Magic Johnson said it's "ridiculous" to suggest David Stern is racist, saying it's OK to disagree with the NBA commissioner but that you "can't attack the man and what he stands for."
Johnson was responding to comments made by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, representing the NBA players' association, who told the Washington Post that owners are treating players like "plantation workers" during the ongoing lockout.
That was similar to the comments Bryant Gumbel made last month on his HBO show, when he said Stern "always seemed eager to be viewed as some kind of modern plantation overseer treating NBA men as if they were his boys."
But Johnson said Stern has always done right by players, noting the number of black players such himself, Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas who have followed their Hall of Fame careers by going into management or ownership positions.
"This league is more diverse than any other league and has more minorities in powerful positions than any other league," Johnson said during a phone interview. "That's all about David Stern and his vision and what he wanted to do. He made sure minorities had high-ranking positions from the league office all the way down to coaches and front office people."
Stern did not comment, though he told the Washington Post that Kessler's conduct "is routinely despicable."
Kessler planned to apologize to Stern on Wednesday morning.
"The comments that I made to the Washington Post reporter were made late Monday night after a long day," he said. "Looking back at this now, my choice of words were inappropriate. I did not mean to offend. I was passionately advocating for the players. I am going to call Commissioner Stern this morning and apologize for my choice of words. It is very important that the parties not have any distraction and that we all work very hard to try to reach an agreement to save the NBA season."
Players such as Johnson and Bill Russell called the league office to support Stern, who is leading owners in a bitter dispute with the players.
"It was David Stern who took this league worldwide. And so those guys know it was because of David Stern and what he was able to do," Johnson said.
Johnson recalled it was Stern who offered him a place in the 1992 NBA All-Star game, even over some players' wishes after he had retired the previous November because of HIV. And it was Stern who included Johnson that summer on the Dream Team that won the Olympic gold medal.
And it was Stern, he said, who called him after Johnson's comments about Thomas in his book ignited a public feud between the longtime friends, urging Johnson to work it out.
"He has always done what's right for both the players and owners. I'm going to have to say this personally, David, he didn't have to do that. That's the type of commissioner he is.
"He always is looking out for the players and what's best for the league, and I disagree with anybody who says he's trying to be a plantation owner. It's ridiculous we're even talking about it."
The 69-year-old Stern is likely nearing his final years on the job after becoming commissioner on February 1, 1984, just as Johnson and Larry Bird were renewing the longtime rivalry between the Lakers and Boston Celtics. Johnson said he's "tired of people taking shots" at Stern, especially because so many of them have jobs connected to the NBA that Stern created.
"He's a tough business man and a smart business man," he said. "That's what he's supposed to be."