Q&A With David Stern: Part 2
NBA Commissioner shares his thoughts on tanking, staying out of the spotlight and the league's global growth
HOUSTON - With the 2013 NBA All-Star game approaching - an event that will represent David Stern's final All-Star weekend as Commissioner - Rockets.com recently took advantage of an opportunity to speak with the league's patriarch about his memories, misgivings and thoughts on the game's global growth.
What follows is Part 2 of that conversation in which Stern recalls his first glimpse of Yao Ming's game-changing impact while offering his views on hot button topics like tanking and the regular season schedule.
If you missed Part 1 of our exclusive Q&A with the Commissioner, it can be found here.
JCF: I have to go back to that coin flip in 1984 to determine which team would win the right to draft No. 1 overall. That was obviously a day that changed the course of NBA history and especially that of the Rockets’. I have to imagine there was more than a little tension in that room that day.
DJS: You know, there wasn’t. It happened so fast and then it was over. I invited everyone into my office, then we flipped a coin. There you go. That was it. It was anticlimactic, that’s all I can say. But I remember it because I think we still have the green carpeting in my office from Larry O’Brien and I remember seeing the coin fall on that carpeting.
JCF: I guess that’s sort of history in a nutshell: you have these massively important moments that are over in a flash and there’s just no way you can possibly comprehend the consequences that will ensue.
DJS: That’s absolutely correct. Now one of the things that I do remember having to do with Houston was announcing Yao Ming as the first pick. All of a sudden Yao is in the Beijing studios of CNN being interviewed and I’m saying, ‘How cool is this?’
JCF: Were you nervous at all at that moment just because, let’s be honest, that moment also came attached with a not insignificant amount of awkwardness?
DJS: No, because we were stepping into new waters. The most important player in the basketball world at that moment was Yao Ming and he was about to come from the People’s Republic of China into the NBA. It was a subject that I had long been interested in, seeing international growth as a huge opportunity for the NBA, and this was a big deal.
JCF: Can we talk tanking for a moment? The Rockets were quite vocal about their goal to rebuild while refusing to bottom out, but the current system certainly increased the degree of difficulty. Is that a problem in your mind and, if so, what are the most intriguing solutions?
DJS: You know, I don’t think it’s a problem. I’ve learned a lot more and changed my perspective on this over the years. I don’t know what the problem is because different people have different problems that are actually the opposite of each other. Some people think that we should just give the worst two teams the top two draft picks, and that’s a problem because it raises issues that are often covered in the media dealing with the effort that those teams put in. Then when teams wind up having the worst record and only end up with the fourth pick, someone says that’s terrible and they should have the first or second pick, even though we’ve changed it so that wouldn’t be guaranteed and that would eliminate the opportunity to do it.
Finally, I’ve focused on the world’s most popular league which is the English Premiere League and basically, unlike American sports, in the English league they actually punish teams for finishing with the worst record – they relegate them to the second division. We reward them by giving them a draft pick.
JCF: And that of course leads to two questions: 1.) Would it be better to go back to an unweighted lottery in which all 14 teams have the same chance to win? 2.) What’s the best way to handle the reality that the action on the court can be impacted by tanking during the last couple of months?
DJS: But to what end? To what end? I don’t think the worst team has won the lottery in the last several years, or at least not much. So to what end? You’d just be wasting their time based upon the numbers. And the one team that understands numbers is the Houston Rockets.
JCF: We’re running out of time so I want to touch on another hot button topic before you go. Have you come across any creative suggestions for enhancing the schedule in a way that might work better for players, fans and coaches?
DJS: Absolutely. The coaches and the owners and the players should all agree that their salaries and other income would be reduced by the amount that overall revenues would be reduced.
JCF: Well sure, we all know the 82-game schedule isn’t going anywhere …
DJS: But why? Maybe the players will take less and the owners are happy with less and the arenas want fewer dates – maybe we could reduce it. Why would you run away quickly from the subject?
JCF: (laughs) Because that sounds like such a very realistic worldview you’ve just presented …
DJS: You never know. If people have a great suggestion because they think something is important, the question is: What are they willing to pay for it?
JCF: Sounds like something you should write about. Speaking of which, I heard you mention in New Orleans a couple weeks ago that when you retire you’ll create your own blog. I know you were probably joking, but what would the name of your blog be?
DJS: Yes, I was just joking. You won’t find my Twitter feed, my Facebook page or my blog because they won’t exist in any way that you’ll be able to identify.
JCF: Why aren’t you on twitter anyway?
DJS: I didn’t say I’m not. I just said you wouldn’t be able to identify it.
JCF: Would you think about putting yourself out there publicly?
DJS: No, no, no.
JCF: Just because it’s a recipe for disaster?
DJS: Yeah, I think so. I think the world has enough tweets. I don’t have anything that I think would be valuable as an addition.
JCF: I suspect there are a lot of people who would be keenly interested in what you have to say. Even once you step down and are out of the spotlight, you wouldn’t consider it even then?
DJS: No, one of the benefits of stepping down is you’re out of the spotlight. You go do what you want to do.
JCF: Do you think it might be advisable for some of your players to have that same approach to social media?
DJS: No, I think they’re great. I think fans are interested in following them. I can’t imagine that fans would be interested in following either a commissioner or former commissioner or a retired commissioner. I think players, as athletes and entertainers, should be front and center and I think it’s great that they do those things.
JCF: We began this conversation by talking about All-Star weekend and how, to a certain extent, it’s likely reached its ceiling. What do you envision as the biggest area of growth for the league as a whole going forward?
DJS: The All-Star game may have reached its ceiling, but the activities of the NBA and their coverage seem virtually limitless because the game is currently televised in 215 countries – that’s who’s going to be receiving the All-Star weekend: 215 countries in 45 languages. It’s fascinating to me and the growth of that has been astounding. And yet, as television and new forms of distribution – first cable, then satellite, then streaming - have been developing, there are more ways for our fans on a global basis to absorb our game and of course it’s increasingly going to be on smartphones that are just going to be video devices that people can watch our games and highlights on.
So there’s going to be an extraordinary increase in awareness of our league. There’s going to be bigger business with the NBA, our players are going to get to travel the world playing games, giving clinics, working with sponsors, and the continued growth of the NBA through that and through social media will be, I believe, spectacular.
JCF: Are you past the point of being surprised by anything that happens with this league?
DJS: I am past that point, really. I would never have thought that this thing called Youtube, which didn’t exist some number of years ago, would reach a billion views on the NBA channel, that between Twitter and Facebook there would be 300 million likes and followers, or that words like Instagram and Tumblr would be relevant because of NBA players and teams doing what they do, or that tickets would be sold and resold increasingly online at nbatickets.com.
It’s been just an incredible ride to see all of these things changing and improving.