Word on the Street

The Stern Button (thuh sturn but’-n) noun. A device that is used to instruct NBA officials – possibly via small bursts of electric shock – when to make a call and when to swallow the whistle. This device is typically used in crucial playoff games to extend an exciting series or ensure that big market teams advance.

Usage example:When a mysterious call is made during an important playoff game, you’ve probably just witnessed the Stern Button in action.

Word history: The Silent Assassin gang invented this word while watching Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Some of the calls in that game were so unbelievably bad, we theorized that David Stern – who was sitting in the crowd – was using one of those gameshow hand buzzers to force the officials to favor the Lakers. Ever since then, all subsequent examples of dubious officiating have been blamed on the Stern Button.

We like to imagine that, when Stern uses the button, he looks just like Emperor Palpatine did in Star Wars: Episode III when he told his clone troops to execute Order 66. So next time you realize the fix is in, turn to a buddy, pantomime thumbing the Stern Button, and recite the line in a croaky voice. This is even more effective if you replace the number 66 with the number of the corresponding NBA player. For example, assume that you’re watching a Bulls playoff game from the mid-90s on ESPN Classic and Jordan is getting preferential treatment from the officials. In this case, you would pretend to depress a button and say, “The time has come. Execute Order 23.” Maybe I’m just easily amused, but I never get tired of doing this.

An artist’s rendering of the Stern Button.


UPDATED: The Top 3 Stern Button Moments

1. Game 6 of the 1988 NBA Finals. The stakes: The Lakers were trying to become the first NBA champion to repeat since Bill Russell‘s Celtics did it in 1969. However, the Pistons were leading the series 3-2 and, thanks largely to Isiah Thomas‘ 25 third quarter points, they were ahead 102-101 with 14 seconds left. However, Bill Laimbeer got whistled for a cheap bump foul on a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook. Kareem, channelling his inner Rick Barry, hit both freethrows to give the Lakers the victory. L.A. went on to win the title, and get their repeat, in Game 7.

2. Game 6 of the 1991 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The stakes: A Pistons/Bulls matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990, tormenting Michael Jordan along the way, and 1991 was supposed to be Jordan‘s payback year. However, the Pistons had to get past the Boston Celtics first. The C’s were leading by two points in the final minute of regulation, and it looked like they were going to take the series back to Boston Garden for a deciding Game 7 when Kevin McHale cleanly blocked a Joe Dumars layup. However, Referee Jack Madden inexplicably whistled McHale for goaltending. That call tied the game, and the Pistons would go on to win it in overtime, “earning” the chance to get swept by the Bulls, who were en route to their first appearance in the NBA Finals.

3. Game 7 of the 1993 Western Conference Finals. The stakes: An NBA Finals showdown between the two best teams (Bulls and Suns) and the two best players (Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley) in the league. Clearly the Seattle Supersonics had no chance, especially since the Suns were gifted with an NBA playoff record 64 freethrow attempts.


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