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Posted: Thursday January 29, 2009 1:16PM; Updated: Thursday January 29, 2009 2:41PM
Jack McCallum Jack McCallum >

Stern stays ahead of the curve

Story Highlights

David Stern has kept his gravitas and relevance across 25 years as commissioner

Stern's forward-thinking approach has served the NBA well in a number of areas

Stern's biggest regret as commissioner centers on the league's 1998 lockout

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David Stern said he initially expected to stay in the NBA for only a short time, but he's now been commissioner for 25 years.
John W. McDonough/SI
25 Years Of Stern Rule

As is sometimes the case, what should've been the worst moment turned out to be one of the best. I had been flying most of the night, from Rome to Moscow, on a private plane with commissioner David Stern and a few other NBA types during the league's preseason Europe Live tour in October 2006. Fog intervened and we had to divert from Sheremetyevo Airport to Domodedovo, a more remote airport, far from suburban Moscow. Our stiffened bodies alighted just after dawn, and our Soviet-style reception was chillier than the freezing weather outside. There were red-tape issues, and we sat, shivering, in a small room in what could generously be called "the terminal." A small TV was on, and on it was Vice President Dick Cheney.

Stern and I sat and watched. He got up and shook his head and said something funny (can't say what) about our erstwhile veep, and we shared a laugh.

This is the essential Stern, I thought. Active mind at the weirdest hours, ready to roll, ready for the next challenge. It was good to be aboard on this trip.

Stern and I came to power together. OK, that's a joke. But I do feel a connection to the man who became commissioner at about the same time that I took over the NBA beat for Sports Illustrated. I was lucky to have covered the league during a time of unprecedented popularity. The commissioner was smart, forward-thinking and, yes, also lucky to have gained stewardship during a time when America and the world were willing to gather the NBA to their bosom.

The most amazing thing about Stern -- whom we recognize this week on the occasion of his 25th anniversary as commissioner -- is that he has retained both gravitas and relevance, even as the sport over which he has ruled went down and up and down and up within the shifting sands of public opinion.

He has his detractors, to be sure. Some say that he made a secret deal with Michael Jordan to (first) retire in 1993 so that more unsavory revelations about Jordan's gambling wouldn't come to light. (Though no one has ever offered hard evidence.) Some say he didn't do enough to clean up the Tim Donaghy referee scandal. (Though others say he handled the p.r. fallout splendidly.) Some say his institution of the dress code was racist and a sop to the Red States. (Though almost no one talks about it anymore.)

But the larger point is this: While pro hoops is routinely considered the most unpopular of our major pro sports -- and we could spend hours going into the fact that there is a racial component involved -- Stern is routinely considered not only the best contemporary commissioner but also among the best commissioners of all time in all sports.

How and why does he have this rep? Perhaps it's partly because he's had to work so much harder than his counterparts in football or baseball, sports that, to a degree, sell themselves. But it goes deeper. Stern is the one commissioner who has stayed ahead of the curve, be it global expansion, digital technology, labor negotiations or player relations. He did it -- still does it -- with a combination of searing intelligence, intense competitiveness (I've long felt that Stern gets along well with so many top players because they see a lot of their competitiveness in him), a certain bit of ruthlessness to get his own way, and an iron constitution that holds up even at, say, dawn in Russia.

David Stern (left) replaced Larry O'Brien as NBA commissioner in 1984.

Stern, 66, loves the public eye and performs well in it, yet is extremely hesitant about sitting still for on-the-record interviews. That's because he, like many people of power, likes to control the dialogue, set the rules and, by and large, keep personal details about himself just that. Still, I extracted a few nuggets during the five days I spent traveling with him on that European trip. And recently, he agreed to answer a few questions about his 25th anniversary. Since they're more interesting than anything I could write, here are the highlights. In your early days as commissioner, you always pooh-poohed the negativity in the press about the league, but what was your biggest worry when you took over? The potential financial collapse of multiple teams?

Stern: It wasn't all that bad. The collective bargaining agreement and anti-drug agreement in 1983 began to stop the decline and turn things around, at least image-wise. The growth in television, arena redevelopment and advent of sports marketing took care of the rest.

[Of course, he was responsible for a lot of that.] Did you expect to stay this long or did you figure you'd be back practicing law at some point?

Stern: I expected to stay at the NBA for only a few years when I joined it [as a partner at the Manhattan law firm of Proksauer Rose, which handled the league's legal affairs in the 1970s], but then I started to find the job very interesting, much like a puzzle that needed to be solved. Some of our favorite politicians hate this question, but is there any mistake you feel you've made, or something you wish you could get a do-over on?

Stern: Yes, the lockout in '98. I wish I had done a better job of convincing the players and the union that the owners and I were serious about a shutdown to improve the economics of the league. Conversely, what is your biggest success?

Stern: It's not mine but it happened on my watch. First, the role the NBA played in educating the public on HIV/AIDS after Magic [Johnson] announced his illness. The debate on the disease was forever altered.

Second, all the chatter about America not accepting a sport where black athletes were in the majority and black athletes not getting endorsements, etc., was a media construct that was unfair to our players, who demonstrated that our sport deserved the support of American sports fans and fans around the world. In some ways Barcelona [he means the 1992 Olympics] and Beijing [the 2008 Games] are the paragraph indentation and the exclamation point on that. Without the challenge of international expansion, could you have done the job for this long?

Stern: There seemed always to be something new, but without the twin challenges of globalization and the digital revolution, I would be long gone. Will there be a 30th anniversary? A 35th? A 45th for that matter?

Stern: There won't be a 35th, I can tell you that, and it doesn't pay to speculate on 30. What has made it possible for me to get things done here all these years are, of course, the players, but also my colleagues. [He ran through at least a dozen who have been at the league for two decades, sometimes three.] By necessity, I'm out front in crisis, and get to do the fun stuff, too, like the draft and the championship trophy presentation. But the real heroes who do the job and make it fun are the people of the NBA and our owners, who are, by and large, in my view, the most enlightened in sports.

Stern's power base, of course, comes from the owners, so one might expect him to make that last point. But the fact remains that he has the respect of the vast majority of everyone connected to the NBA --owners, league execs, players, fans and press. His has been an extraordinary 25-year run. Good luck to his successor, for he or she will need it.

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