In Memoriam: Former NBA Commissioner David Stern

David Stern speaks to Michael Jordan
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

I do love this game. Being a part of it, however tangential, for almost 40 years seems testament enough. A big reason is because of David Stern, the longtime commissioner who passed away Wednesday. Not so happy a New Year for the NBA family.

No one is bigger than the game. David would be quick to point that out, likely with a quip about forget the game, he's lucky to see over the counter at the deli. Certainly the game that Dr. Naismith created and so many supported and grew became special for the artistic creativity of its players, the high wire athletic ballet that's left us to gasp in delight for generations. Well, maybe after George Mikan. The game is special and unique, a series of interconnected actions like few in team sport involving the greatest athletic figures in the world. With that comes a unique familiarity and personal interaction that makes the NBA world like an ongoing tailgate party. No sports league ever has embodied the personality, gossip and transparency of the NBA. Where else can Dennis Rodman, Ron Artest, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and David Robinson survive and be celebrated together?

Dennis Rodman and David Stern

Certainly, the game and its participants have a timeless appeal.

But there's more to being part of something special than the object.

What made David Stern's 30-year tenure as NBA commissioner unique in addition to the obvious advances of league growth in revenue, marketing and worldwide appeal was that you felt proud of being a part of David's NBA, that his moral gyroscope always spun on the axis of fairness, decency, nobility and humanity.

You didn't have to sacrifice your values to be part of the NBA. To the contrary, because of David Stern you knew the NBA was on the right side of the most difficult and divisive issues and that if any sport was standing with those without a voice it was the NBA.

When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 he had the HIV virus, it was one of the saddest days in sport. Not only was a great talent going dark, but probably Johnson's life, we believed. That tender moment was a flower in a desert of hysteria at the time. I recall a kid kicked out of school in Indiana for fear he'd be contagious despite doctors screaming no. Even NBA players were warning to stay away from Johnson. Panic becomes a fast break. You could be infected and die if you were near him and he got cut despite what the medical experts said. Hey, didn't they say in the 50s all you had to do was hide behind a wall to watch a nuclear explosion?

Magic Johnson at the 1992 All-Star Game

Who are you going to believe? Scientists or what I think?

Stern stepped out of the crowd immediately. He invited Johnson to play with the 1992 Dream Team, in the 1992 All-Star game, where he predictably enough made a winning shot. The NBA led the national debate that calmed the madness about AIDS.

A sports league shall lead us.

There were inchoate attempts to form a basketball league for women. But, you know, went the whispers, you'll be fostering this, ummm, lifestyle. People don't want to see that. Nonsense. Though there are imperfections and the pay isn't the same as the men receive—nor is the revenue—the Women's National Basketball Association is thriving and as sound structurally as any sports league because of the NBA's backing, David Stern's actually. Even many of the league's owners bailed. But Stern never let go of the game for the women and they have a place at home to play, a league the girls growing up can finally envision will be there for them.

Perhaps Stern's greatest trick has been globalization, though not just the economic generation, the famous 1992 Dream Team, the games in Asia, South America, Europe. It was the welcome mat put out to the world. If your huddled masses yearning to breathe free could dribble and shoot well enough, c'mon in.

1992 Dream Team Award Ceremony

Economic nationalism has been and continues to be a stain on nations. The United States land of immigrants has endured it for centuries, like the prohibitions against the Irish in the mid-19th century, the later Chinese Exclusion Act, anti-Catholic political parties. They're taking our jobs!

Some in the NBA whispered about that as well when the Europeans began to arrive. But it was Stern who further flung open the gates. He knew America always was better when it was open to the world, and as Dirk and Manu and Toni and Pau and Mehmet and Yao and Drazen and Luka came the NBA only became more interesting and more exciting.

Anyone who assumes a leadership position and responsibility makes mistakes and is open to second guessing, flaws and foibles. They always said around the NBA the great untold story is not that envelope at the first lottery or Michael Jordan's first absence but the asperity with which Stern could face personal confrontations.

And that he was feared in an equal opportunity way, Stern's volatility known by office assistants and owners alike. Owners often would joke they'd stop going to league meetings because the Stern wouldn't let them speak.

Michael Jordan and David Stern

But it also was because David's life was the league, its image, its health and welfare, and they merely might be guardians of some billion dollar company somewhere. But that's not the NBA!

Even players joked about coming to see the principal about a suspension or some Artestian catastrophe. David Stern's concern was the NBA first. Everyone who knows David faced his wrath and enjoyed his depth. I'd note at times how could it be that the players cared so much in the NBA Cares ads if it was written in their contracts they had to make public appearances. In truth, NBA players—and athletes in most sports, in my experience—have a generosity that greatly transcends most everyone else I know. But it would hit a nerve. I'd get the stern warning.

Say what you want about me, but do not harm our league!

The list of accomplishments merges with the list of shortcomings.

There was the growth of the NBA from famously the Finals not even being on prime time in the early 1980s and the league a shorthand for a drug addled crack house to the celebrity of Bird, Magic, Michael, Kobe and LeBron, the All-Star weekend, adding seven franchises, the current G-league and WNBA. There was the dress code imbroglio some said ignored the mores of the day, the fight in the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Supersonics move, the gambling referee, the labor shutdowns in 1998 and 2011. But that's part of doing business, the gauntlet between success and failure.

David Stern and Kobe Bryant

Stern was a lawyer first and then business executive. As CEO he was responsible for the success and profitability of his company, and few CEOs ever have done it better. From a salary cap agreement in 1983 that probably saved a half dozen franchises from bankruptcy to the current $24 billion mega media deal and franchises now valued in excess of $2 billion, the NBA in Stern's tenure became buying Apple or Facebook as a startup.

Corporations talk about social responsibility, and many make grand financial contributions. The NBA was different. It welcomed the overlooked and forgotten and told the public everyone has a place in its orbit.

African-Americans became top team executives when in football they supposedly still couldn't play quarterback. Women became officials when baseball still wasn't sure about whether they should be asking questions in the locker room.

Baseball started sports integration with Jackie Robinson in 1947. The NBA came along a few years later—should we call it 33 BD, Before David?—and then blew past everyone with the Celtics all-black starting five, the stars of the game most celebrated by the early 1960s being black players, coaches of color being the game's thinkers, top league executives of color and the first labor agreements.

That's when Stern came aboard in the 1970s with the league's law firm, Proskauer, Rose, Goetz and Mendelsohn, working on the Oscar Robertson suit that led to free agency and the league merger in 1976. He became the league's general counsel in 1978 and was the impetus behind the historic labor agreement and the first drug testing policy in sports. Stern then was named commissioner to replace Larry O'Brien in 1984.

Larry Bird and Michael Jordan

The 1980s became known as the NBA's golden era, and it was likely because of Magic, Bird, Michael, Dominique, Barkley and the rest. But it hardly was a coincidence that it was the start of the tenure of the game's most innovative and daring leader. Stern's marketing gambles became graduate school textbook lessons.

All of us have to earn a living to exist. It's why these elections generally all come down to the it's the economy, stupid, thing. You take a job for the compensation, the personal joy, the contribution. You mostly hope the people who are in charge are honest and decent. Often leaders are not. Can you support and defend them? Do you have to?

You never had to worry about that being associated with the NBA. Because besides overseeing a sound financial model, David Stern spoke out and delivered against injustice, welcomed and enabled the overlooked and forgotten and represented the values of inclusion, fairness and equality we are most proud of as Americans. Not for vanity but because it was the right thing to do for the league and for, well, use because that's how people should be. I'll most miss that conscience.

It's a big reason why the NBA is so special. You can say NBA and just feel proud. David Stern, 77, RIP.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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