Q&A With David Stern: Part 1

NBA Commissioner discusses All-Star memories, misgivings and the measure by which he grades himself
by Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Writer/Reporter

HOUSTON - Where does one even begin during an initial interview with David Stern?

This is, after all, a man who has been affiliated with the NBA for six decades; a relationship that began in 1966 when he served as outside counsel, triggering a chain of events that would ultimately see him ascend to the role of Commissioner on February 1, 1984. During that time, he has overseen the league’s massive, global growth into a multibillion-dollar business while simultaneously attempting to shepherd the sport through the sort of tough times inherent within any industry that dares to involve humans as its central figures.  

As befits the position he holds, Stern has been both visionary leader and lightning rod; a man tasked with perpetually walking a political tightrope that demands a degree of balance likely beyond the scope of mere mortals. Tough, painful and delicate decisions must be made daily, and there is no pleasing everyone. Yet this much can be said for certain: the NBA has flourished in ways great and small during his watch and there is no all-encompassing book detailing NBA history that can be written without a sizable chapter – or chapters – detailing Stern’s impact on a league that has become such a monolithic global brand.

So again, the question must be asked: where does one begin when preparing to interview the Commissioner for the first time? Hours, and preferably days, would be required to suitably sort through the memories and machinations of a mind that has, quite literally, seen just about everything the NBA has to offer both on and off the court.

Another time perhaps.

In the interim, however, Stern was gracious enough to carve out a significant chunk of time to talk to Rockets.com about the upcoming All-Star weekend that will be taking place, right here in Houston, next February. The event is massive enough of its own accord, loaded as it is with the launch of Jam Session beginning Thursday, February 14 at the George R. Brown Convention Center, all the way to events like the Slam Dunk contest, skills competitions and, of course, the All-Star game itself.

But there is deeper meaning lurking within the affair as well, in light of Stern’s announcement that he will be stepping down as Commissioner 30 years to the day he took over for Larry O’Brien. This, then, will be his final All-Star weekend as NBA Commissioner; a reality that provided a fitting backdrop for this two-part conversation centered on his memories, misgivings and thoughts regarding some of the hot-button topics facing the league amid a time of unparalleled growth and global popularity. 

JCF: From the vantage point of your first ever All-Star weekend, did you ever, for even a second, foresee at that time the extravaganza the event would one day become?

DJS: No, of course not. It just was a wonderful, incremental growth. The first All-Star game that was a little bit more than an All-Star game was in ’84 when we decided to have a slam dunk contest and a Legends game. Everyone from the ABA had wanted to have a slam dunk contest and Denver was an ABA city, so we had a slam dunk contest. Dr. J, Dominique Wilkins and a host of others did us proud.

Then we also had our first Legends game – it might have been called Old Timers at that time – and it was so well received on a Saturday afternoon. Our old timers had so much competitive juice left that they were injuring themselves, so we got away from that notionality.

Then over the years we tinkered and toyed and came up with the Rookie game, the Shooting Stars, the Skills and gradually, as we expanded our business, All-Star was a place where everything about the NBA could be enjoyed and indeed savored: our community outreach through NBA Cares and us coming into town early to do good deeds in the city hosting the event; the NBA legends coming in for a brunch on Sunday, which gives us an opportunity to welcome all of the alumni of the NBA in record numbers and it’s really one of the most popular events – it makes it a little bit of a family reunion.

Now there’s Jam Session which will be at the Convention Center, allowing us to have an interactive basketball event that is available to everyone. And by virtue of opening up the arena Friday through Sunday, having the concerts that we have that allow us to showcase talent, and then having the event as well, it’s an incredible, incredible experience for our fans and they pour in from around the world.

So for some period of days, the All-Star city literally becomes the basketball capital of the world.

JCF: What are some of the noteworthy memories from previous All-Star weekends in Houston that stand out in your mind?

DJS: Did we have Jay Leno and Willie Nelson back in ‘89?

JCF: That’s certainly possible, but I barely remember the 1989 All-Star weekend to tell you the truth.

DJS: Well go and do some research, would you?

JCF: (laughs) I really should have, but I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t feel it necessary to dig as deep as finding out if Jay Leno and Willie Nelson were part of the festivities.

DJS: I’m having trouble remembering but I’ll get it and then I’ll call you back.

(Note: True to his word, Stern did indeed call back later that afternoon, armed with the info that, yes, Jay Leno was indeed on hand at the ’89 event and that one of his favorite memories from the 2006 All-Star weekend was the performance put forth by the Houston Symphony.)

But in ’89 I just remember this monster indoor arena with all of these fans crowded in. It was so exciting to have that many people at a basketball game even though they were a good distance away from the playing court. But it was very, very exciting and Houston turned out in a big way for us and we loved it.

By 2006 it was a different kind of experience. It was so easy. The arena was beautiful, the club space was great, the hotel accommodations were plentiful and our guests just had a wonderful time and were busy saying, ‘This is a great city. We should come back soon.’

JCF: What advice would you offer Houstonians heading into All Star Weekend?

DJS: Be prepared to enjoy yourselves with respect to the multiple events that will be going on from Thursday to Sunday: to the various outdoor concerts that will be there; to Jam Session, which will have hundreds of thousands of people going through there; and the variety of other events like the Legends Brunch and the NBA Cares activities.

And I left something out: On Friday night at Jam Session, we’ll have the Sprint All-Star Celebrity game, so we’ll have celebrities coming in and playing basketball which is always interesting. And we have the D-League All-Star game. And we have fans coming in to see the All-Stars practice. So we make it into this massive celebration of basketball and the NBA. I could go on and on and on. It seems endless in a good way. It incorporates just about everything you could think about basketball.

We have a group of people here who are always striving to improve the experience, and (Rockets owner) Les Alexander and (Rockets CEO) Tad Brown are working mightily to demonstrate that Houston is a great host city. It’s going to be one heck of a weekend.

So if you’re a fan of this game, this is where you have to be. And as an added bonus, you get to enjoy the week where Houston gets to shine on the global stage.

JCF: You mentioned right off the top how the event has undergone this sort of incremental growth for the last 29 years – where does it go from here?

DJS: That is an interesting question. Sometimes you have to say to yourself: Maybe it’s gotten as big as it should get and bigger isn’t necessarily better.

JCF: Has a sense of nostalgia set in for you now that a step-down date has been set for your time as Commissioner?

DJS: Actually, I don’t think there will be any sense of nostalgia until the day I step down. We are working away frantically here to have a great season, to have our best ever All-Star, to develop ourselves internationally, to keep our arenas full, to develop our digital media presence. If anything, I’m busier than ever. I’m not going to have any nostalgia, just a continuing flood of good memories.

JCF: If you could travel back in time to 1984, what would you tell the 41-year-old version of yourself?

DJS: That you will ultimately be defined by the sum total of your responses to circumstances, situations and events that you probably couldn’t anticipate and indeed probably couldn’t even imagine. So just keep your eyes on the course and be ready to move in different directions depending upon the crises and opportunities with which you are faced.

JCF: So with that having been said, how would you grade yourself by the measuring stick you just defined? How often do you think that, if given a second chance, you might have approached something in a different way?

DJS: I’m always doing that. By nature I’m a person who always says that whatever I’ve done, I could’ve done better. But I don’t dwell on it because I’m waiting for the next time something happens and try to believe that my past experience will have helped to educate me in terms of how I deal with future ones.

I’m not big on looking back beyond the moment in which decisions and events occur. I’m always pushing forward.

JCF: Well in that case I'll apologize in advance for asking you another question inviting you to look back. Your first-ever draft as NBA Commissioner, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon was the No. 1 pick. What was going through your mind as you prepared to call out his name and ultimately greet him on the stage?

DJS: I honestly don’t remember. I do remember the night before, though, meeting Hakeem and his mother at an Italian restaurant where we decided for the first time to give the draftees a party. I remember how taken I was with Hakeem and his mom and other family members. And I remember that the ceiling of the restaurant was too low in one section, and I was embarrassed by it.

And I do remember the coin flip (for the right to determine which team would select No. 1 overall that year). I remember a coin flip in my office. And I remember fining Portland for having conversations with Hakeem. You see, the interesting thing for me is my recollections are more about the crises than the good times.

JCF: What do you think that says about you?

DJS: I think it says that I have always been focused on keeping the good ship NBA afloat and moving along, making course corrections when necessary but, most importantly, protecting it from ill winds whether they’re crises established by violence or referee issues or HIV becoming an issue, or drugs, or players behaving in certain ways by trying to strangle their coach or refusing to stand for the national anthem – things that sort of get blown up in certain ways but are times when I thought I was called upon to move to protect the NBA and withstand whatever the blowback was for from fans, the public or indeed owners. That’s what commissioners are supposed to do, while at the same time trying to grow the game for the benefit of the fans, the owners and the players.

JCF: That obviously means that you’re going to be routinely subject to criticism. Do you care how you’re viewed?

DJS: I think anyone who doesn’t say that they’d like people to think that they’re doing the right thing is wrong. I mean, I’d like it to be that way, but I’ve never allowed it to influence my actions.

Part 2 of Rockets.com's interview with Commissioner Stern will be published on Thursday. Click here for more information on Jam Session and how to get tickets to the event.