NBA commissioner David Stern botches handling of San Antonio Spurs controversy

The instincts that once guided acute reactions now create snap misjudgments. What once would be deftly handled with a sly wink, well-chosen words and plausible deniability get bludgeoned with blunt, broad statements that strike too much.

Recognize the signs of age in a job? Bet they do at NBA headquarters today. Maybe NBA commissioner David Stern did also, which is why he has announced his retirement effective February 2014. Unfortunately for Stern, he didn’t have enough self-realization to keep from looking like a thundering old coot Thursday night over a game in the first month of the NBA season.

In case you haven’t heard, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sent aging stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili home instead of dressing them for the Spurs’ fourth game in five nights, Thursday against the Heat ... on TNT.

Those last two words sum up the reasoning behind Stern’s promise of “substantial sanctions” for San Antonio. Predictably, a dogged effort by the Spurs — and a defending champions-in-Game-14 effort by the Heat — left the Men of Triple A needing a fast finish to avoid an official upset.

And left Stern looking like a tool, fool, anything but cool, especially as he dunned the Spurs a reported $250,000 Friday. I wonder if Stern has enough shame to quietly tell San Antonio, “Pay it when you want, if you know what I mean.”

That’s what’s bad. In his prime, Stern wasn’t so transparent. Or, at least he did it with more panache. He understood better what was worth making a public stink over, what was worth a private conversation with the parties involved and what was worth a shrug and “next.”

Heat fans — heck, most NBA fans — never embraced San Antonio as a team to get excited about even as the Spurs collected NBA titles at a pace exceeded only by the Lakers. Also, most fans in most places understand that the team you buy a ticket to see in June might not be the team that hits the floor in December.

Charles Barkley’s 1990-91 Philadelphia team came into Miami Arena for the Heat’s home finale. The Heat were done, the Sixers securely in the postseason. The only league-wide superstar on either team played an insignificant amount of time in front of a sold-out house. Charles might’ve spent longer in the postgame shower than on the court. I didn’t hear a gripe, even from the expensive seats around press row.

TNT had reason to steam Thursday. The prime early season matchup it had advertised suddenly set up to casual fans as a varsity vs. JV scrimmage. But even the smart guys at the network know this is part of covering a season. Nobody guarantees that the best teams and superstar players will put on a show up to their standards for the broader viewing audience.

So, Stern at his best wouldn’t have gone after the Spurs publicly. He would’ve calmly allowed that maybe the NBA needed to do a better job of scheduling, so such great matchups on paper don’t pit one team at the end of a grueling road stretch against a rested opponent from the other conference.

Maybe then, the apology to fans that left heads shaking at Stern’s clear lack of comprehension would’ve come off as a proper way to end the fuss.

When Stern was Stern, he also wouldn’t have made such an utterance before the game like some judgmental octogenarian corporate president completely assured as only the too young or too old can be.

Anybody who makes their living around team sports knew what happened could happen.

Remember a depleted Heat team with only eight players handing the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, they of the record 72 wins, one of their 10 regular-season losses as Rex Chapman went for 39 points?

I covered a Panthers-Ottawa late-season game in 1999 for which the injury-riddled, out-of-the-playoffs Panthers dressed too few players with NHL experience for a preseason game (yes, the NHL, League Mess-up, actually has rules about preseason games that full-price paying NFL fans probably wouldn’t mind). And that Panthers lineup, on the road against an Ottawa team with the second best record in the conference, won 2-0.

But instead of recalling such games across the sports he enjoys, Stern gave us senility. Maybe he needs to give it up before February 2014.