end of it," Trotz said. "We'll see."

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Todd Reirden expects Lars Eller to be back for Capitals in Game 2 vs. Islanders

Todd Reirden expects Lars Eller to be back for Capitals in Game 2 vs. Islanders

Washington Capitals center Lars Eller is expected to be back in action for Game 2 against the New York Islanders, head coach Todd Reirden said following the Game 1 loss on Wednesday.

Eller did not play in the first game of Washington's Stanley Cup Playoffs run as he awaited clearance by the league after he re-entered the bubble on Sunday. Eller departed Toronto on August 5 for the birth of his second child, Alexander.

Before Eller can rejoin the team, he must test negative for the coronavirus four times over a four-day period

RELATED: HOLTBY'S ROUGH NIGHT AND MORE FROM GAME 1

Eller's return is something Washington will be happy to see, as the team is in desperate need of some help at the center position. Nicklas Backstrom left Wednesday's game with an injury and his status for Game 2 is still unknown. 

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