“Incoming.” That’s how it must have felt in the beginning as issues were constantly being lobbed like mortar shells into the game. But like a good soldier, located behind enemy lines, he adapted and moved forward. The National Basketball Association was a complete mess in the late seventies and early eighties. Lack of respect was rampant. The league was full of drugs, and violence had permeated a game of grace and skill, in the locker-room and on the court; even the NBA Finals were tape-delayed. The league was just trying to survive as Larry O’Brian stepped down at the end of the 1983 season.
Enter David Stern, a Manhattan New York Knicks fan who had grown up to be a lawyer. Stern always loved the game. Stern reminisced about going to the Knicks games with his dad at the original Madison Square Garden. The cost of seat in the upper deck was fifty cents. “It was a time when you could improve your seats by tipping the usher,” said Stern. As a lawyer, one of his firm’s clients was the NBA. “In 1978, my job became to protect the client,” laughed Stern. In 1984, Stern eventually became the Commissioner of the NBA. His body of work speaks for itself. On February 1, 2014, at the age of 71, Stern stepped aside as he completed his 30th season as commissioner.
When David Stern came into the league, there were 23 teams valued at 400 million dollars total, and the league office employed 24 people. Today, the current 30 teams are valued at 19 billion and there are 1,100 employees in 15 different offices around the globe. There are also an unprecedented 92 international players on the rosters. The secret to Stern is that he understood that this sport was capable of influencing people worldwide. The NBA is truly a global game. “There was no such thing as sports marketing until Michael Jordan came along,” said Stern.
Stern is also very proud of the diversity of his sports players, coaches, owners, and front-office people. He jokes that his nickname is “Easy Dave,” but don’t tell Mark Cuban that. “In sports, our product is the players,” said Stern. “My job is to grow the game so the players and owners of all 30 teams make money.”
When you ask him about his favorite player he defers to a list. The names of Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, and “Dr. J” come up. His least favorite and most favorite memories both include Magic Johnson. “When Magic announced he was HIV positive, I thought he was going to die,” said Stern. “We were so uneducated about HIV at the time.” His favorite memory occurred in Orlando at the 1992 NBA All-Star Game. Stern allowed Magic to play and of course Magic had a huge night, hit the last shot of the game and became the MVP. I was there, center court with my friends from Miller Brewing Company. Bob Lanier sat in front of us. Buddy Ryan sat to our right about four seats away, and Jerry West sat behind us. I was in basketball heaven. All-Star Tim Hardaway had offered to let Magic Johnson play in his spot. Commissioner Stern gave the okay.
Stern loved draft night except when he had to pronounce names of overseas players. “I loved being a part of these kids’ journey and the accomplishments of these players and their families,” stated Stern.
“It has never been personal with Mark Cuban. I have never been upset with him; he just has his own way to communicate,” said Stern. “And I have mine.” In fact, it was Stern who cast the deciding vote to approve Cuban as an owner. Ted Turner was one of Stern’s biggest thorns in his side. “He would break things for fun,” laughed David.
“You do not enter the stands,” said David Stern. The display of violence in The Palace at Auburn Hills by players and fans was embarrassing. Stern had no problem being judge and jury with fines and missed games handed out like candy on Halloween. He has worked hard to remove the fisticuffs from the games.
“My most prize possession is an autographed book sign by ‘Red’ Auerbach,” said Stern. “It says, ‘To the best commissioner in my lifetime and a fan of the NBA.’” “I loved him, he was a complete gentleman, a fiercest competitor and a good friend,” stated Stern. Stern also has one of the original posters commemorating the Fifty Greatest Players in NBA History hanging in his home. It is signed by all except “Pistol Pete” Maravich, who had passed away earlier. “It was like we still had Ruth, Gehrig, and Cobb still alive,” said Stern. “I really don’t have much stuff at my house,” said Stern, “Just the memories.”
I met David Stern in Phoenix, Arizona, at a luncheon during the 1995 NBA All-Star Game. He signed my program and let me take his picture. One of the things he said that impressed me, “The best seat in sports is courtside at a basketball game.” I believe that to be true. “He leaves a footprint that is much bigger than his shoe size,” said Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Stern has excelled as an ambassador, judge, marketer, and fan.
David Stern was replaced by Adam Silver who has worked side-by-side with Stern for 22 years. “So far, so good,” said Silver.