On the night of the 2007 NBA draft lottery, David Stern sat in the temporary bleachers lining the NBA’s Secaucus, New Jersey, television studios and seethed. The three finalists had been revealed for a chance to draft Greg Oden and Kevin Durant with the Nos. 1 and 2 picks: Portland, Seattle and Atlanta.
“The Pacific Northwest and the god-damn Deep South,” Stern snarled in a hushed voice. “Give me a big market!”
These were words that should’ve never come out of a commissioner’s mouth, but those sitting closest could hear them tumble out in a curdling cadence.
Unapologetic in his obsession to swell the league with stars in prime television markets, Stern was relentless in his pursuit of big, bigger and biggest for the NBA. This was Stern’s NBA, and Stern did almost anything he wanted for those 30 years on the job as commissioner. He was a visionary and a deal-maker and a tyrant and a revolutionist.
People cried of conspiracies and collusions, frozen envelopes and preferred referee whistles to close out Game 7s. Stern barked and bellowed, debated and cajoled, and moved onto the next scrap. He was relentless. He took on everyone, and almost never lost; not to owners or general managers, or coaches or players, or referees or reporters, or player agents or TV partners.
If the evolving league demographic of hedge fund and techie owners and superstar players eventually transferred power to the States in the Adam Silver era, power had been largely centralized in the Washington, D.C., of Stern’s tenure: Olympic Tower in Manhattan.
Stern marketed Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to explode the league stateside in the 1980s, and leveraged Michael Jordan and the Olympic Dream Team to globalize the game in the 1990s.
Stern screamed and cursed and pounded boardroom tables, treating the commissioner’s seat like an emperor’s throne. It’s hard to imagine Stern at rest, but he has passed at 77. The former commissioner suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 17 and was in critical condition until his death on Jan.1. For most of his life, Stern kept coming and coming and coming.
Privately, owners talked tough about how Stern worked for them. In his presence, many of them cowered. At once, owners, management and players were grateful to Stern for franchise valuations and salaries growing exponentially — and fearful that failing to submit to his will could result in legitimate retribution, including unfavorable referee assignments in the playoffs.
When the owners and players were fighting for a new collective bargaining agreement, Stern walked into the locker room with the Eastern and Western All-Stars gathered at the 2011 All-Star Weekend in Chicago — and essentially threatened the players to fall into line before a July 1 lockout date:
“I know where the bodies are buried in the NBA, because I put some of them there,” Stern blurted.
When I asked Derrick Rose, the 2011 MVP, about it several days later before it had become public, he seemed more impressed than irritated. “It was shocking. I was taking off my gear. … I just stopped and thought, ‘Whoa … I couldn’t believe that he said it.'”
Whether Stern truly meted out retribution to those who crossed him is probably more folklore than fact. Yet Stern did traffic in the threat of retaliation. He survived Tim Donaghy, Donald Sterling, MJ’s gambling, the Malice at The Palace and killing the Lakers trade for Chris Paul. He instituted salary caps, max contracts and dress codes. He negotiated Yao Ming‘s passage to the NBA, opening up billions of dollars in Chinese basketball revenue. His job was to deliver revenue to his owners, but he lamented how that Chinese partnership promised to bring an eventual ethical reckoning to the NBA, too.
Stern had a penchant to lord over the NBA as though it were a mom-and-pop shop in his native Teaneck, New Jersey. In the late 1990s, Jennifer Keene was riding down to the lobby of Olympic Tower. The elevator stopped, the doors opened and there appeared Stern. Just the commissioner and a 24-year-old licensing assistant in the old consumer products group. Her responsibilities included the Spalding ball account.
“At the time, there were big problems with the original orange and oatmeal WNBA game ball, and he wanted them off the shelves ASAP,” Keene said. She knew part of his thinking from her superiors, but never imagined Stern had even a remote awareness of her existence.
Without so much as a hello, the NBA commissioner turned to a young Keene and blurted: “How many balls are left on the shelves? Modells? Sports Authority?”
In every elevator shaft, every room, Stern was a force of nature. For all the volatility and blunt force, there was an incredibly progressive, generous and compassionate side to Stern. The NBA played a leading role in HIV and AIDS awareness. Stern refused to let the league become overrun with irrational fears in the wake of Magic Johnson’s diagnosis in 1991. Minorities and women were elevated into prominent positions in larger numbers and greater frequency than in other professional leagues.
There are stories of NBA employees with family crises that credit Stern with remarkable acts of kindness and generosity. In his pre-NBA days as an attorney, Stern took on and won a massive housing discrimination case for African-Americans in Northern New Jersey, and did so pro-bono.
Stern was a Jersey kid with a Rutgers degree and Manhattan law firm ambitions. In the NBA, he found the mechanism to expand his world far beyond the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel. As commissioner, transcendent NBA stars became global icons — and inspired the imagination of young players everywhere.
In 1984, his first year as commissioner, Stern welcomed a South American basketball and soccer analyst named Adrian Paenza into his Manhattan office and offered his Argentina Channel 9 the rights to air weekly NBA highlights. The price: $2,000 a year. So every Sunday at midnight, there was Magic and Michael and Bird arriving in a faraway land where children had mostly dreamed of soccer stardom.
Manu Ginobili watched those highlights every week, rushing outside the next day to try those moves for himself. “When I was a kid, I didn’t even dream of playing in the NBA,” Ginobili once told me. “Nobody ever from Argentina played in the NBA when I was 10. I was watching MJ’s [highlights] and thinking he was from another planet, that he was unreachable, untouchable — the same as Magic and Larry.
“And then I find myself, years later, raising the same trophy as they did.”
On his way to conquering the world, Stern spared no one in his path. In the twilight of his tenure, he became too cantankerous, stayed too long on the job. When the next generation of owners and players had little interest in bowing to a throne, Stern’s standing as emperor eroded. He walked out a beleaguered, tired man at 72 years old in 2014. Stern wasn’t the only NBA superstar to stay too long.
Through it all, most will remember an American sporting life for the ages. Big ideas, big markets, big stars, big world: David Joel Stern conquered it all.