Stern pleased to see Raps thriving, still regrets Grizzlies’ failure
TORONTO — David Stern and Raptors president Masai Ujiri are in agreement — there’s no doubt Toronto has become a destination for NBA players.
And Stern, the league’s commissioner from 1984 to 2014, said any notion the city isn’t one died long ago.
“It has not worn off, it has been exploded off,” Stern said in phone interview with The Canadian Press from his New York office this week. “Toronto has the most wonderful array of sports assets and a cosmopolitan community and a great building.
“It’s a pleasure to see that it is a destination city that players want to go to.”
Ujiri interjected to answer a question directed at Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — acquired in the blockbuster DeMar DeRozan trade with the San Antonio Spurs — at the Raptors’ season-opening press conference, frustrated that the narrative of Toronto being among the league’s least-desirable outposts still lingers.
“That’s old and we should move past that,” Ujiri said in September. “Believe in this city, believe in yourselves.”
He then repeated those sentiments to a couple dozen reporters.
“We have to move on,” he added. “To continue to hear about people not wanting to come here is actually irritating after a while. It is. Come on. Let’s be real. People like it here.”
Stern oversaw the NBA’s expansion to Canada during his tenure, with both the Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joining the league ahead of the 1995-96 campaign.
But while the Raptors have flourished after some early struggles, the Grizzlies only lasted six seasons before moving to Memphis in 2001.
“I consider (Toronto) a great success,” Stern said. “Just as I consider Vancouver to be one of our failures.”
Speaking ahead of Monday’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony that will see NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who worked under Stern with the NBA for more than a decade, the 76-year-old still wonders what might have been with the Grizzlies.
“It doesn’t gnaw (at me),” Stern said. “But when I think of it I regret that it was never really (given) the attention that it deserved, because it’s a beautiful and extraordinary city.”
The Grizzlies’ brief life in Vancouver was plagued by a grocery list of issues, including terrible teams, questionable front-office decisions and a weak Canadian dollar.
Stern said it felt at the time like they couldn’t catch a break.
“It was just awful to me,” he continued. “I still remember granting the expansion franchise (and) I was so thrilled that we had a franchise in Vancouver.
“It was never managed to great success.”
Stern also believes there’s a chance the NBA might one day return to Canada’s west coast.
“I would never say never about anything,” he said. “I’m an observer, so I’m watching from afar as they build a (US)$700-million building in Seattle.
“Vancouver still has a great building that it had when we were there.”
Stern also touched on the recent announcements of sports betting partnerships signed by NBA and NHL following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last spring that permits states to allow gambling on games.
And while the ruling presented new realities for leagues, Stern said the horses were let out of the barn for him long before May’s ruling.
“My view changed when everyone said that daily fantasy (sports) was an acceptable way for companies to operate — which I considered to be betting under another name,” he said. “For me it was game over. You might as well move on.
“Time’s change, attitude’s change given the combination of tax dollars available and illegal betting that usually goes to organized crime. Let’s try it. I’m a changed man.”
Former NBA commissioner David Stern oversaw the league’s expansion into both Toronto and Vancouver. Stern says he considers Toronto “a great success” for the NBA, while Vancouver was a “failure.”