VIDEO: David Stern Essay
David Stern officially stepped down from his position as NBA Commissioner on February 1. Stern guided the NBA through a global expansion that saw the league’s annual revenue grow from $165 million, when he took over the position in 1984, to an estimated $5.5 billion in 2013.
There’s plenty to say about David Stern, and writers from various newspapers, magazines, and Web sites wrote a lot recently about his run as commissioner. Here’s a sample of what they’re saying:
Kurt Helin, NBC Sports: “When you watch the NBA All-Star Game and the weekend of events Feb. 14-16 in New Orleans, know that was David Stern — the idea of having a dunk contest and other events around the game was something he pushed from the day he took over in 1984. Know that when you watch a mid-season nationally televised game Friday night — where highlight packages and conversation before and after the game happens on ESPN and other outlets — that was David Stern’s vision.
Stern certainly wasn’t perfect — he was a cult of personality that led to two destructive lockouts, plus he already had a foundation to change the league put in place by others when he stepped in the door in 1984. You can make the case that he is more Bill Gates than Steve Jobs — he didn’t create new and innovative things, he just better exploited the market for those things.
Still, the NBA is in a far better place now because of him. Far, far better.”
Ken Berger, CBS Sports: “Stern introduced NBA basketball to the world with the Dream Team, and his stubborn imperialism has given us exhibition games and scattered regular season games all over the globe. Over the next decade, it will be Silver’s job to export the game in a tangible, permanent, meaningful way. Like any Fortune 500 company, when you reach market saturation, you have to find new markets if you want to make more money. Of the four major American pro sports, basketball is in the best position to do so.”
Ian Thomsen, Sports Illustrated: “He set up the NBA to become the only global sports league capable of thriving throughout the world. When Stern took over the NBA, it was a penny-ante organization endangered by bankruptcy. No one was envisioning profitability or expansion for pro basketball, much less the advent of a Dream Team. Stern saw a potential for the NBA that transcended the domestic aims of the rival leagues in America. Will the NBA ultimately become more popular and profitable than pro football or baseball? It’s hard to imagine that day right now, but the potential to be a moneymaker on every continent is something that exists down the road for the NBA to a much greater extent than for the NFL or MLB.”
Harvey Araton, New York Times: “He once explained the sport’s hold on him by recalling the title of a book written by his predecessor, Larry O’Brien, about O’Brien’s time as a strategist for the Democratic Party: No Final Victories. But could we say that the 2011 labor peace — with the owners gaining a 50-50 split of the revenue — represented his final victory? [Adam] Silver, who will be empowered with increasing revenue, with potential European expansion and developing interest in India, Africa and elsewhere, answered first.
‘Not a fair question,’ he said. ‘He already said there are no final victories.’
All right, then. Most cherished on-court memories?
Stern leaned back and pointed to a photograph propped against the wall of him presenting Magic Johnson with the most valuable player trophy at the 1992 All-Star Game, months after Johnson retired from the Los Angeles Lakers upon disclosing he had contracted the virus that causes AIDS.
That was one, Stern said. The other, he said, was ‘was what the Dream Team represented, this much-maligned group of players and sport, on the march to the gold medal stand, being feted like a combination of the Bolshoi, the Philharmonic and the Beatles.’
Stern paused and offered one final plug that made the long voyage sound like the continuing mission of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
‘And therein launched the globalization of the game,’ he said. ‘Again, no final victories.’”
Richard Lapchick, ESPN: “When he took over, the league was divided by race and lacked diversity at every level. Many people criticized the NBA player base as being “too black” while league and front-office employees were overwhelmingly white and male. From the start, the new commissioner said positions on the court would be filled according to the skills and talent of the contenders. In fact, the percentage of players of color has increased while the percentages of women and people of color in professional positions in the league office and team front offices have advanced dramatically.
Right from the start of his tenure, hiring in the league office included more women and people of color in the New York offices and later in its global offices. The NBA has been the only men’s league to get an overall A for racial and gender hiring practices. It has done so for six consecutive years. The other men’s leagues are now close to the NBA’s A for racial hiring practices, but both the NFL and MLB still get a C-plus for gender. The WNBA, which Stern helped to launch, is the only organization that beats the NBA and has had an overall A-plus. Seventeen years after its launch, the WNBA has had an A in both categories in all but one year.”
Ric Bucher, Bleacher Report: Talk about David Stern’s genius invariably begins with his business acumen, having made a too-black, too-drug-infested sport wildly popular with white corporate America and global TV viewers, thereby transforming the National Basketball Association into a billion-dollar empire.
If it were that simple, though, his run as commissioner might not be ending. But he’s being moved on because the league now is less about creating something and more about exploiting what has been built.
No, Stern is exiting stage right after an inimitable 30-year run because under that dark suit and power tie, he was an artist and a preacher—or rabbi, in his faith of choice—and that’s simply not what his current congregation is seeking.”
Henry Abbott, ESPN: “Getting stuff done is what work is all about in the end. Building consensus is the preferred approach. But it’s hardly as if Stern, who’s fond of bragging that he “knows where the bodies are buried,” is out of tricks should that process break down. Playground bullies tend to prey on those least likely to fight back, but Stern is that rare brawler who pokes his finger into the chests of titans. The NBA is operating today only because the lockout of 2011 is over, and the lockout is only over because Stern was able secure the support of just-enough owners — many of whom hated aspects of the deal.”
Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated: “Hard as it is to compare commissioners among sports and eras and media landscapes (what would Pete Rozelle have thought about the RedZone channel?), Stern is certainly on the sports commish Mt. Rushmore. He completely transformed his league in a way that, I would argue, no other commissioner has. Some of this, of course, owed to good fortune. His first years coincided with Magic [Johnson], [Larry] Bird and [Michael] Jordan. Plenty of forces outside his control — the changing media landscape, technology, the DVR that made sports especially valuable — helped build the NBA into the multibillion-dollar behemoth it is today. But go through the “CEO checklist” — longevity, business savvy, legacy, visionary thinking, generally unwavering support from the boardroom (i.e., the owners), leadership, innovation — and there’s a lot of high marks there.”
Larry Coon, ESPN: “Through the collective bargaining process — sometimes collegial, at other times adversarial — Stern put the system in place to realize his vision. The very concept of the modern salary cap was Stern’s innovation, including the soft cap and the exceptions that defined specific circumstances under which teams could exceed it.
Other mechanisms, including maximum salaries, restricted free agency, the rookie salary scale and revenue sharing were all invented or informed by Stern. These all exist to help the NBA meet its overarching objectives: to grow the league, to create a landscape in which any well-run team could be both financially solvent and competitive on the court and to ensure that everyone — not just the stars — could make a good living playing the game. Stern achieved these goals by combining a broad vision for the NBA with a depth of perspective that only an original architect could have. ‘He gets it all,’ said one league source. ‘There are no translation issues with him.’”
Kelly Dwyer, Yahoo! Sports: “None of the innovations credited to Stern were of his own design, but that’s the way these things often work — in art, commerce, athletics or in the political realm. His ability to sustain the fine work of his predecessors, while pouncing on the evolution of the times that were growing up around him, was brilliant. Expanding international relations, embracing cable and satellite television, attempting to even the financial playing field, recognizing the power of the Internet — the man even artfully detailed the benefits of a legalized modified zone defense in the presence of disbelieving journalists on a cocktail napkin in the summer of 2001. Stern didn’t invent any of these significant positive movements, but he made sure they were implemented tout de suite.”
Mark Heisler, Forbes: “You no longer hear the old charge that the NBA works only for rich teams. Nor is there a trace of the self-loathing in what was once dismissed as a “YMCA league,” that reached its highest expressions with Wilt Chamberlain’s “My Life in a Bush League” Sports Illustrated cover in 1965.
A distant third behind the NFL and baseball through the 1980s, the NBA is now a behemoth. With the owners slicing the players’ 58-42 share of revenue to 50-50 in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement, profits and franchise values are ramping up. In an eye-popping bequest to his successor, Adam Silver’s first major piece of business will be to negotiate new network TV deals amid projections that rights fees could double from their current $930 million a season.
Mike Wise, Washington Post: “In hindsight, Stern didn’t sell a black sport to white America; he sold great athletes and good stories to a paying audience willing to accept some of the flawed characters for who they were.
Stern won’t get enough credit for some of his best work: his compassion and empathy for the most discriminated among us, not just poor black kids, many of whom grew up in America’s most impoverished neighborhoods. No, he stood for John Amaechi after the former center came out as gay in his autobiography. When Tim Hardaway made anti-gay comments in reference to Amaechi in 2007, Hardaway’s livelihood in the NBA suddenly ceased. Stern wasn’t having bigotry.”
J.A. Adande, ESPN: “One aspect of David Stern’s reign as NBA commissioner is the indelible personal mark he put on things. It wasn’t just the actions, it was the way in which they did it. These moments often reflected as much of his personality, manner and leadership style as they impacted the league. While you can debate whether another commissioner of this age accomplished more, there’s no doubt that he displayed more attributes — imperious, sarcastic, compassionate, ruthless, among them — than his contemporaries.”