POSTED: Jan 27, 2014 1:39 PM ET
David Stern became commissioner of the NBA on Feb. 1, 1984.
I was late.
It was 1992, and I was trying to get from Badalona to Barcelona, Spain, about a 20-minute ride under good conditions. This day, the conditions were not good. The cab lurched in the midday traffic. I was five minutes late. Then, 10. That I had never had to make this trip before was of no interest to my lunch guest, who had agreed to sit down for an interview during the Summer Olympics. He was a busy, busy man.
I finally reached the Ambassador Hotel and went into the restaurant. Twelve minutes. Sometimes, you get a grace period from people if you're 12 minutes late. I sat down.
"You're late," David Stern said. He was not happy.
Of course, he couldn't have been better in the interview that followed. He was funny that way.
David Stern has ruled the NBA for 30 years with a velvet glove, iron fist, breathtaking intellect, inexhaustible work ethic, a personal sense of right and wrong, and a love for basketball. When he took over from his predecessor, Larry O'Brien, the NBA was rapidly falling behind Pete Rozelle's NFL in popularity, corporate sponsorship and fan interest, and drew half of the television ratings for its Finals that baseball drew for the World Series. Upon Stern's ascension to the post, the NBA threw everything up against the wall to draw interest. Some worked, some didn't.
"He really looked for people who had the same genuine love for the sport that he had," said Rick Welts, who worked for the NBA for 17 years as an executive, ultimately becoming Chief Marketing Officer and president of NBA Properties before taking jobs as president of the Phoenix Suns and, then, the Golden State Warriors.
"It makes a difference. He wasn't interested in people who were really talented people unless they had that emotional investment in the game. Because he does."
NBA Board of Governors Meeting
Stern is retiring this week, with deputy commissioner Adam Silver set to officially take over on Saturday. Stern will leave an NBA that has transitioned from the mom-and-pop days to a multi-billion dollar business. The how and why of how that came about will no doubt be the subject of books.
You don't have time for a book.
What follows is an oral history of The Life and Times of Stern from people that worked with him, for him, and played in or were a part, directly or indirectly, of his league. They interacted with him, learned from him, argued with him, won his championships and saw the world on his league's dime. Some were maddened by his attention to detail. Some were not.
"I grew up in a pretty rough part of Cleveland," says Gary Stevenson, another former league executive, "and my dad was pretty rough on me, so I actually didn't mind someone like that, who pushed me. All David wanted was for you to be the best that you could be."
Stern's History as Commissioner
Stern joined the NBA in 1967 as an outside counsel from the prestigious firm Proskauer Rose, which has, according to its website, represented the NBA since 1963. Stern worked on many of the league's big cases in the '70s, including the Oscar Robertson case. In 1978, Stern became the NBA's general counsel, and in 1980, NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien named Stern the league's executive vice president, with another young attorney, Russ Granik, taking Stern's old job. But Stern wasn't the clear choice to ultimately replace O'Brien. There was some sentiment for Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, who'd done a great job with that expansion franchise, and had been a former player, coach and general manager. Some people thought highly of Bill Bradley, the former Rhodes Scholar, New York Knicks legend and U.S. Senator from New Jersey.
Russ Granik (former Deputy Commissioner/COO, NBA, now vice chairman, Galatioto Sports Partners): I figured I could always go back and be a tax lawyer. But then David came, and he was really a great teacher and mentor.
Rick Welts (former President, NBA Properties, now President and COO of the Golden State Warriors): You had to be young, really inexpensive, and really passionate about the NBA to make his list of people. To this day, we disagree about what he paid me. He swears he paid me $42,500, and I swear he paid me $47,000.
Stern: First NBA Job
Ed Desser (Former President, NBA Television and New Media Ventures, now President, Desser Sports Media): David was sort of an inside guy, and didn't have the kind of public profile that commissioners had. Think about it in the context of Larry O'Brien. Here's a guy that was chairman of the Democratic Party. He was Postmaster General. He was tight in the Kennedy Administration. He was a very well-known and respected guy, and in those days, leagues would go out and hire commissioners to add to their credibility. And so, sure, lots of people knew David on the inside, and respected him. But I remember when David got the job, it was sort of shocking.
Granik: I wrote O'Brien's speeches and things like that. I really got to understand what the league was about. It really was when David came in and took me under his wing. Then a couple of years after David came in, O'Brien said to us, he said to David, 'you run all the business operations. We don't have a good businessman. And let Russ be general counsel.' David said okay. He was still my boss, but he stopped practicing.
Welts: In the old days, he'd have, literally, two-foot tall piles of articles on his desk that he'd tear out and give to everybody. He'd give it to you and you'd think, what the hell does this have to do with NBA basketball? But when you were finished reading it, you'd understand what he was thinking about and why it made sense.
Granik: There was less pressure on him (in the beginning). He's always been a hard-driving guy. Maybe he was a little easier going, again, because there was less pressure than after the NBA started growing like crazy. But he was always a very hard working guy. He expected everyone that worked with him to work almost as hard. He always was a stickler for detail, even things that didn't seem important at the time -- like exactly how you worded a memo, exactly how you worded a press release, how you ran an event.
Val Ackerman (former Commissioner of the WNBA; now Commissioner of the Big East Conference): I came to the NBA more or less from Wall Street, and I worked worse hours at the NBA. Wall Street tended to be cyclical. You'd work 10 straight nights, and then you'd have some time off. I never had any time off at the NBA.
Welts: He knew that screaming at me wasn't going to be the most effective for me in that working environment. We were small enough in the beginning -- we were 35 people before he was commissioner. Back in the day when people had home telephones, you'd drag home, and inevitably, at exactly 10 o'clock at night, the phone would ring, and we'd be on the phone for 45 minutes. At 10 o'clock, it was Uncle David, and by the end of the call you'd be ready to run through a wall the next day for the NBA.
Stern became Commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, and immediately faced dire problems on multiple fronts. The perception of the league was still influenced by stories like the 1982 report by the Los Angeles Times that estimated 75 percent of the players in the league were using drugs. The Finals were shunted off to afternoon telecasts on the weekends and -- embarrassingly -- tape delayed broadcasts late at night during the week.
Stern: First TV Contract
The 1983-84 season was marred by clear and obvious signs of tanking by teams looking to get in better position for an incredible Draft class, which featured Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley. Chicago lost 14 of its last 15 games; Houston lost 14 of its last 17. The 1983 All-Star Game was remembered much more for Marvin Gaye's rendition of the National Anthem than by the game or anything else that occurred during the break. The league's corporate partnerships were limited to companies like the sporting goods company Spaulding. Other sponsors were reluctant to invest in a sport that was viewed, frankly, as "too black." The '81 Finals were the lowest rated in history.
But, there were some sprouts in the ground -- one in Boston named Larry Bird, one in Los Angeles named Magic Johnson -- that were starting to flower. And the leadership at Olympic Tower in New York was about to be injected with an energy, intelligence and passion that would fundamentally change the league. Stern, the lawyer, quickly morphed into Stern, the marketer, always looking for the next big thing -- the next innovation, the next business, the next place to sell the emerging NBA brand.
Kevin McHale (Hall of Famer with the Celtics; current Rockets coach): If you really wanted to see what happened, you had to stay up until 10:30 p.m. Central time, in little Hibbing, Minnesota, and not watch any news, because you didn't want to know who won or lost.
Jerry Colangelo (former owner, Phoenix Suns; current Chairman, USA Basketball and the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame): We held the All-Star Game in Phoenix (in 1975). Back in those days, teams did everything themselves. The league didn't control All-Star weekend. It wasn't a weekend, it was just a couple of days. We launched a couple of things in Phoenix. I flew to New York to meet at that time with Bob Wussler, who at the time was the president of CBS Sports, and I had the gall to ask for two minutes at the top of the program. He kind of laughed at me, and said, 'What on earth would you need that for?' I said, I'm trying to sell this game in the Phoenix business community. [Singer] Andy Williams was a minority partner, and so was [composer] Henry Mancini. So I said, I've got this vision of Andy Williams singing 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' with the Camelback Mountains in the background, and Henry Mancini playing. And I got it. That's how it started, with Andy Williams singing and the mountains in the background.
Stern: First Draft Night
Welts: I give Carl Scheer [the former executive with the Denver Nuggets and Charlotte Bobcats] a lot of credit for it. David was going to take office at All-Star weekend in 1984. Larry O'Brien was going to leave office after the All-Star Game in '84. Carl had come in, and in those days, we got together in November in New York [with the host city]. I remember the table at the Waldorf Astoria. And at the meeting, Carl said, 'You remember the ABA dunk contest in '76?' Well, of course. Basketball history. Julius [Erving] taking off from the foul line, and Darnell Hillman. I go to Denver today and there's 300,000 people who were there. Carl said, 'It would be a real tip to our heritage if we could do a dunk contest at halftime of the All-Star Game.' We weren't sure. CBS had these things that they did at halftime, and I'm not sure. It just so happened that Major League Baseball had been doing this game called the Cracker Jack Old Timers game, with all of its retired players, and Luke Appling [then 75 years old] had hit a home run. He happened to have hit it right over a Cracker Jack sign in left field.
Steve Mills (former NBA Senior Vice President of Basketball and Player Development, now general manager of the New York Knicks): During All-Star weekend I would sit by the scorer's table. We had a phone that was linked from my desk at the scorer's table to [Stern's] seat. He would pick up the phone and my phone would light up, like a Batphone. My wife was sitting at the opposite side and she could tell what kind of weekend I was having by the amount of times I picked up the phone and he picked up the phone.
Welts: One of the things that Stern had made clear was one of the opportunities we had was to reach back into the history of the league. We had no video history, film history. We didn't record every game. He really believed one of the [potential] strengths of the league was we didn't celebrate our history. As soon as the players were out of the league, they were gone. So I asked Carl, 'What if we did a second day, and did an old timer's game? We could celebrate and ask all the old players back.' Selfishly, it was a way to keep me employed. I thought I could sell that to advertisers.
Desser: There were a few cans of film left over from various things. I was still with the Lakers at the time [Desser joined the NBA in 1982]. David would say 'How can we go about doing this? I think it would be a good thing, and I think I can get the board to spend $100,000 doing it.' It literally had to be figured out. There was no blueprint. That was the beginning of what became NBA Entertainment.
Welts: We went to O'Brien's office, and it was like, 'You've got to be kidding me. I'm about to leave office and this is what you come up with?' So, I thought, well, it was a good idea. I don't know what happened between the offices, but 10 days later I got a call from Stern, and he said, 'OK, you're on. The only conditions are it doesn't cost the NBA a penny; you have to find a way to pay for it. And under no circumstances can you do anything that will embarrass Commissioner O'Brien in his last day in office.'
Stern: Race in the NBA
Rod Thorn (NBA President of Basketball Operations): He knew more about almost everything [broadcasting, TV, PR, etc.] than the people who were experts did. But his real quality was an ability to get whatever group he was dealing with to do what he wanted them to do.
McHale: He needed us to do so much stuff. He couldn't have been nicer. We weren't going to do interviews. Stuff like this never happened. We didn't do all these different interviews and stuff. So we were in The Finals, and David had a big suite set up in the hotel. He gave you, he had free beer if you'd come talk to the media, all this stuff. So he was always trying to be really nice to you.
Welts: In those days [for All-Star weekend] we were all at one hotel. In Denver, it was the Brown Palace Hotel. And the atmosphere was just electric. It was John Havlicek and Jerry West and Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor and all these players the NBA had ignored since they'd retired. And the media loved it. All of a sudden there was something else to write about other than how many points somebody scored ... Sports Illustrated gave us five or six pages. They had never covered us before.
Desser: Back in those days, for every department that would exist today, or for most of them at least, back then you generally had one person -- or one person and an assistant. With a few exceptions, like Basketball Operations had three people, and PR had three people. But the broadcasting department was one person -- me. The division of labor wasn't all that different, except for figuring out who among the hundred people would do something, it was just one person. Rick Welts was going around selling sponsorships. Gary Bettman (now the NHL's commissioner) was there, of course, in those days, and dealing with approving player contracts and things of that nature.
Lon Rosen (Longtime agent for Magic Johnson; now Executive Vice President/CMO, Los Angeles Dodgers): In those days, everybody had different contracts, so you'd get a call from the league, from Gary Bettman, saying, 'You have this in your contract, but it would really not be good for basketball; would you mind changing it?'
Mills: We would watch (Stern) when he came into any social function we were doing. And if there was any music or a band playing, he would take one person, either someone who worked with me or someone else, and see how close he could stand to the band and still have a conversation with them. He was worrying about stuff like that during All-Star weekend.
Open Court: David Stern
Granik: We heard a lot of, in the '80s, was 'We'll refer you to our special markets department.' That was the code. Not universally. We had some long-time sponsors that stuck with us for a long time and are still with the NBA. But you heard a lot of that, from some big companies. We knew what that meant. We tried to show them -- 'Look at our TV demographics. Our audience is pretty upscale. And it's not especially race based.' But it took a long time for those attitudes to change.
Welts: There were a dozen trips to Atlanta to talk to Coke. There were 20 trips to Oak Brook, Illinois, to talk to McDonald's. We kind of started out with a wish list of companies that we would go after, that frankly would provide more to us than we could to them, to prove that we were on our way like baseball and football to be a real mainstream sport. Nobody was more committed than David. He was relentless with following up with people on the phone, If people invested in the NBA, we were on a trajectory that they would be proud of what they were done.
Mills: You're trying to get Edge ShaveGel or Schick razors to spend a little money on the NBA. It started to change around four or five years into the Magic-Bird era, right about when Michael [Jordan] came in. It was distinctly different. When I came in Julius [Erving] was still in his heyday, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was still in his heyday. There were still stars playing in the NBA. But Magic's star was so bright, we had never had anybody like that before. David had set up this kind of infrastructure to embrace that change. We have to produce stars that casual fans want to see. David understood that you need that. People want to see how Tiger's doing, even if you're not a big golf fan.
Ackerman: I remember the day I was summoned into his office. I had been at the NBA for about a year and a half. I had been hired by Bettman. I was the third lawyer in the office. There was Gary, Joel Litvin [now the NBA's President of League Operations] and me. I didn't know what he wanted, but he asked me in a roundabout way if I could help him out on a few things. I really didn't have a formal title at first. We settled on special assistant to the Commissioner. He didn't really have anything in mind. He had been in the job six years, and of course, had executive assistants with him. To be honest, a lot of it was the mail alone, just the bombardment -- the business requests, the fan mail, the speaking requests -- and he wanted somebody with more chops to just get through it. So much was coming in. The league was growing, and the demands and requests were increasing. I think he was happy to let some of that go. I don't think he could do it by himself. Learning to manage, he had to learn how to do it.
Before becoming Commissioner, Stern had been tasked to take the lead in 1983 in negotiating a new Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players. The late Larry Fleisher, among the most respected heads of the National Basketball Players Association, fought Stern tooth and nail on many issues. But ultimately, the union acquiesced to the league's demands for an enumerated drug policy that was the first of its kind in pro sports. There has always been criticism that the league's policy today isn't near strong enough to prevent abuse of PEDs and other modern-day illegal substances. The net-net, though, is that the NBA has been hurt much less by drug issues in recent years than the NFL -- and, certainly, Major League Baseball. The '83 deal also created the salary cap, which was the first limit on what players could make, while the league preserved big paydays for the game's superstars by agreeing to the Larry Bird Exception, which allowed teams to exceed the salary cap in order to re-sign their own players when those players became free agents.
Granik: The drug issues were a very, very big problem in the '80s. We had a union where the players came to believe that, too, and that's why they agreed to the first anti-drug agreement. That was a trying issue for a long time. I thought NBA players were always pointed to unfairly on that subject, but you can't cry about it. You tried to treat it as seriously but as decently as positive. In the '80s, no question race was a big issue. David and I had the same belief -- there's nothing you can do about that. All you could do was put out the kind of product that, if they thought it was an issue, they'd think it was a non-issue.
Charles Grantham (Former Executive Director, National Basketball Players Association): The Boston owner at the time, Alan [Cohen], I remember him saying 'Well, what happens when Larry Bird's contract expires? Because everybody in the league will want to sign Larry Bird.' I think it was something they had already been thinking about. Soon it became you could pay him whatever it took to keep him. And we thought if addressed Alan's concerns, it would address the concerns of any owner in the league ... the other owners that were on the committee clearly did not want to be in the position of losing their best players. We protected ourselves, I thought, by agreeing to get a guaranteed percentage. I thought David and his owners had a profit incentive to do whatever it took to get those margins.
Marc Fleisher (Larry Fleisher's son, who also became a successful agent): He thought [Stern] was immensely talented. He often told me he was surprised how good David was as a marketing guy, because he didn't expect it. He knew he was a good lawyer because of his background and experience, but he never thought he'd be as good a marketing guy as he was.
Grantham: It started with our ability to scrutinize the books, to see the teams that were in financial trouble. At that time, it was all the ABA teams. If you remember the ABA teams had paid an exorbitant amount of money to get into the league. Once we'd been able to examine the books and concluded they were in financial trouble, that represented 48 jobs to us. When we looked at the idea of guaranteed growth of salaries it put the burden on the league to generate the revenue.
Fleisher: They had their battles, but they had a healthy amount of respect for each other and that ultimately led to them making deals.
Grantham: We got criticized on all sides. It took leadership on David's part to convince his owners that they had to have some compassion, that you couldn't just kick players out of the league. It wasn't a trying-to-win negotiation; it was one of us sitting around the table trying to figure this out.
Stern: Star Power
The rock began to move. Gatorade became a corporate sponsor of the NBA in 1984; Coca-Cola came aboard in 1986. By 1984, Magic and Bird had restored the league's best rivalry, the Lakers and Celtics, with a hybrid of '80s flair and old-school fundamentals that appealed to everyone. Jordan was drafted by the Bulls, and immediately brought high-flying pyrotechnics to a game that seemed to have seen everything. The league suspended players who couldn't shake their drug habits, but provided confidential counseling and treatment for others, gradually shifting the public's eyes from off-court transgressions to on-court excellence. The All-Star Game became All-Star weekend, with the Slam Dunk Contest added in 1984 and the Three-Point Contest added in 1986. (Welts' "Old Timers" game was established in 1984, but it was discontinued after the '93 Game after a series of unfortunate Achilles' and ACL injuries.) The NBA started to get traction on television, with ratings increasing as the Lakers and Celtics meet in The Finals in 1984, '85 and '87.
Desser: I remember having lunch one day with John Kosner (the former Director of Broadcasting for the NBA, now the General Manager of ESPN Digital and Print Media). We kicked around the notion, imagine if we televised all the playoff games. We're now to '88, '89. Prior to then, there didn't seem to be a reason to televise every game. It was such an anachronistic notion -- how could you not televise a playoff game? We were afraid if you televise two games on at the same time, the ratings would be lower. Well, they were, but the total was higher.
Welts: Anything that we would come up with as a new idea, if we could look them in the eye and say it enhances the way people see our game, it was a good idea. If it was just for money, let's go on to the next idea. He [Stern] probably has a healthy ego. But he never, ever, ever was one of those people who didn't understand that it was the players and the game that had to be the star here. If it was the guys in suits, then we've got a problem. If it's the guys in the suits that are coaching and the guys in the uniforms, we were OK.
Ackerman: He was so ahead of everyone. He was always five or six or 10 steps ahead of the rest of us. Half of the time, if he asked you something, you felt like he already knew the answer, and he was testing you. I wouldn't say he would ask 10 people and say 'What do you think?,' and polled everybody. He would come in your office and ask a question, and then he'd sort of ruminate on it. He was a very decisive guy. If he ever agonized on a decision, I don't think he would show it. He's fact based. When he makes a decision, he wants to know what the facts are. He won't let you off the hook.
David Falk (Michael Jordan's longtime agent; Founder/CEO Falk Associates Management Enterprises): When Michael took off, Gary Bettman was the head of NBA Entertainment. I used to have meetings with them. I would tell them, 'I have Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, John Stockton, a ton of stars. Why can't we work together? You have all the sponsors; I have all the stars.' And Bettman's answer was, our job at the league was not to market players, it was to market teams. At the time, the cap hadn't kicked in. You had super teams. The sixth guy in Los Angeles was Bob McAdoo; in Boston, it was Bill Walton.
Ackerman: Even something as benign as a fan letter demanded a response. Because that was the standard he set. He would blow his top if he found out you didn't return a phone call to a business colleague, same day. He became dangerous when he discovered e-mail, because you'd wake up and there would be a pile of e-mails from him in the middle of the night.
Rosen: Magic Johnson was an important person in the league. When [Stern] thought there was something going on that wasn't smooth, he'd pick up the phone and kick your ass if he didn't think it was right. One time, we had a major problem with Converse, and he picked up the phone one morning. Just laying me out, saying, 'What are you doing?' And I explained the situation. And he helped resolve the situation.
Falk: When people say the league went in a direction to market players, that really wasn't true. Michael forced them to do it because he was so transcendent. They weren't hostile to it, but they weren't accommodating to it. Not nearly like they are today. Now I think there's a very strong partnership ... it wasn't that Bettman didn't understand; he's a very smart guy. It's just that it wasn't their mindset. There weren't players doing endorsements at the time. Magic had a one-year deal with 7-Up. That was it. Bird had none. Abdul-Jabbar had none.
Desser: It was about 1989. This guy named Dick Ebersol was taking over NBC Sports. He was an entertainment guy, well known form having produced Saturday Night Live all these years. CBS had just taken baseball away from NBC, and baseball was sort of religion at NBC. That was the home of the Game of the Week for 30 years, 50 years, however long. Those two events set in motion what became NBC's willingness to bid $600 million for something CBS had bid $173 million for. That would probably be the moment that it became clear to me that there was finally some competition. CBS wasn't able to just sit back and be the beneficiary of the rise in the interest in the league. That was before cable really became the dominant medium for sports distribution. That didn't really happen for another 10 years.
NB90s: Pat Riley
The league's success beyond the court continued -- Nike brought its considerable clout aboard in 1992 as a corporate sponsor. But Johnson had abruptly retired in 1991 after testing positive for HIV, and Bird was on his last legs, crippled by a back injury. Jordan was about to take the NBA to even greater heights on the strength of his play and personality. The league had a great champion in Detroit, and Pat Riley had whipped the Knicks and New York City into a frenzy. But the physical play around the league began to wear on players, coaches, fans -- and the league office. Every player that came through the lane got an elbow or shove; hand-checking was the norm; fights were common (including a Knicks-Bulls playoff brawl in 1994 that took place, literally, at Stern's feet). The Commissioner's office was determined to change things.
Mitch Kupchak (Lakers General Manager, member of the league's Competition Committee): I can remember a game in the (1983) Finals between the Lakers and Philly. McAdoo and, maybe, Mike Bantom. At the free throw line, they push and shove, and start throwing punches. The referee stepped between them, and there was a scrum. And the referee put them back on the line, and let whoever was shooting the free throw shoot the free throw. They actually threw punches.
Wally Walker (former Seattle Supersonics general manager): I'm not sure where it was; I think it was in Munich, at the EuroLeague Final Four in 2000. I'm sitting in the Hofbrau House. I remember McHale being there, and Billy King, I think, and here comes David, pulls up a chair. We're all drinking beer. It's a fun scene; it's Munich, obviously -- and all he wants to talk about is what can we do to improve the game? At the time we had a lot of problem with movement, isolations, people paying players a lot of money to stand around above the key, and everybody pointing at them screaming isolation. It was social, but pointed. The product is not where we want it to be; how can we improve it? The marketing guy was brilliant and knew how to improve it, but knew as a basketball guy that the product needed to be improved.
Wayne Embry (Former NBA player and the league's first African-American general manager): David didn't like the way things were headed. In the Competition Committee meetings, he would point things out: 'this isn't going to fly, and things have to be cleaned up.' And he assigned people to it, and it got cleaned up. He understood the marketplace and the appetite of what would sell. He was a terrific salesman. He was a visionary. And great leaders are visionary.
NB90s: Game Clock, Jordan Rules
Pat Riley (Knicks coach, 1991-95): I didn't like it. I'd vote against it, and I'd fight like hell in the Coaches' Association, and in the meetings. But I always had great players, so there wasn't any sympathy coming to me. When I was in New York, I had Patrick. We had a tough defensive team. They had said that we're instituting some of these changes. And then when I was in Miami, we had Alonzo (Mourning). So I never got much sympathy from anybody. I used to make the case about change, and that how I thought too much change was going to change the game in a way we're not going to like. I never took it personal.
Starting in 1994, when the hand check was eliminated from the end line to the opposite foul line, the league began putting in rules changes that assured more freedom of movement all over the court and limited the physical play that had been dominant throughout the '80s, while eliminating some of the awful isolation plays on offense that made the game look so dreadful. Scoring still fell, to a low of 93.4 points per game per team in 2003-04, and the league put in even tougher rules against handchecking, along with enforcement of rules prohibiting defensive players to stay in the lane longer than three seconds. Scoring began to pick back up, and the game became much more dominated again by guards and smaller players. The debate continues today as to whether that's an overall good thing, with many believing the rules changes have made the game much softer, and penalizes big men.
Kupchak: The NBA believed, and we agreed, that our athletes were special, not only to be able to run the floor and do things athletically, but with great skill, like being able to shoot the three, things that were exciting. There were trends that scoring was going down. David's feeling, and the committee's feeling, was what can we do to showcase what made our game special, which was the player.
The NBA's on-court product was vastly improved. But owners still weren't satisfied. They wanted to roll back the explosion in player salaries that had taken place over the last decade, especially with the top overall picks, as the TV money that NBC began pumping in in 1990 took hold. By 1994, Purdue forward Glenn Robinson, the first pick in the '94 Draft, was asking the Bucks for a 10-year, $100 million contract. Bucks owner Herb Kohl famously offered to swap Robinson's proposed contract for the team. (Robinson settled for $68 million; Kohl says that quip was the turning point in what became a successful re-election that year for his U.S. Senate seat.) In 1995, the NBA, for the first time in history, locked out its players. Battles were fought on two fronts: owners demanded a rookie wage scale to curtail the explosion in the top picks' salaries, while several agents of star players attempted to decertify the union, so that they could file an antitrust suit against the NBA. But the union members voted 226-134 to shut down the decertification effort, which decertification supporters chalked up to a successful lobbying effort on the part of the league to influence players.
Fleisher: David went out of his way to target the agents, tried to drive a wedge between the agents and the players. It was me, Arn [Tellem] and Falk who were the main three guys behind it in those days. He took his shots. I understood where he was coming from. The guy's done a phenomenal job. You could argue with this or that, but the guy's done a phenomenal job.
Falk: I always liked David; I always admired David. I just felt that to do my job, I had to protect my players.
Mills: The best way to describe him is he pushed for attention to details and getting underneath stuff, and wouldn't accept anything less than 110 percent. During the lockout before this one ['98] I was overseeing a task force of people, and we were supposed to talk to every player in the NBA to see if they understood the issues. Somehow he's able to probe out the five or six players we hadn't talked to. So we start our meeting and he says 'Have you spoken to all of these players?' And we say, 'We've reached out to everybody.' And he turned to the board and said 'Well, what about this guy?' And it was one of the five guys we hadn't talked to. He probes. He's a litigator and is always looking for those bits of data.
Falk: I think I may be one of the more interesting David Stern fans. I saw it from both sides, both as a player agent and a businessman. Of course I was an agent, but when you then have a company with 900 employees that's worth millions and millions of dollars, you start to see things a little differently. I am a very big David Stern fan ... I think we have a very good relationship.
In 1997, Minnesota's Kevin Garnett signed an historic contract to remain with the small-market Timberwolves: six years and $126 million. It rocked the NBA world, especially the league's owners -- who quickly re-opened the six-year deal they'd just agreed to with their players. The following year, the NBA, for the first time in its history, lost regular season games to a work stoppage, after again locking out its players rather than continue with the existing CBA. After 204 days, with the season on the brink of being cancelled, the league and the National Basketball Players Association, led by Billy Hunter, agreed to a new contract that put caps on maximum salaries for the league's superstars, but expanded cap exceptions for the league's "middle class" players. An abbreviated, 50-game regular season followed.
Granik: The Garnett deal seemed so out of line with everything that had happened before. I think that sort of set the owners' minds that this system might have worked well the last eight, 10 years. It's not working anymore. We can't keep working with a system that's going to produce results like that. Nobody held it against him for getting as much as he could. You don't get mad at the players or the agents for doing as well as they could do. That's their job. But when it gets to where they're doing too well for the financial system, you have to make changes.
Glen Taylor (owner, Minnesota Timberwolves): Nobody liked that, that I did that. The owners didn't, because it caused problems. Again, I would say David never got into an angry thing. He was more like, I can see where this thing is going. You're a small market, you have to hold on to him. Chicago was the team that was kind of out there at the moment, because he went to high school there, and they were enticing him to come back. That was what the agent was using at the time. David was more like, this is going to be a huge problem; we have to come up with a way to stop it. He never called me up and said anything like, you're a fool. My position was, I'm a new owner and I finally have a star, and I can't afford to lose him. Whereas the owners would say 'Glen, why would you do that?,' David was more like, I know where this is going, and I understand why you did this.
Hal Biagas (NBPA Deputy Counsel, 1997-2010): In '99, honestly, I think they were just pushing as hard as they could, as long as they could. I think the only reason the deal ended up being what it ended up being was, remember, it improved significantly the last day. They weren't sure, with 200 players coming up, they didn't know if we would be able to convince the players to reject their offer. I think they knew if that vote had been a no on their last proposal, the season would probably have been lost.
Granik: By the time we got to the holidays, we had cancelled our big doubleheader, that was on NBC at the time. We all recognized there was a fair chance we could lose the whole season. There was no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of owners were prepared to do that ... we were in the last few days before we would have had to cancel the season. We couldn't envision a season where we played less than 50 games.
Taylor: Even if Billy wanted to do something, there were just things he couldn't do. He had the agents on one hand, and the players on the other. I think David was really sensitive to that ... They both knew kind of from the very beginning, where the art of the compromise would fall. But they also knew that it would take a while to get there. Neither of them were in a position to jump there. It was interesting to watch the two of them negotiate that. Out front, they looked like they were bitter enemies. But in the room, when I sat there with them, they both knew that we had such a good business, that we dare not mess it up.
One of the few times that Stern's Law was successfully challenged was when system arbitrator John Feerick rescinded Latrell Sprewell's year-long suspension in 1997 for choking then-Warriors coach P.J. Carlesimo. Sprewell's penalty was reduced to 68 games, thus restoring the remaining $17.3 million on Sprewell's contract that had been terminated by the Warriors, a decision upheld by Stern.
Biagas: It was a victory for Latrell, it was a victory for other players, it was a victory over the right of a team to do what they wanted to do. We were definitely happy that we got the win, that the termination was rescinded -- and, more important, that the suspension was reduced. They were just beyond livid. And they fired Feerick immediately. Feerick was a very easygoing guy. And their reaction was totally out of joint to what went on. He gave us the big thing on the termination and he gave the Commissioner the big win on being able to suspend.
Stern's Last Draft Welcome
Stern had many personas. He could be "Easy Dave," his self-proclaimed moniker during negotiations in the '99 lockout, the king of the All-Star or Finals news conference. ED was charming -- funny, aware, occasionally (though not often) self-deprecating. There was the tireless negotiator who would wear down opponents, whether during a lockout or a television rights negotiation, with all the tricks of a superstar attorney -- which Stern happened to be -- and who would often wind up negotiating a mutually beneficial deal.
There was the social trailblazer. Walter Kennedy was the commissioner when the Bucks made Wayne Embry the NBA's first black general manager in 1972, and it was Red Auerbach who made Bill Russell the NBA's first black coach in 1966. But Stern drilled deeper. No one had to tell him it was important that people of color and women hold high positions both on teams and in the league office; it was in his DNA. He relentlessly pushed teams behind the scenes to hire African-Americans in management positions, all the way up to ownership.
In 1989, a consortium of black businessmen became the first black owners of a major pro sports team when they bought the Denver Nuggets. At Stern's insistence, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson was named owner of the expansion Charlotte franchise in 2002, although Johnson ultimately sold the Bobcats to Michael Jordan.
On Stern's watch, Heidi Ueberroth became one of the most powerful executives in sports, rising to president of NBA International, responsible for all of the league's television contracts abroad and developing NBA China, now a $2 billion company; the league helped build an 18,000-seat arena in Shanghai.
Today, 13 of the league's coaches are men of color -- and, most importantly, hiring and firing of black coaches, as well as rehiring black coaches fired elsewhere, is commonplace. The NBA has consistently gotten the highest marks for racial and gender diversity among the major pro sports leagues by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
There was also Stern the bully, who would challenge anyone who debated him on a topic, but who weren't prepared down to the smallest detail. His weapons of choice were withering sarcasm, usually followed by some screaming, and then more sarcasm. During a negotiating session in the 2011 lockout, Dwyane Wade famously yelled back, telling Stern to stop wagging his finger at him, as he was not Wade's father. Stern was known to call a television truck during a broadcast if a cameraman was wearing the wrong shirt or hat. But there also was the Stern who showed unbelievable kindnesses to people in their times of trouble, both those who worked for him and those who didn't.
Mills: You would get these calls at 10 o'clock at night. He's very calm. He would say 'Steve, this is David. What can you tell me about x?' You don't know if he's talked to 10 people before you, and you're the last call, or if you're the first link in the chain, and it's going to affect one of your co-workers.
Pat Croce (former president of the Philadelphia 76ers): After we made the announcement [that Croce had become president] I took the train up to NY to kiss his ring and ask his guidance. And Russ Granik was in the room. And David said 'Don't try to do it all in one breath, take your time, build the team.' At the end of it I look on his desk and there's a basketball plaque with a clock on it, Spaulding or something. And I take it and he tries to pick it up. He said 'What are you doing?' I said, 'I'll hand it back to you when you hand me the championship trophy.' At the end of the Finals [in 2001], he said, 'Pat, I wanted that clock back.' And I was going to have four big muscle guys carrying it out on a splint. To this day he'll say 'Pat, I want my clock back.' Like, if I ever want to get back in the league, I have to give him the clock back. The guy's making $20 million a year, and he wants his clock back. And it's still on my desk, too.
Grantham: What we both tried to achieve was balance, for somebody to walk out with something, and not walk away with nothing. While we may not have agreed with some of the things we had to give up, when both sides are not happy, it sort of indicates that you probably arrived at the right decision.
Biagas: In '99, we had a big [collective bargaining] session at Weil, Gotshal. There were three or four owners there, and one of them was [Jazz owner] Larry Miller, and we happened to have Karl Malone there, and 10 or 12 players. We met with them briefly and the two sides and we told the players, at some point, Larry's going to get up there, and he's going to give this impassioned speech, and he's going to be super emotional, and he's going to start crying, and he's going to talk about how important the league is to him and how much it means to him. Sure enough ... Larry starts talking ... he goes on for 15 minutes ... about his love of the players and Utah, and yada, yada, yada, David stands up and says 'Thank you, Larry. Thank you.' Man, if I hadn't known that, I would have been crying, too. David's letting Larry have the floor, it was so perfectly staged. If you hadn't known that, you would have fallen for it, hook, line and sinker.
Grantham: We fought vigorously over items we thought were important for both sides. But there was always balance.
Embry: I'm comfortable saying he was very progressive in his thinking. I'd say he was mindful in promoting equal opportunity where it was possible, and I give him a lot of credit for that, as far as ownership was concerned. You can't deny that. And also, he was mindful of helping Bob Johnson, and of course, Michael. He promoted that, because he wanted inclusion at all levels.
Billy King (Brooklyn Nets general manager): He was one of the first phone calls I got after I got fired (as the 76ers' GM in 2006). He reached out right away. He said 'if there's anything I can do for you.' Adam did, too, obviously. I wound up meeting with those guys three or four times.
Mark Cuban (owner, Dallas Mavericks): Actually the first time I met him was in 1998 to pitch him in streaming audio and video. When I bought the Mavs (in 2000) he was very supportive. He didn't hit me with questions. Those came in front of the Board of Governors. They asked all the questions. In particular I remember Dave Checketts asking me if I was going to be 'like the other owner in Dallas.' I told him that if he meant winning championships and breaking new ground for sales, absolutely.
Pat Riley (Miami Heat president since '95): We were able to sign the Big Three. [Stern] was very complementary about how we went about the whole thing, and the room and the discipline. He said something to us, me and Micky [Arison, the Heat's owner]: 'You're the gold standard.' I was very proud that the Commissioner would say that you're like the gold standard in the NBA, about how to build a team, whatever way you want to build it. You get both ends. He likes when you do well, and he lets you know, when you're doing the wrong thing, he'll let you know that, too.
Herb Kohl (owner, Milwaukee Bucks): When I bought our team, way back in '85, I was sitting, having dinner with David Stern. And he said, 'I want to tell you something. Every owner that I've ever dealt with, early in their ownership, has called me and said one thing.' I said, 'What is it?' He said 'I won't tell you what it is. But when you say that to me, that thing that every other owner has said to me, I'm just going to say 'Bingo.' So, about a year after I owned my team, I was talking to him one day, and I said, 'You know, David, I think we're one player away.' And there was quiet on the phone, and he said, 'Bingo.'
Colangelo: I would say we've always had a great relationship. I've always respected and admired the job he's done. I think he's always respected my opinion. It's not that we've always agreed. For the most part, the answer's yes, on the way the league is going and the decisions that were made. We had our disagreements, but he always held his position as the commissioner with class and with dignity.
Taylor: My perception of David is he has a front that he does publicly, that's a little different. If you want to sit down and hash out a problem, he has a different persona. David, out front, has a tough guy persona; it's my way. I found when you sat down in the room with him, he was very different ... he would be willing to try and help you and share that. I saw that part of him, very loyal to his own staff, backed them up very much in private. I don't know if the word is a softer side, but a person that very much understood, and really cared. He wasn't the same there. He really tried to understand the problem and resolve the issue. He was willing to bend, and help.
Dwyane Wade (guard, Miami Heat): There's been so many great [memories]; why are we going to focus on that one?
Mikhail Prokhorov (owner, Brooklyn Nets): It was in Moscow. I think it was seven years ago. It was the first game between CSKA and NBA team. And we spoke a lot about basketball, about future opportunities, and etcetera, etcetera. At that particular time, I have no reason even to think about buying the NBA team. It was just like miracle.
Wade: It wasn't that bad. It was the lockout, man. Everybody's on edge. I respect that man for what he's done for this game. And I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't have benefitted the way I have without what he's done for this game. I have nothing but respect for him. Things were reported, I don't know. But it was negotiations. We were all at the table.
Roger Mason, Jr. (Heat guard, and NBPA vice president): His tone [during the lockout] was one of like a Godfather, where he had so much experience at the table in a number of these negotiations. And so, obviously, everybody knows he's a stern negotiator, and he's been the leader for the owners for decades. He's also, I would assume over the years, he's become more friendly, I guess. It wasn't all shout, scream, yell. There was listening. That experience, for me, I guess as he rounded out his last negotiation, was a positive one.
Desser: What I would most remember about David's approach to things was there were certain terms he liked to use. 'Everything's a priority.' We'd like to argue with him on that subject, but you couldn't. That was his way of saying sweat the details, and you just don't let anything go.
Cuban: I always thought David was approachable. Everyone always talked about him being intimidating. There were other owners that told me that I was wasting my time trying to change get things. [That] David would never let it happen. I never saw that. I remember my first [Board of Governors] meeting after I was approved. It was very formal and scripted. I asked if it was OK to ask questions and bring up discussion items. David actually encouraged me to engage.
Brenda Spoonemore (Former Senior Vice President, NBA Interactive; now Director, Kindle Content at Amazon): David has a knack for asking questions -- generally many of them, logically sequenced, as if you are being deposed by opposing counsel -- that quickly lay bare whether the person being questioned is in command of the details and to what degree. If you are not in command of the details, you will likely get some strongly worded assistance as to how to remedy that. If you were in command of the details of the issue or business and could articulate the strategy and best next steps, you were good to go.
Falk: John Thompson used to tell me, 'I don't run a democracy.' You can't ask the players, with 10 seconds left and you're down one, 'What play do you guys want to run? Let's take a vote.' And with 30 owners, who are very successful, captains of their own ships, you can't ask everyone their opinions. You can't be a successful commissioner without being somewhat of an autocrat.
Gen. Ronald Johnson (former Senior Vice President, NBA Referee Operations; current Managing Director Tennenbaum Institute of Enterprise Transformation and Professor of Practice, Industrial and Systems Engineering, Georgia Tech University): He heard all kinds of views on things. He certainly could process all kind of information and figure it all out. Again, I think that often times he would express with great conviction what he thought and that would cause many to just accept what he said. I think he was a leader to force his people to think critically, and his challenging them was his way of getting them to do that. Does he listen and absorb? Yes. Is he easily swayed by opinions? No. He is a very smart leader and one of the challenges of being a leader is being able to make use of one's intuition to make decisions and not stall because of the disparity of views.
Rosen: Back in '88, '89, I went to HBO with an idea: one-on-one, Magic versus Michael. I didn't really think Earvin was going to win the thing, but it would be good for basketball. And in his contract, Earvin was allowed to do it; Michael wasn't, or he may have had something in his contract that allowed him to do it. But I remember David calling and saying this really isn't in the best interests of basketball. And, by the way, Michael and Earvin would have made a ton of loot. And, really out of respect for David, we didn't play the game.
Ackerman: Any of us who worked for David knew if you were in front of him, or had a meeting with him, it was really akin to arguing in front of the Supreme Court. I'm serious. You knew you had about 30 seconds before you started getting bombarded with questions, and it wouldn't stop. If you didn't have your arrows in a quiver, it didn't end well. I found after a while that it worked better to just lay things out in an e-mail. It took me a long time to frankly work up the courage to take him on. I felt like women's basketball was one of the few areas where maybe I knew more than he did.
Spoonemore: I will never forget my first meeting with David. A group of us had met with a company pitching what the tech future was going to look like -- and their tech solution as a way to get there. David put several of us on the spot: what was this tech thing going to look like in five years? After a few other folks took a stab at answering the question, I gave my response: Nobody knew what the Internet was going to look like in five years, but that we should run experiments, gather data and make decisions based on what we learned. David was silent for what seemed like a really long time but was probably less than a minute. Then he nodded his head and said "OK." Leadership in ambiguous areas is always an interesting challenge: in David's case, his desire to have precise answers was counterbalanced by an understanding that managing areas of rapid change requires engagement and an embrace of the uncertainties as more important principles than a five-year plan which would almost certainly have been wrong.
Mills: In Barcelona we were planning to be in this hotel [for the 1992 Olympics]. We were the only people in the hotel. There were 100 rooms and we had 95 of them. But we were paying to have the hotel built. NBC was staying across the street. One day David calls me and says 'Why don't you come in my office?' I'm like three doors down from his office. I come in. He's standing up and he has [NBC Sports President] Dick Ebersol on the speakerphone. And he says 'Dick, why don't you tell Steve what you just told me?' And Ebersol goes, 'I'm in Barcelona, and I'm standing in my hotel room looking at a hole in the ground, and it's never going to be a hotel by the time the Olympics come around.' That was just another way for him to get a status report without just talking to me.
Welts: In 1994, I lost the partner I'd had for 17 years to AIDS. At that point, there was no one I could talk to other than my partner. I had to go through that process completely on my own. I ran one obituary in Seattle -- this was back when the newspaper was still the primary means for people to communicate -- and I wrote that anyone who wanted to make any kind of remembrance could write a check to the University of Washington architectural school, which was my partner's major. I went back to Seattle to put a bow on it and picked up the mail, and saw a few letters from people that had made contributions. There was one from Scarsdale, N.Y. It was a check from David and Dianne Stern for $10,000. I have no idea about how he knew about any of this, but he found out. [When I got back to New York] I kind of did the, hey -- 'Yeah, we'll talk about it.' It was like, 'Yeah, I get it, and it's not a problem.' There's probably nobody who's worked there that doesn't have a story like that.
Teri Washington (Former Senior Director, NBA, Sports Media Relations; current Director of Communications and Marketing, Events D.C.): When I originally heard about my dad (dying), it was 2 in the morning. A few days later, I was at my sister's house in Severna Park (Maryland). We were putting the program together. My dad always liked the way they danced, my sister and my niece. That's when my cell phone rang. I saw 212, but I obviously know a lot of people in New York. I picked up the phone and he said, 'Teri, this is David.' And I knew the voice. I was like, oh, my God. He said he was very sorry for my loss, and that he knew my dad meant a lot. My dad had been at a lot of events. I had been gone from the league office for eight years at that point. He said, 'You're always in the family.' That meant a lot. I still don't know, to this day, who told him.
Stern Proud of Small Market Teams
Stern's world was law, and there was no appeals court when he meted out punishments for various transgressions. And if there was any question who was in charge, the Commissioner or the owners for whom he purportedly worked, Stern answered, emphatically.
Stern: Team Owners
In 1996, Stern voided a $105 million contract that free agent Juwan Howard had signed with Miami, claiming that the Heat had circumvented the cap to create artificial cap room. Critics -- many who lived in the South Florida area -- claimed Stern was just helping his old friend, then-Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin, with a financial mulligan; Howard eventually got $100 million from the Bullets, and stayed in Washington. (Asked if the Heat had "miscalculated" their cap number, Heat coach Pat Riley fired back, "the only thing we miscalculated was somebody's animus against us.")
When the league determined the Minnesota Timberwolves had a secret agreement with free agent-to-be Joe Smith in 1999 that would have circumvented the salary cap, Stern docked the Wolves five first-round picks (later reduced to three on appeal) and fined them $3.5 million.
Cuban, who bought the Mavericks in 2000, started a cold war against the league's officiating structure, including saying the league's then-Supervisor of Officials "couldn't run a Dairy Queen;" by 2002, Stern had fined Cuban six times for various statements and actions against the refs, totaling $895,000.
During the 2011 lockout, Stern fined Washington owner Ted Leonsis and Charlotte's Michael Jordan $100,000 apiece for making public statements -- verboten during collective bargaining times -- about the league's financial state. And when Miami's Micky Arison Tweeted comments during the lockout hinting that owners may have disagreed with one another about revenue sharing and other issues, Stern slapped the Heat's owner with a $500,000 fine. Stern's judgments were often debated -- but were almost always final.
Riley: I did say something about projecting something, and that it was worse than a colonoscopy, [that] a pole went up our butt. I got a call on that one, too. That was one that we weren't going to win, either. It just wasn't. But I think he's always been fair.
Cuban: I never got him to agree with me on officiating. Not to this day ... He knew only one team could win and he didn't care which team ... so officiating then and now was an afterthought to him.
Taylor: He was angry. He knew, I would just say, it wasn't quite the way it came out, what happened. Nevertheless, he knew it was going around in the league. He knew, and I knew, some places where it happened. He didn't have any way to prove it. It was more, you could smell it, you could taste it. So when he asked me to come up to New York, he just asked, 'Did you guys agree to something on the side?' It was different. We didn't really agree to what they said we agreed. I said, 'We had an understanding with the agent.' He said, OK, 'You said you did this.' I said yes, but it wasn't what we were talking about. He said, 'I have to make an example.' He was angry. I don't think at the time we shouted at each other. I said, OK, I made a mistake, and I accepted the responsibility for it, and I was never angry at him ... I think he felt, 'I have to whack somebody.'
Metta World Peace (former Pacers forward, now with the Knicks, suspended by Stern for the remaining 73 games of the 2004-05 season for going into the stands and fighting with fans during the Brawl of Auburn Hills): He was just like, he told me, he had to suspend me, come back next year, and just get ready to play. It was that simple. He said, just get ready to play, just get ready for next season.
Stern often dealt with the 76ers, led by Allen Iverson, whose style of wearing his hair in cornrows, numerous tattoos and profane-based conversational style cut two ways -- young people of all races around the world loved him, giving the NBA a leg up with that coveted demographic -- but he scared the life out of many of the staid corporations that paid for suites and courtside seats the NBA needed financially. When Iverson was about to put out a rap album in 2000 that included profane, and homophobic, lyrics, Stern read him the riot act in Stern's Olympic Tower office.
King: Allen didn't even want to go to the meeting. But he went and they wound up meeting about two and a half hours. Allen came out of the meeting happy he went, and David had a greater appreciation for Allen afterward.
Croce: David told him, 'You're in my league. If you're going to play in my league, you're going to play by my rules.' He scared the bejesus out of AI. And AI didn't scare too lightly.
In 2005, Stern instituted a dress code for all NBA players. They had to wear "business casual" attire when not playing and sitting on team benches: sport coats, dress shoes and socks. Sneakers, sandals, flip-flops and work boots were banned footwear for any player engaged in team or community functions. Sleeveless shirts, shorts, t-shirts, jerseys, chains and medallions were also banned. There wasn't anyone who didn't get that the code was a direct shot at Iverson and other players who emulated him.
Iverson (2001 NBA MVP, All-Star guard with Philadelphia 76ers): Stern's the boss. But I understood. It was a situation where everybody in the world knew where the dress code came from. And they knew why it was implemented. Obviously, I took it as a shot at me. But that being said, it was a shot at everybody that dressed like me, too. They had to deal with it. And obviously, I had to. But the crazy part about it is, when they put it in, you got everybody that pays any attention to the NBA saying, 'Oh, they're only doing that because of AI.' That was the tough part about it. Because I was right [front] and center with the whole thing ... it's a bittersweet thing. I felt great about it, because guys were able to be themselves. They wanted to do this. They wanted to be themselves, and they weren't able to do it. They were scared to do it. And once I did it, I took the ass-whipping for it. I took the beating from it. But that's, I guess, the bitter part of it. But the sweet part of it is now, these guys are able to do it, to be able to look the way they want to look, to wear their hair, tattoos, whatever. Do what you want to do. That's the sweet part of it. Guys don't have to be something they weren't. And now, you see, you may not be able to find a basketball player that doesn't have a tattoo -- or a person in general.
World Peace: I mean, I think he was mad when [the Brawl in Auburn Hills, Mich., in 2004] happened. But he made his decision after that. He's good at letting things go. Stern is good at letting things go. It was that simple, like, get ready for next season. Me, I was just thinking I have to report to the [league] office. But for the most part, Stern was just like, 'Get ready for the next season.' I remember him saying 'Stay in shape' ... the game is corporate, driven by TV revenues, sponsorship, fans. If that was the best decision to make for the whole NBA, then what are you going to do? What are you going to do? If that was the best decision to make for everybody, so be it.
Croce: One time, I think Matt Geiger got fined, for something, and I thought it was unfair. I was so angry he was fined. He was fining the team, like a diss on me. And I was like 'How dare he? I'll kick his ass.' He's so disarming. He said, 'Pat, you know, you have to go about it a little differently.' I wanted to fight him. And he disarmed me like my mother would disarm me.
That was one side of Stern. But he had another. Stern's temper is so infamous, it should have its own Social Security Number. Many have incurred The Wrath, and lived to tell about it.
Stern on Kings' Owners
King: This was when Allen and Chris Webber didn't come to Fan Appreciation Day. [Stern] started by saying 'We have a perception problem in our league, and I guess so, when we have teams that don't care about it, and their players don't show up for Fan Appreciation, and the team does nothing about it.' And I took it. I had to.
Anonymous witness to a Board of Governors Meeting: I can remember it was (former 76ers owner) Ed Snider. The guy didn't even come to meetings that much. He raised a point that David didn't agree with, and he just went at him, to the point where Ed's face went purple. It was just uncomfortable, the way David went at him.
Second, unnamed witness at same meeting: Ed came in late and asked a question, and David went back at him. They went at each other for a while. I don't remember what it was about, but it was like, 'Whoah.' And Ed left before the meeting was over.
Cuban: I was there. It wasn't Ed as much as the aggressiveness of the corporation behind him. David knew we needed all teams working to be successful. Any team that was not moving forward at sales and marketing was going to get a comment from David. And rightfully so.
Riley: The first time I met him was during the '82 Finals against Philly. It was before Game 3. We won Game 1, and got thrashed in Game 2, and the free throws were like 38-7. And so I went off, on [referee] Darrel Garretson, mentioned his name publicly, and came up with a bunch of numbers to prove how we got screwed. And that came out before the third game. So, just, I don't know, an hour before the game, [Stern] walks in -- with Jerry Buss, with Jerry West. And he says 'I want to talk to you.' Me. In the trainer's room, with Larry O'Brien. And he starts screaming. 'This will never happen again! You will never do this again. If you do this again, and put an official's name in the paper, I will fine you $5,000,' or whatever it was. And he just went off. He said, 'I will fine you, Jerry Buss, Jerry West.' That's when David was David. He remembers that story, too. He just came in and took charge. You could hear his voice booming all over the locker room. He was the deputy commissioner at the time, but he was the Sergeant at Arms.
Thorn: [He] could be abrasive at time and arrogant at other times but was absolutely great at what he did. The best ever as a Commish. And he loves the game and the players.
Mills: He's a yeller. To be able to work with him or for him, you have to understand that he's not yelling about the particular issue -- because that's already happened -- but he's talking about the particular circumstance so that it never happens again. I played for [Princeton Coach Pete] Carril. Carril yelled like that. You understood that he's yelling and yelling in your ear, but he's yelling to make sure you make the right play next time.
While Stern always got the public credit (and, in some circles, blame) for the introduction of NBA players into the up-to-then amateur-dominant Olympic Games, the NBA was actually, initially, against the idea. A lot of different people were responsible for the initial idea, and the implementation of it once pro players were approved.
Welts: It was some copy writer at Sports Illustrated. People always say, 'How did you name the Dream Team?' We didn't. It was a copy writer who saw the secret picture that Brian McIntyre [the NBA's longtime vice president of Media Relations] arranged with USA Basketball.
Granik: It really came from FIBA, from Boris Stankovic, who David and I had gotten to know very well from creating the McDonald's Open [the competition featuring an NBA team and an international continental champion that was held from 1987-99]. He made it clear when we started interacting that one of his goals was getting rid of the distinction between professional and amateur players. He really could see where the sport was going. His feeling was, if the sport was really going to get to where it could be worldwide, the best players have to play. He could see more and more international players were starting to look at the NBA, and starting to play in the NBA, and once they played in the NBA they couldn't go back and play for their home teams. He wanted people like [Lithuanian star player Sarunas] Marciulionis to be able to go back. David and I just sort of shrugged at the idea. We had a million things going on at the time. We likes the McDonald's Open where people could see our players, but that was really all we thought about it.
Rosen: I never talked to Boris. I talked to David and Russ every day. It was David that made it possible for Magic to play in the Olympics. David Stern made it possible. It wasn't Jerry Colangelo. It was David. And it was a ballsy move by David. It could have backfired on him.
Ackerman: Russ asked me to help him manage that. I'm not the one on how it came to be before then. But my best sense of the history is you have three categories of history here. I'd say Stankovic was the force behind open competition. He wanted it and he wanted the rest of the world to come along. Category two would be the [Dave] Gavitt-Granik category of credit. [Gavitt, the Hall of Fame coach who was the founder of the Big East Conference, was President of USA Basketball]. That's how I came to know and revere Dave. They were the ones who were on the front lines of bringing the college game and the pro game together for that first Dream Team. We had the coaches, and we left a spot for a college coach. We had the team and left a spot open for a college player -- [Christian] Laettner.
Granik: I was pushing for it. I think David ultimately concluded that it would be best ... Dave Gavitt obviously had a lot of do with it as well. Overall, all of the owners, whether this conversation occurred or not, the owners will agree that if you wanted worldwide exposure, the way you were going to do that was in the Olympics.
Ackerman: Whatever David had to do to set this in motion, I don't know. But David had the genius to leverage the success of that team into other business opportunities for the NBA. Once that hit, there was an avalanche.
While the Dream Team cruised to a gold medal, the U.S. women's basketball team lost unexpectedly in the medal round in Barcelona, and wound up with the bronze. Despite the defeat, Stern was already kicking around the idea of a women's professional basketball league in the United States.
Ackerman: In '92, we were focused on the men. Then '93, '94 hits, and the U.S. team lost again. It was the World Championship year, and while the men were winning in Toronto, the women were losing in Australia. [Stanford's)] Tara [vanDerveer] was the coach. There was minimal prep time, with college players, like two and a half weeks of practice. I was really on this, because I was on the USA Basketball board with Russ, I had played basketball. I was really part of the embers, as you say.
Gary Stevenson (Former president of NBA Properties Marketing and Media Group, now President and Managing Director, Major League Soccer Business Ventures): When we first started working on the project, we were working on two ideas. One was a women's league, the other was a summer league. We were working on those two ideas on parallel paths. Val and Rick Welts and Steve Mills, we did a tour of owners and presented these ideas: here's a women's league and here's a summer league. They were really well-thought out plans. Different owners had different reactions. Some said, 'I really like the summer league.' But then the '96 Olympics came along and we did that roadshow with the women, where we did all those shows with the women all over if the country. And if you remember, the '96 Olympics were the Olympics for women.
Ackerman: Coming out of '94, USA Basketball was very uncertain on how it could get going. I was the one who went into David in '94 and said 'Why don't we do something for the women? Why don't we put together a women's Dream Team?' David was very interested. But we needed USA Basketball to front it. We would use the women's team as a lead-in to '96. And initially, USA Basketball was very resistant. They asked, 'Who would coach this team?' Well, we'd have to hire a college coach and they'd have to take a year off. 'Oh, they'll never do it. Who would the players be?' Well, we have a lot of players abroad, we'll have to bring them back.
Welts: He always felt part of the mission here is we're a small business compared to a Fortune 500 company, but we get a disproportionate amount of attention because of who we are. And we need to devote a large portion of our time to social justice ... we have this incredible platform that's been given to us, and shame on us if we don't use it to make the world a better place.
Ackerman: David had this habit of just walking into your office, asking a question, and walking out. I'll never forget the day he walked into my office and said, 'So if we did this, it would be in the summer, right?' There was no preamble. It was just, 'If we did this league, it would be in the summer, right?' And I was absorbed in something else; it took me a minute to figure out what the hell he was talking about. And I said, yes. And he walked out. I don't know; he may have had an owner on the phone.
Stevenson: Two years earlier, I had launched the Golf Channel. And I had the same approach: 24 hours of golf; are you kidding me? It was the same reaction for the women's league. The television networks said it wouldn't rate. It was probably easier to sell to the sponsors, because the sponsors really wanted a connection to women. It was a good manifestation of Title IX. It really was cool for women to be fit, to be an athlete. I said, for the first time ever, a little girl's head could hit the pillow and she could dream about being a pro basketball player. And she could dream about being herself, and not being Michael Jordan.
Ackerman: The nut was $3 million. David was the one who said to me, and I said to USA Basketball, the NBA will guarantee it. If this loses any money, you won't lose a dime. That was David's call.
Stevenson: It wasn't [from Stern], 'We must do this.' It was, 'I want us to make a good business decision, and do something that's good for the league.' We all felt like, if we could do something meaningful for women's sports, we all were for it. We never talked about it like let's win one for the Gipper. It was just a group of people that just believed in it. One time, David said, 'If things didn't go well, what could we lose on this thing?' I laid out a number, and he said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'To be able to lay out basketball for 12 months, to give our teams 14 more dates in the summer, and to continue the kind of social consciousness that we've done, if you put all that in a blender and said would it be worth it for us to do that? I would say absolutely, 100 percent.' And David said, 'I agree.'
But the obstacles were significant. Television networks were extremely reluctant to come aboard, and give up a couple of hours of programming per week for something that was not likely to bring in good ratings. Some women's organizations were angry that the WNBA would be set in the summer, thinking the NBA was giving short shrift to its women's league instead of putting it in the fall when most other team sports played. And there was the American Basketball League, set to launch in 1996 in direct competition with the WNBA. Initially, the ABL, which had signed outstanding players like Teresa Edwards, Yolanda Griffith, Jennifer Azzi, Taj McWilliams, Katie Smith, Natalie Williams and Kara Walters, was generally viewed as the superior league.
Stevenson: David's direction on that was never, let's kill the [other] league. In fact, Gary Cavalli [one of the ABL's co-founders] is still a friend of mine. There was nothing we tried to do there. We probably would have been better off having all the talent in the same league. It just didn't work out that way.
Ackerman: David and Russ and Rick, they were all very engaged the first year of the WNBA. David put the best people on it. It was a high priority for the company. I was Air Traffic Control on it, but so many people were involved. David was participating in meetings. He was very excited about it. I remember the payoff, an exhibition game in '97. I was sitting there with my husband and family, and David was there with Dianne. It's not very often you see David at a loss for words. I'm serious. We were sold out in New York for a women's basketball game. He was just taking it all in.
Stevenson: We thought we'd average 6,000 or 7,000 fans in our first year, and in fact, that's what we did. But the way we pitched that was we'd average 4,000. He said 'don't come out and say you'll average x; say it's lower, and then everyone will say it's a success.' And that's what it did.
Most NBA teams lost money -- significant money -- providing backing for the WNBA. Employees who worked for NBA teams had to work for their WNBA teams as well. But Stern insisted the WNBA would continue, year after year. And it has continued, with star players like Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker leading the way. (The ABL folded in 1998, with many of its star players eventually playing in the WNBA.) The WNBA's business model changed, ultimately, with several of its teams now owned independently. Some franchises have moved; some have folded. But it is still here.
Ackerman: No one has done more for women's sports, because of what he's done for the WNBA. I'd put Billie Jean King in another category, as an icon. But after that, I'd put David. What this has done for women's sports as a whole is just unparalleled.
As Stern continued growing the league's revenue streams, and putting the brakes on player salaries, owners rewarded him with increasingly huge contracts -- well into the eight figures annually. He rewarded them with franchise valuations that dwarfed what most owners had paid for their teams.
The league was always quick to point out that player salaries skyrocketed as well on Stern's watch -- from an average of $330,000 in 1984 to more than $5 million today. But team prices went through the roof. Ross Perot, Jr., bought the Mavericks in 1996 for $125 million; Mark Cuban bought the team four years later for $280 million; today, Forbes says the Mavericks are worth $765 milion, and three NBA teams -- the Knicks, Lakers and Bulls -- are worth $1 billion or more.
When the league couldn't find a buyer to keep the New Orleans Hornets in town, the league bought them, running the team (with Stern, acting as the team's de facto owner infamously turning down a trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers in 2011, saying "we're not doing that deal"). The league ultimately sold the team to New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson for $338 million.
Stern pressed every team to build new, revenue-enhancing arenas, and most complied; according to the Sports Business Journal, NBA teams spent $8.44 billion on arena construction during Stern's time as Commissioner. The league continued to develop new ways to deliver its content, from NBA.com (which you're reading at the moment) to NBA TV (which launched in 1999) to NBA League Pass, which allowed fans to watch their favorite teams, every night, via satellite or on their personal computer.
Colangelo: I once told him many years ago that I thought the number one job of the Commissioner was to increase value of the franchises. If you start with that, that means the whole ship has been raised, the bar has been raised. And all of these initiatives to raise the franchise values have been initiated. The fact that he transformed himself from a very astute lawyer to be a marketing guy, and was on the cutting edge of technology, and picked up real quick that he was going to create a brand, an NBA brand. He fought through all the issues to continue on this path. The issue of going worldwide, and creating a global branding, was genius in my opinion. It was so far ahead of all the other sports leagues.
Prokhorov: I think he is a great visionary. He has a global vision. And he brought the global vision in the NBA. I am here, the first foreign owner of the NBA. It's a part of his vision.
Cuban: I think I pushed him into understanding how teams needed to be far more aggressive in marketing and sales. In particular I think I made the league realize that teams didn't sell basketball. We sold emotional experiences at basketball games. We sold memories. I also pushed for us to go more to cable. We were looking at going back to NBC on a smaller deal. The concept was that scarcity would increase ratings.
Rosen: He realized that licensing was a major component for the league. I think he was really fortunate. In 1984, when Michael emerged on the scene, Phil Knight was able to create, with Michael and Sonny Vaccaro, this Air Jordan Brand. They were really fortunate. Nike really helped the league in a way, because they were brilliant marketers. They knew basketball just ain't in the suburbs. We have to start marketing more to urban America. David turned it more into how he marketed the league. He realized it was a diverse fan base. Nike understood if it hit in the 'hood, it would hit in suburbia. David looked at that and realized, yeah, that might work.
Cuban: I told the Board of Governors meeting that our cost per game to cable would be cheaper than other programs they bought and more successful. That scarcity wouldn't work. That the more games on air the better for the NBA.
Desser: In the early 90s, I remember reading about this thing called the Internet. I literally called up somebody one day and say 'I don't know what we'd ever do with it, but let's see how we go about registering this thing called a domain name. Let's get 'NBA.com.' And while we're at it, let's get 'Lakers.com,' and 'Bulls.com,' and all the rest. I don't know what we'll do with it. Did I know it would, one day, become the way the teams communicate with their fans, that that would become the place where tickets would be sold, and sponsorships would be marketed? No. But it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
" ... .What Stern does envision is bouncing a scrambled signal of local telecasts of NBA games off a satellite and making pay-per-package deals of those telecasts available to sports bars and private homes that are equipped with satellite dishes. Perhaps as early as next year, a Celtics fan living in Detroit, say, will be able, for a small fee, to watch his beloved Green play 82 games a year."
-- Sports Illustrated, June 3, 1991
Desser: In 1994, Hughes Aircraft was going to launch a satellite to allow delivery of video signals using video compression. It was like, 'this is an interesting technology; I wonder what we could do with this?' And that's what led to League Pass. It wasn't like we set out to do that.
Spoonemore: Over the course of many years as we built NBA.com and the league's larger digital strategy, David and I had a running mock debate about whether the defining characteristic of technology was exponential distribution or the two way nature of the channel. Was this era of technology notable as part of the evolution from networks to cable and satellite TV or was the opportunity going to be defined by the ability to personalize, target and otherwise take action triggered by the fan on the other end? The answer, as David well understood, was that both features together were creating a unique new opportunity for leagues which understood the magnitude of the shift.
Desser: We asked, 'Why do the playoffs always start on Tuesday?' Because they do. We said, why not start them on Saturday, and have more on Sunday? We'd wind up with a lot more unopposed (by other sports on television) playoff games. So, quadruple headers. The result was a bunch more unopposed playoff games, which created more value, and allowed to build, in a way, like reality TV shows, the playoffs as reality television, in this series of installments, two and a half hours at a time.
The NBA has hosted the "Tech Summit" during All-Star weekend for 14 years, an invitation-only event bringing together the heads of major corporations, entertainment and sports icons and innovators and entrepreneurs from all manner of businesses to discuss best practices, growth areas and The Next Big Things.
Spoonemore: David intuitively grasped the importance of the NBA's convening power and the utility of gathering the tech and sports industry's best and brightest in a room for conversations that were only happening behind closed doors at that time, if at all, but Adam has always been the driving force behind the Tech Summit. What David and Adam grasped, before most of the sports industry did, was that the tech conversation was a mainstream conversation about the future of media and sports and fans. This wasn't something that was just happening off in the broadcast truck or behind the scenes. David and Adam understood that technology was instigating a tectonic shift in the media landscape, so they invited the heads of networks to talk technology alongside the CEOs of tech companies. This was the future.
Desser: When you're a fledgling league, you take more risks. David kind of gave me this blank canvas to make (stuff) up.
Like they say, you had to be there in the days following Magic Johnson's announcement, on Nov. 7, 1991, that he'd tested positive for HIV. Johnson was the first sports superstar to publicly announce he had HIV, and it sent the NBA reeling. Here was, perhaps, the league's biggest superstar, its premier salesman, announcing he had a disease that was passed from one person to another through sexual contact. In 1991, though, there was still considerable confusion in the general population: could you get AIDS from touching a doorknob that an HIV-positive person touched?
Johnson announced he was retiring, but there was still the question of whether he'd be allowed to play in the 1992 All-Star Game, just three months away in February in Orlando. Players like Karl Malone expressed some trepidation about playing with or against someone who was HIV positive. Stern had to make a decision in real time that involved traversing social, political and economic minefields as he was still amassing information.
Granik: He'd already been selected. We had the big TV announcement that he'd been selected before we headed off to Paris [for the McDonald's Open]. As we viewed it, it was a fait accompli. He was selected. If he was physically able to play, then he was entitled to play. From the beginning, after Magic announced he was HIV positive, we looked at it that we had to educate. It wasn't necessarily the NBA's job to lead on world health issues, but we had to learn from the best doctors and pass along what we learned.
Dr. David Ho (Time Magazine's Man of the Year in 1996 for his pioneering work in developing the drug treatment "cocktails" that slowed the spread of HIV in patients): [Stern's] involvement with HIV-AIDS, from what I'm aware of, predates Magic Johnson's diagnosis. Whether he gets the credit or his office, as you know, in the early 80s the AIDS epidemic broke out. There was a period where the disease was spreading, but I think given what he knew about the lifestyle of the players, I think he was concerned. I came in contact with him before Magic Johnson's announcement.
Welts: It looked like the situation room at the White House. There were doctors, Magic's people, PR people, just trying to figure this out. We were trying to educate ourselves. No one knew. It wasn't a situation where it was even possible. I know that once he felt educated on the subject, there never was a doubt in his mind about whether Magic should be playing. Once he understood what the medical issues were, there never was a waver on his part.
Rosen: David was one of the few people who knew after the initial diagnosis. It was because Earvin and I spoke about it, and he said, we have to let David know. It wasn't right away; it was, maybe the weekend after, and I picked up the phone and let David know. David was going to Utah, because they were opening that new arena. We were going to do the press conference two days later. But the story broke a day early. And we had to call David. David was on a plane, and instead of going to Utah, the plane was diverted to L.A.
Ho: It's pretty clear that by the time he met with me, he knew a lot. He had to face the facts. The policy was going in the right direction. He was concerned that what they were talking about was correct. They were well-prepared and serious. I was impressed.
Rosen: Earvin was leading in the vote total at the time. David called me and said, 'Look, I have a problem here. If he's playing, if he's elected, I don't think we should have him start.' I happened to be in Hawaii. I called Russ and said, 'Russ, Earvin ain't coming to the All-Star Game [otherwise]. If he's elected, he's going to start. He feels by starting, he'll educate the world.' [Stern] spent a couple of days thinking about it, and he said, 'Yeah, if he's elected, let him start.' It actually took a burden off of Earvin. He knew he was going to be a sideshow, but he knew he would kick ass on the court. And it made him work that much harder.
After speaking with doctors and others battling the disease on the front lines, Stern made his decision: Johnson would start, and play. The game became one of the great highlights of Johnson's career, with the future Hall of Famer scoring 25 points along with 9 assists in 29 minutes, including back-to-back 25-foot hook shots over Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas in the final seconds.
Welts: It's inconceivable, a month before that, that Nickleodeon [the children's television network] would have programming on their air, talking to kids, about what HIV meant, and why they shouldn't be afraid of it, and how they can deal with it ... if he talks about what meant the most to him during his time there, it would be those things that actually meant a difference.
Linda Ellerbee (Former NBC correspondent and co-anchor of "NBC News Overnight," the host of the Nickleodeon show "A Conversation with Magic Johnson" and co-founder of Lucky Duck Productions, which has produced "Nick News" on Nickleodeon for the last 24 years): The day Magic Johnson went on television and announced he was HIV-positive, and said in that announcement that he wanted to educate kids about AIDS and HIV, Gerry Laybourne, who ran the network at the time, calls me and said, 'Let's call him, right now. If he wants to explain things to kids, this is the place.' We called, and we got completely blocked by all of Magic's agents, and all the people that come along with being a famous basketball star. So we called David. David was the one who made it happen. David was the one who cut through all the stuff and who was able to get the show on the air. We are still so proud of that show. That show did so much.
The emotional apex of that show came when 7-year-old Hydeia Broadbent, one of the kids surrounding Johnson as he spoke, told her story. Hydeia was also HIV-positive, and broke down in tears as she said, "I just want people to know that we're normal people." (Like Johnson, Broadbent also beat back the advance of the virus; now 29, she is an HIV/AIDS activist and humanitarian.
Stern's Favorite All-Star Moment
Ellerbee: At that point, that little girl erased the screen between the people watching, and the people on the set. I know people's minds were changed ... David did good in this world for more than just roundball.
Ho: His approach was let's find out the facts, let's hear from the experts and take them seriously, then take it back to the league considerations and come up with the proper policy. The NBA did a lot to promote AIDS education. I wanted to help other countries carry out AIDS education, and the NBA stepped up, with the help of Magic Johnson and (later) players like Yao Ming. We did a lot of education, with things like posters. The NBA was very helpful with that.
Rosen: When Earvin hugged David after the game, it wasn't because he won the MVP, it was because of what he thought about David Stern. And it's what he still thinks about him today. He realizes that David made him a really, really rich guy. And David realizes that Earvin helped make the league very successful.
Ho: Magic became, he would say, sort of the poster child for this cause. Whatever the league did with him set an example for the rest of the affected community. The no-nonsense approach was very important in helping to fight the stigma and the discrimination that was so rampant for HIV-positive individuals. The impact was great. I'm not sure if the sports world felt that, but for the world that was dealing with it, it became a seminal moment for educating the American public, because a high profile player like Magic was involved. The league played a large part in that. Many players resisted the idea of playing with him, but the league stuck to its position.
Some of Stern's greatest challenges came late in his reign.
In 2007, the FBI began an investigation into allegations that an active NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, was betting on NBA games -- including ones he officiated. Stern quickly dismissed Donaghy as a "rogue" official who was acting alone.
But Donaghy, who ultimately pled guilty to federal felony conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 15 months in prison, charged that the NBA encouraged referees to falsify their reports and didn't want referees to call fouls on star players.
He also said that referees targeted Rockets center Yao Ming during a 2005 playoff series, and that referees fixed Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals between Sacramento and Los Angeles to ensure a Lakers victory and keep the big-market team in the playoffs.
No evidence was ever unearthed to support his claims, but they severely damaged the reputation of the league and its officials. In response, Stern made several changes in the NBA's officiating structure, including bringing in an outsider for the first time to supervise the referees -- a former two-star U.S. General, Ronald L. Johnson.
Gen. Ronald Johnson: I admired David Stern for his leadership. He was very demanding, but not unreasonable -- as long as you had your act together. I did not report directly to David, but I wish that I did. I think David was very bold, innovative in his thinking and was willing to try new ways of raising the performance of the officials. His knowledge of the business of basketball was almost scary. You could bet that if David had a question that required you to respond with details, he already knew your data better than you did. He would challenge your analysis and for me, it simply made me think deeper - not a problem for me. I think that he was misunderstood by intermediate leadership and that trickled down to levels where people seemed to overreact to him.
A report from attorney Lawrence Pedowitz in 2008 found that some officials had engaged in gambling unrelated to betting on NBA games, and recommended the league increase its background checks on referees, list officials for every game in advance so that gamblers wouldn't have that proprietary information before the public, prohibiting referees from discussing the condition of players with team athletic trainers, making complaints to the league about officials during a playoff series available to both teams and installing a hotline for referees, players and team officials to report any suspicious activities. Stern told Johnson he wanted officiating to be more of a profession than an apprenticeship. General Johnson also wanted more professional education for the referees, including ethics training and taking formal leadership classes.
Gen: Ronald Johnson: I don't think nor feel that we accomplished everything that I had envisioned. I also don't think officiating is something that you "improve" upon, get it in that state and then move on. It is a game-by-game, day-by-season, playoff by playoff, season-by-season endeavor and a renewal process that starts over with every game. It's something that you have to work at all the time, knowing that the game that has no errors is the only acceptable game -- at least for the fans and the teams.
The changes in the infrastructure, assessments, training, etc., I think were good, but until you can affect the culture, the hard changes won't matter. Organizational culture changes over time and requires a shared vision. I don't think I did a good job in getting my people to share that vision.
Stern announced in October, 2012, that he would retire on Feb. 1, 2014 -- 30 years to the day that he became Commissioner. Silver, the former head of NBA Entertainment and deputy commissioner since 2006, was easily approved by the NBA's Board of Governors to replace him.
Taylor: The way I would put it is, times have changed, and Adam is ready for the new type of leadership. The new owners, their way of running things, they're just different types of owners. David brought in a group that was so respectful of him because he grew the value of the franchises, so they were very indebted to him, and they gave him a lot of latitude in how he ran things.
Stern's final two years as Commissioner were as tumultuous as his first. The 2011 lockout was clearly motivated by owners determined to significantly roll back player salaries, and Stern and his owners delivered, taking back approximately $3 billion in projected player salaries over the 10 years of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement in a new 50-50 split of Basketball Related Income.
At the same time, Stern, pushed by small-market owners to do something about the vast differences in spending ability between the NBA's relative haves and have-nots, worked on a new enhanced revenue sharing plan that moved $140 million annually from the biggest revenue-making teams to those in greatest need. In addition, punitive additional luxury tax payments were introduced to the CBA to keep teams from being tens of millions of dollars over the luxury tax threshold without paying severe financial penalties.
Taylor: What we agreed on was, take David off as the focal point, and put Adam as the focal point in the collective bargaining. Adam would be the lead person to speak, and David, for the first time, take a step back and not be the focal point. That's not easy for David. But he did do it. So we had Adam out front, talking to the owners. Then on the revenue sharing, he put Joel [Litvin] on that one, but I would say, quite frankly, David was in front on that one. He had to be, let's just call it, the tough guy on it. I played the role of maybe being the nice guy on it. We thought that out. We had to bring them along collectively. David is kind of the master planner of all that.
The owners would get upset on one issue, [but] it wouldn't filter over to the other issue. We thought it out. It took a long time, but we got to the end, and David was there all along, knowing all the pieces. Personally, from my viewpoint, it worked out very well.
Jeanie Buss (Lakers Executive Vice President, Business Operations): DJS was able to pass the Revenue Sharing because of his ability to get people to work together sacrificing their own personal interests for the betterment of the league. That doesn't make him always popular with owners in the short run, but when the results show improvement in the business, no one can argue.
The last big issue on Stern's plate before turning things over to Silver was what to do with the Sacramento Kings.
After a decade of not being able to reach a deal with the city for a new arena, the team's owners, the Maloof Family, had threatened to move the team in recent years -- to Anaheim, to Virginia Beach, Va., seemingly anywhere.
In early 2013, they announced a deal to sell the team to a Seattle-based group that would move the team there and had a commitment to build a new arena.
But Sacramento, led by its former NBA-playing Mayor, Kevin Johnson, came up with an 11th-hour plan that brought together local and regional actors like never before. Johnson convinced owners he could get a new downtown arena in Sacramento, and when Warriors minority owner Vivek Ranadive agreed to be the big wallet, committing to buy the team for an NBA record $535 million, the Kings stayed put. There were grumblings from Seattle that Stern, not wanting his final act to be the move of a franchise, and eager to get the league's first Indian-born owner in place, had his thumb on the scale in Sacramento's favor.
Taylor: David could have gone either way. I think David could have gone either way. I think there was a bunch of owners who looked at Sacramento, thought they were really our partners, and that that city had no other pro franchise, and Johnson really did a good job. I give him a lot of credit on PR. I can't tell you the number of times he called me. He said 'We're going to build a building. We're going to do it.' It kind of went that way. I think once David felt it was going that way, he said, OK, let me work on this, let's make sure Sacramento really had a plan. I don't think David made a bunch of owners vote a way they didn't want to. I think it was more of an owner-driven thing. Let's keep it in this city. They've been loyal, though they made a lot of mistakes. I would give David credit for finding the owners. I would give David credit for getting the price.
You could measure Stern's reign by the numbers -- players have become rich, owners have become richer. The NBA is broadcast in more than 250 countries worldwide, and its players are among the most famous athletes in the world. The league gets more than $7 billion through 2016 from its current television deals with ESPN, ABC and Turner (my company), and is likely to get a bigger deal next time around. League revenues are projected at more than $5.5 billion this season.
Or, you could measure his time by the seismic social change that has occurred in his league. Black men that were shunned by much of White America in the late '70s are now cultural icons. Allen Iverson was as big a hit in China as he was in Philly. "Be Like Mike" wasn't just a corporate slogan for many.
Stern's Last Draft Pick
Did Stern cause all that to happen? Of course not.
He was quite lucky to take over just as the pro game was being transformed by two seminal talents and personalities, both of whom demanded unselfish team play and won big. Then, Jordan came along, and won bigger. In between, and afterward, there were so many great players, from Isiah to Stockton to Malone to Ewing to Barkley to Olajuwon to Robinson to Duncan to Shaq to Kobe to LeBron.
But Stern was the person who figured out the best way to maximize the impact those players could have, on and off the court. At 71, there's really nothing left for him to do. Or is there?
Riley: I really like David. When you're with somebody for -- basically, I've been in the NBA for 46 years, since 1967 -- and he was in since the same time, and we sort of took the same path together. And we always crossed paths, because I became a coach, and for the last 35 years, there's been a lot of communication, greetings and things, penalties that would come down, and arguments that we'd have on the phone. He'd call me on the phone and say 'This is what's going to happen to you; if you don't do this, this is going to happen. I'd call back: 'That ain't fair, you're not being fair with us.' And then he'd call back and say 'I'm being fair with you, but I made a decision, and this is what's going to happen with you, this is what's going to happen to them. That's it. It's over with, it's off my desk, it's done, it's finished.' He's very decisive that way. For the most part, when I would always say 'I think we're getting the raw end of the stick here,' I think he would do what he had to do. And he never really played favorites with anybody. And he did a lot of good things.
Welts: The question I always get is, 'Is he really going to leave?' I find it fascinating. I think he's so intellectually tuned into this transition that he's going to be part of the discussion as Adam starts his tenure. I don't imagine there's any chance he would do anything other than that.
Colangelo: He's keeping that close to the vest. I think he's had opportunities. He's not in any hurry to do anything at this point. I think that's been his public and private position. But he has a lot to offer. He's capable of running any kind of major corporations, because of the extent of his background, his law background, and everything he's become pretty adept at.
LeBron James: I'll give you three great memories for Dwyane. (Pause). He gave him the trophy three times.
Dwyane Wade: And, he gave me a Finals MVP Trophy. Four. He gave me four trophies. We've had some great times together, man.
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