David Stern | A 76ers Remembrance Podcast
NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern was a giant, a person whose impact on the league was ubiquitous, transformative, far-reaching.
On New Year's Day, Stern passed away at 77, and since then, there have been plenty of stories shared across the league about the former commissioner's remarkable run, and we've got a few of our own.
Now, hear from members of the 76ers family, as we reflect on and appreciate David Stern's life and career.
Click below to listen to a podcast version of this story.
From all over, from NBA icons to a former President, tributes have poured in, and the sentiment is unanimous - with the passing of David Stern, the sports world lost a titan.
In reading and talking to people about Stern's life, it's clear there are many layers to his legacy. He could be both compassionate, and brutally tough, curious, and combative.
When it came to matters of basketball and beyond, there seemed to be no stone he wouldn't, or couldn't, overturn.
Stern passed away on January 1st at the age of 77.
A native of New York, Stern began his professional career as a lawyer, a vocation that ultimately paved his path to the NBA, which he joined on a part-time basis in the late 60s.
On February 1st, 1984, after serving as Larry O'Brien's right-hand man, Stern was named Commissioner on a full-time basis. He held the post for 30 years, until January 31st, 2014.
Under Stern's watch, the NBA emerged from a particularly sketchy period to become a force. Individual superstars were born, as the league tapped into a global marketplace.
And all of this growth was underscored by an air of social responsibility and progressiveness that distinguished the NBA from its peers, from the tone Stern set following Magic Johnson’s stunning public HIV announcement, to the creation of the WNBA.
Yes, the boom of basketball towards the end of the 20th Century was largely David Stern's doing. He of course had help along the way - from trusted deputy commissioners, to staffers at the league office, to owners, and the players themselves.
The past couple days, several members of the 76ers family shared their experiences with Stern, his influence on them, and the impact he had not just on hoops, but the world.
Why don't we start with a kid, fresh out of college, and a couple of months on the job in the basketball operations department of the NBA league office.
“At the time, basketball ops at the league office was a smaller outfit and down the hall from David. Some of the interactions were by design. Others were impromptu. I found out quickly it was important to be prepared for any potential interaction with David,” said Ned Cohen.
Cohen is currently Assistant General Manager for the 76ers. Prior to joining the organization in 2016, he had been at the NBA for 12 years.
“One time, it was a Friday afternoon, and my mind is already focused on the weekend - I'm 22 years old, whatever it was. I hop on the elevator, and I hear a, 'Hold it!' David jumps on and proceeds to grill me on a variety of different things that I didn't perform very well that day. From that moment forward, anytime I would walk out to the elevator, I knew exactly what I'd be prepared to talk about,” Cohen said.
When it comes to Stern and how he operated not just his business, but his life, few things seemed to be left to chance. He was thorough, tactical, omnipresent.
“He knew everything," someone explained.
These Elevator encounters - or perhaps better put, interrogations - like the one Cohen recalled... weren't limited to him alone.
In one obituary about Stern written by ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, another elevator tale was told. In this instance, during the late 1990s, Stern just so happened to share a ride with a staffer who was responsible for the league's licensing efforts.
Immediately, Stern started peppering this person about the WNBA ball that was being sold in sporting good stores. He wanted them removed.
Ned Cohen isn't so sure that these ‘random run-ins’ were really so random.
“It definitely was not an accident at times. We all have memorable interactions like that. I think he took a lot of pride in having the people who work with him motivated to do their best. You needed to be prepared, and he expected that. His memory was incomparable. He'd ask a question of something and you would offer an answer. It may be an opinion. A couple months later, you're saying it didn't quite turn out like I thought it would, but [Stern] has a lot going on, there's no way he's thinking about that. But sure enough... for his recall, everything was bound in the history books, and you were kind of on record for that.”
Chris Heck is Team President of the 76ers. One of his previous stops was at the NBA, where he was Senior Vice President of Marketing Partnerships.
In one breath, Heck describes David Stern like this:
“They say he was the greatest commissioner ever. I almost think that's an understatement. I worked for him for seven years in New York. I traveled the world with him. Not only was he a leader of leaders, he was arguably the most brilliant person I've ever been around - from book smarts to street smarts to toughness to vision.”
Then, in the next breath, Heck may have something like this to say about his former boss:
“Listen, the guy was not a wallflower. He was an unbelievably intimidating figure because of the power he wielded. He had world leaders thinking of him as the guy. It was unreal to be in his presence and being part of his entourage so to speak.”
“Presence" is a noteworthy word in the context of Stern.
What is "presence" anyway? How would you define it? Presence certainly isn't tangible, and you can measure it in a variety of ways.
If you've ever seen footage or photos of Stern, or maybe spotted him at a game, you know his height belied his influence.
Google "David Stern" and "height” and you'll immediately be sent to his Wikipedia bio, which lists him as 5-foot-9.
Ned Cohen worked with Stern for over a decade - size had no bearing whatsoever on Stern's presence:
“I've seen some articles that reference a guy 5-foot-9. There was no way he was 5-foot-9. There was no way he was 5-9. That was pretty generous, but whatever room he was in, the attention focused on him. He could be him speaking in front of a group of All-Stars, it could be the head coaches, whatever it was, everyone's attention went to him, and everyone knew who was in charge.”
“I will tell you, Stern is not just a name. It was also his persona,” Scott O’Neil said.
O'Neil has been in the NBA for over 20 years, both on the team and league side. These days, he's the Chief Executive Officer of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the 76ers.
Before the Sixers, he ran Madison Square Garden Sports. Before that, he was Senior Vice President of Team Marketing and Business Operations for the NBA.
All these years later, the four-digit extension from Stern's line at the league office is still engrained in O'Neil's mind, and he's not alone.
“When that number 8300 flashed on your phone, you know he was coming with heat,” O’Neil said.
“It would not be surprising to see that extension "8300" pop up and David's calling to check in on whatever it might be,” Cohen said.
And it was critical that you were prepared and ready with the answer at your fingertips. He had a lot to cover and be responsible for, and he expected that people would be ready, and his time would be well spent.
“The tricky part his is, his assistant would call and say be up there in 30 seconds. You'd feel what, it's principal's office times 10, but know he's calling up there for a reason, for efficiency and function,” Heck said.
“That was a great honor, to give him information and know that you knew what you were talking about.”
O'Neil used words like "treacherous,” “intense,” and "high-pressure" to describe some of the calls he got from Stern back then. Now, he reflects on extension 8300 fondly.
“He wanted, and deserved, and demanded excellence,” O’Neil said. “Every meeting I was in with him, he would talk about the relentless pursuit of perfection over and over and over again.”
Stern totally understood that what he was striving for wasn't actually attainable. That didn't curb his ambition one bit.
“He had a common refrain: ‘We're constantly on the road to perfection, knowing that we're never going to get there, but never stopping trying to get there.’ He relished those details in an attempt to achieve perfection,” Cohen said.
“I remember sitting with David in Detroit at one time - it was a Pistons game in Detroit against Cleveland, and I believe it was the Eastern Conference Finals. I was sitting right next to him, and he said, how much does that sign cost over there? I stumbled a little bit, and he kept going,” Heck said.
“He had this unique method of making you prepare, and if you didn't prepare, you were not there for long. You were not there for long. I take it as a true badge of honor being there for seven years.”
“Nothing subtle about him. He was sarcastic, he was wry. He was New York, through and through,” O’Neil said.
Of all of Stern's qualities, there was one that stood out above the rest. His intellect was second to none.
“His deep knowledge of everybody's business was beyond belief,” Heck said.
“His depth and breadth of knowledge inside the NBA and sport, but also outside and everything that's current events. A lot of things he was passionate about outside of basketball he immersed himself in it. He was a voracious reader, and would constantly quiz employees on what they were and weren't up to speed on,” Cohen said.
“He was into a lot of things like politics, and had his opinions. When he would find out you maybe on the other side of the aisle, he would go right after you, so you'd have to be prepared, which I secretly enjoyed those confrontations, both with business as well as personal beliefs,” Heck said.
“I saw a man who would wake up every day thinking he didn't know anything, and he would read and study. He was interested in politics and life sciences and business just as much as he was in sports. He read every newspaper. He read all the trades from all these different aspects of life and business and geopolitics. I think he understood that sports has that special place in the cross section of it all, and that we provide that little slice of escapism that's so necessary in building community and changing lives,” O’Neil said.
“He was nonstop,” Cohen said. “His mind was continuously running on ways he could have an impact.”
Stern's influence on both the NBA and the international sporting community is the kind of thing you measure in massive milestones, and how he managed watershed moments.
Through it all, Stern relied on a consistent stable of external partners to help him execute his vision. There were the teams that made up the league, and the businesses that supported it.
But the success of any sports league, to a certain extent, hinges on the relationship it has with the people responsible for providing the product, in this case, the players.
Sometimes, circumstances called for Stern to stand with the NBA's players. Other times, he was forced to line up opposite them.
Either way, looking out for the best interests of the NBA, and protecting the league were always at the root of his decisions.
“You see the narrative of business person and tough, but you also have the side where he related to the players, he related to us,” Elton Brand said.
Brand played in the NBA for parts of 17 seasons. David Stern was the league's Commissioner for 1,002 of Brand's 1,096 career games.
“He was a very personable, charismatic person, and it was genuine. It was like this is business, this is who I am. We can talk and be friends, but if we have a deal, we need to get the best deal for both sides and make sure we can grow this business and grow this pie of the NBA, which he did for the players,” Brand said.
Brand, of course, is in the midst of this second season as the 76ers' General Manager. Over the course of his All-Star career, as he continues to do in his role as an executive, Brand took advantage of opportunities to travel abroad in an effort to grow the game, one of Stern's top initiatives and biggest accomplishments.
“Basketball, NBA, sports breaks a lot of barriers around the world. When we went to Asia with the NBA, I went to Russia with the NBA, I went to Mexico with the NBA. To see the fans, the smiles on their faces. They knew the players. They were like, 'Elton Brand! 20 and 10!' It was just like, 'Wow! How do you know who I am? How do you follow this, the NBA?' Just growing the business of it, and also relating to different cultures,” Brand said.
David Stern accompanied players on these trips. What were his interactions with them like?
“It'd just be him and us,” Brand said. “It wouldn't be a lot of other staff or employees. He just wanted to relate to us as a group, a leader, and get our thoughts on what we didn't like, what we felt we could do better, what the league could do better, and really caring is what we felt. We felt he really cared about us. He wanted to care about the business, but he cared about us as humans.”
The most prominent and powerful example of Stern's capacity to empathize with players, to rally them, was arguably his full-fledged, proactive support of Magic Johnson in the aftermath of the Hall of Famer's shocking HIV press conference. It was 1991, and at that time, fear and confusion surrounding HIV/AIDS was at its peak.
“If you asked David what his major achievements were during his time, he would cite the changing world view regarding HIV/AIDS after Magic Johnson in '91 and elements that relate to society's progress. He took great pride in the platform and the support for NBA players to have impacts in their communities and with their voices. That's another area he deserves a tremendous amount of credit for,” Cohen said.
Elton Brand was 12 years old when Magic made his announcement. He remembers what the national dialogue surrounding HIV/AIDS was like in the early 1990s. He was young then. Time gave him an even greater appreciation for the steadfast support the league threw behind Johnson, and his desire to use his diagnosis as a platform to promote public awareness.
“It's great symbolism, it's great support, and it's needed. Just from an education standpoint. I was a kid, and thinking you could get HIV from someone shaking your hand, from sweat, and was thinking, 'Oh they're going to play against him.' Some players may have come out and said some things at the time. For him to stand up in hindsight and kind of create a barrier from that stigma - this is not true, you can play, you can have a life, you can live with HIV, and we're going to support one of ours, it was a great statement,” Brand said.
Another one of Stern's great success stories working in partnership with players came less than a year later, in the summer of 1992.
There’s a decent chance some of you probably weren't even a thought on the radar of life at that point in time. I was just on the cusp of entering the prime of my sports-craving youth.
Elton Brand was too.
“Following the Dream Team, it was an amazing example of the greatness of the NBA players, the visibility of the NBA players,” Brand said.
The Dream Team was incredible, and captivating. The best American basketball players, all on a single squad, absolutely destroying the competition.
Charles Barkley led the team in scoring. The United States scored over 100 points in each of its six games, and won by no fewer than 38 points. That's how good that group was, and David Stern was largely credited for convincing owners to let their players compete.
On a larger scale, more significant than the Americans winning the gold medal was that the Dream Team's run only made basketball that much more popular, both at home, and around the world.
“You saw around the world they were rock stars, there were crowds. They were rock stars around the world. That was my first time really understanding it was bigger than the U.S., the NBA was an actual global game, and David Stern played a pivotal part in allowing NBA players to represent their countries in the Olympics, and I further represented the USA in many competitions. We're talking about opening doors. That's another door he opened up,” Brand said.
“When he was a driver for the Dream Team coming into effect in 1992, the US team was miles ahead of the game across the rest of the world. You look at it now, I think it was 108 international players entering the NBA at the start of the season, so nearly a fourth of the league. So not only the presence of those international players, but the impact and style of play that has influenced over time,” Cohen said.
During Stern's watch, the NBA held its first regular season games in Japan, Mexico, and England. Preseason games were played in Italy, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, France, Germany, Spain, China, and Brazil.
You read the telling stat that Ned Cohen rattled off, roughly a quarter of the league's players were born outside the United States, On the 76ers' roster alone, 8 of their 17 players have foreign citizenship.
Players worked with Stern to grow the game across the world. In turn, he helped them become, on balance, more recognizable than any of their peers from the other American professional sports.
“What the NBA is now are these global superstars who are also icons. They are superstars off the court too. I think [Stern] recognized that [potential] before anyone else,” Heck said.
Elton Brand praised David Stern for creating an environment in the NBA in which players could be themselves:
“You could actually say what you wanted to say, have an opinion, and it wasn't just catering to what the NBA needed and what their messaging was. You can be free, you felt free being in the NBA under his leadership for sure, and he's left a great legacy that we continue to pave that path for future generations. He started with that, he pushed the superstars and Michael Jordans of the world, and how that blew the NBA up to the level that it's at now.”
The relationship between Stern and one of his most vital external partners, the NBA players, wasn't always harmonious. Navigating the threat of or resolving work stoppages comes hand in hand with any commissioner's job.
Stern helped guide the league through lockouts in 1998 and 2011, both of which cost the NBA games. In between, there was the infamous game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers in November of 2004.
“That was a brawl that spilled over into the stands. That was at a time when the NBA and superstars were not very well regarded,” O’Neil said.
We're not here to rehash one of the more disappointing events in the history of a proud league, but the punishments that Stern handed down to the players involved were swift, steep, and historic.
“In the room, there were a thousand reasons why he shouldn't, couldn't, and wouldn't do what he purported to do, which was suspend a lot of players, but he did it. I saw it up close and personal. I'm not sure how to explain it without giving up the confidence in the room, other than to say I saw true leadership, stewardship, and willingness to make the tough decision, the tough call, and do what needed to be done at a time when basketball fans around the world needed to see it done,” O’Neil said.
Another ripple effect resulting from the fight at the Palace was the dress code change that Stern implemented. Initially, there was some resistance.
“I remember when the whole dress code thing went down. I remember discussing it with him for hours on a plane. He was like, 'Eh. It will be nice. We'll shake it up a bit.' It ended up being this brilliant maneuver to highlight players off the court. In the beginning, it was no ripped jeans, wear a collared shirt. Now, everyone's wearing a unique fashion statement,” Heck said.
You won’t find a team's Insta feed that doesn't have a pre-game drip carousel post. It's consistently one of the most engaging pieces of gameday content for @sixers.
Players might not have always agreed with Stern, but in the end, they did respect him. He made sure they knew where he stood, like it or not, and that it was clear that he was doing was, in his mind, right for the game.
“You follow it. I was on the board, I was on the committees, I represented teams in some of those meetings, and he was quite honest. It's like we need to clean this up, consumers, TV. He explained it in a way that was this is bigger than me - fair or unfair...you want to look professional. The CBA "disagreements," figure out where we want to meet at. It was all cordial. You saw the messaging that he was tough, but it was never to the bitter end. "Let's figure this out" was the message,” Brand said.
Scott O'Neil, who was at the NBA for nearly a decade, said he's never seen anyone lead in crisis like David Stern:
“There's so many things that David Stern is, and one thing is just an incredible leader, and part of being a leader is this incredible charisma he had, and presence. He could certainly walk into any room and command attention. But I think what was more impactful to me was how he made you feel. He had this way in the toughest of times, full crisis situation, put his hand on your shoulder or send you a note or say something that was both inspiring, challenging, and made you want to be better, work harder, and think faster.”
In contrast to Stern's toughness, there was also a human touch that sound like it was just as transcendent, and felt across all levels of the NBA - by the players, team employees, and at the league office.
“Growing up in Peekskill, NY, it's like, no one ever made it to the NBA from here, why should I think I will? But you see David Stern shaking the hands of all the first round draft picks. When it's your opportunity, it's just a relief, it's elation. All he stood for, the NBA stood for. It's just an honor and privilege to play and get drafted and to shake his hand. It's like a ceremony,” Brand said.
As is the custom for the Commissioner of the NBA, Stern would shake hands on-stage with each first-round draft pick after he announced their names. Brand had the distinction of going no. 1 overall in 1999.
There was another connection that he and Stern had that Stern would never let Brand forget.
"He would always talk about me being from Westchester, NY,” Brand said. “He's a NY guy, he was like 914, Westchester. It was like a nod. You have the Commissioner showing you love like that and knowing your area. That was a special feeling. It was a sense of pride I felt knowing he was from the area and he would talk to me about that. "
“At times, I think we all feel very busy and wrapped up in what we're doing. His willingness to take time to visit with, counsel, support people he worked with and cared about just left such a lasting impact - if the commissioner was willing to spend time with me when I was 24 and a coordinator, it just speaks volumes to his investment and care for people,” Cohen said.
“I spent a lot of time with him. I was very blessed and fortunate to be with him and catch him at a time in his career where I think he was very focused on mentoring. I have friends all over the world that have the privilege and honor of working with him, and I think we all feel the same way. Our lives are forever better, different, and enriched because of our time with him,” O’Neil said.
O'Neil is one of many who worked for Stern at the NBA, then later went on to assume a high-ranking position in sports. There's also NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NBA President Amy Brooks, Chris Heck with the Sixers, Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts, Carolina Panthers President Tom Glick, and Chris Granger, who runs the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings.
At one point, O'Neil thought there was no chance Stern would ever retire from his post as Commissioner. But on January 31st, 2014, Stern passed the post along to Silver, his protege.
Later that year, in September, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. You could certainly make the case that Stern did as much for the game as anyone aside from the guy whose name is on the building. And even that might be up for debate.
Stern rarely celebrated success, either collective or individual, and wasn't the kind to hand out compliments. O'Neil was in attendance for Stern's Hall of Fame ceremony in Springfield, MA.
“David was not really fond of awards or recognition, so I thought it was kind of funny. I once asked him if he would ever have a book written. I was always interested, because I would read the book about David Stern and his life. He said nope, I've chosen a long time ago that I'm going to live for today, and I was not going to worry about my press clippings. He said long after I'm gone, someone else will be the judge of how well I did or how well I didn't do. Then he added, however, if I did write a book, it would be called Micromanagement is Underrated. I thought that was so funny. He later edited that a couple years later to Episodic Micromanagement is Underrated, which he was famous for, doing deep dives when things were going wrong. Then I said what would the sequel be, and he said, 'Management by Fear and Intimidation.' And I literally burst out laughing. I don't know if he was joking, I didn't know if he was serious, but I laughed out loud.”
These are the types of stories that have been shared about Stern since his passing. Yes, he was relentless, but also revered.
As Commissioner Emeritus of the NBA, there was no slowing Stern down.
“He definitely did not use the word "retirement," nor would it have been fitting,” Cohen said.
“The passion and the relentless nature of his appetite to learn just stands out in such an amazing way. When I was in New York at the league office as he made that transition, every couple months I'd go a couple blocks uptown to his office and we'd sit around and he'd ask a lot of what was going on with me in such a thoughtful sort of way. But he'd also tell me everything that he had going on, and being on the cutting edge in the sports tech space and advising a number of companies,” Cohen said.
A little more than two years ago, the four primary voices you've heard in this piece, Scott O'Neil, Elton Brand, Chris Heck, and Ned Cohen, all had an opportunity - as 76ers employees - to reconnect with Stern at the team's Training Complex, where Stern was visiting to serve as the marquee speaker for a sports science summit Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment was hosting.
“His mind was sharp, still thinking about the future, brands, growing companies, cared about the NBA, and still talked about Westchester,” Brand said.
Chris Heck's final in-person interaction with David Stern was just days before Stern's brain hemorrhage.
“I saw him the first week of December. He looked good, healthy. I'm glad for his sake he was strong until the end, strong minded and able. He died at a relatively younger age at 77, but what he squeezed into that 77 years is probably 150 years. That's something special,” Heck said.
Scott O'Neil last saw Stern about a month before, at a luncheon for the March of Dimes.
“We got to spend about 10 minutes together. In typical David fashion, he gave me a hard time about our team, and our performance, and our business, and then whispered two or three things about a potential investment I should be looking at, one that he was already invested in, which I always got a kick out of. He hadn't slowed down. He was as busy as ever, as sharp as a tact, astute, connected, and just a - I don't know - He was one of a kind. There will never ever be anyone like David Stern.”