David Stern on 30-year tenure: 'We've navigated opportunities'
An interview with David Stern does not generally proceed along linear lines. There are stops and starts, the soon-to-be-erstwhile commissioner prone to traversing peripheral paths (of which there have been many during his 36 years in the NBA office, the last 30 as commissioner), while staying resolutely on message and offering frequent "this-isn't-for-publication" dictums, even for relatively innocuous material.
The interview is, to an extent, a zero-sum game for the commissioner, who is nothing if not a zero-sum specialist. And, yes, he usually "wins," his questioner dragged along on the tide of Stern's intellect, which, as you've heard before, is formidable. That is not to say the experience is necessarily unpleasant, in the same way that being a passenger in a speeding automobile is not unpleasant, albeit discomfiting.
This "exit" interview was conducted last Friday afternoon in the conference room off Stern's 15th-floor office in midtown Manhattan, an office he will be vacating on Saturday, the 30-year anniversary of his becoming commissioner. There was not nearly enough time to get to everything, so a couple of brief follow-up emails were necessary. The only one of consequence was about the one true scandal that enveloped the Stern Era: the machinations of referee Tim Donaghy, who in 2007 pleaded guilty to two felony charges related to providing inside information on NBA games to gamblers.
As a result, Stern implemented more extensive background checks for officials and moved to increase transparency in the referee program. Though conspiracy theorists are still out there, the NBA weathered the Donaghy storm, and the subject of cheating referees is rarely brought up. (Though the subject of incompetent referees, as in any sport, remains prevalent.)
"We have been ever-vigilant," Stern said in an email, "and have no reason to believe there are any additional rogue referees in our midst."
The 71-year-old Stern looked fit and energetic last week, as he typically does, seemingly at peace with what he's done and particularly serene about the smooth transition of leadership that took place when he handed the reins to Adam Silver, his deputy for the last eight years and a recognized league executive for the last two decades.
When the interview concluded, Stern, with some relish, pulled out the prototype of the new business card he will have printed. It read:
DAVID J. STERN COMMISSIONER EMERITUS
SI.com: How active will you be in NBA affairs in the coming months? Or in the coming years?
Stern: I'll be taking another office in the city with a secretary, but not in this building. I will not be lurking around the office. I will not be at All-Star Weekend this year. I will not be routinely at NBA games. I will not be making decisions. Adam will be sending me to two or three places where business might be done and where they have an appropriate amount of respect for somebody with white hair.
Other than that, I told Adam and the owners that I'm available if there's anything I can do to continue the growth of the league. I'm a consultant if needed and, if not needed, I'm not a consultant. Another friend who's also retiring said to me, "You know, David, there will always be another mountain to climb. And you have to come to the realization that someone else will climb it."
SI.com: So what will you be doing on a full-time basis?
Stern: I will be the head of another company down the road ... that much I know. That company will be about business opportunities, based upon my experience as CEO of the NBA and my experience with business building, crisis management, marketing, communications, television, media and globalization. I may do some teaching and I will do some speaking. [Stern may sign on with the Harry Walker Agency, which represents Bill and Hillary Clinton, among hundreds of others, so we may safely conclude that his speeches will bring in hefty income.]
SI.com: You're leaving a league that now has more than $5 billion in revenues and is valued at about $19 billion. When you took over, did you have a number in mind of where you wanted the league to get to?
Stern: When we first met, you could've had the NBA for a lousy $250 million. So I had no idea about numbers, either for revenue or valuation. And if I did, it would've been just a guess and it would've been low. Look, we made a cable-TV deal in 1979 for about $400,000. It's about a billion now. Nobody could've imagined those kinds of numbers.
SI.com: When you look back, do you see one specific "punch year," a year when things really took off?
Stern: That's hard to say. Maybe 1989, when we signed a new TV deal with NBC? [NBC took the league away from CBS with a $600 million deal. League television deals now total about $937 million.] That was the marketplace recognizing for the first time the strides we had made. It's a nod to history now, but some people don't believe me when I tell them that the 1980 Finals, with a rookie named Magic Johnson, were on tape delay. And in 1984, we had five regular-season games on TV.
SI.com: Did you consider yourself a "business guy" when you took the job?
Stern: Far from it. Here was my background for business: In law school [at Columbia], I took a course called "Accounting for Lawyers" that discussed basic tax issues, and that course is why I decided to become a litigator. I'm not being facetious. I was not a numbers person. What I turned out to be, though, was a good operator. Here's a job, here's what we have to do to get it done. Let's go do it.
SI.com: When you took over in 1984, is it correct to assume that there was not much of a business paradigm for the NBA?
Stern: My NBA "models," such as they were, were men like Red Auerbach, Don Nelson, Bill Fitch, Jack Ramsay and Dick Motta, and they were seat-of-the-pants guys. I went to [then NFL commissioner] Pete Rozelle and he got me with the NFL Properties guys. I went to [then MLB commissioner] Bowie Kuhn and he got me with his promotions guys. There was a steep learning curve.
But also there were a series of circumstances [factors in the 1980s such as a healthy economy, budding globalization, superstar athletes with whom the public identified] that provided opportunities not just for this league but in all sports. As much as anything, we've navigated opportunities.
SI.com: Would it be accurate to say that you were heavily involved in all aspects of the league? I don't want to suggest that you ran a totalitarian regime or anything but ... [If you don't slip something like this into a Stern interview, he forgets you're there.]
Stern: In 1978, there were 24 people in here. [The NBA office then occupied one floor of the building; now it has seven floors, not to mention 15 international offices.] Now we have 1,200 employees. The idea that I micromanage all of them is quite funny because we have people doing everything at every hour of the day on every continent.
In the beginning, yes, I was a micromanager because it was necessary to set a standard for what this league could be. My sense was that we needed to be -- and could be -- so much better than we were, that we could raise our game off the court.
SI.com: Obviously, that means marketing a game that was considered rife with drug use and being "too black"?
Stern: Look, when an ad agency tells us that their client won't buy in because our sport is "too black," I took it personally. I took everything personally. And as much as I endeavored to tell them that, yes, we have a predominantly black sport but the audience is the same racial background as college basketball, it didn't always sink in.
SI.com: We could spend three hours talking about race and the NBA. If some of the resistance to the league from white America is not specifically racist, it is at least racial. It is a subtext that never goes away in sports -- witness the recent Richard Sherman incident, right?
Stern: Richard Sherman is an intelligent guy and a Stanford grad, and some idiot reporters say, "Hey, are you a thug?"
SI.com: What would you have done as commissioner had something like that happened in your league?
Stern: What could you do? And, anyway, what should you do? I mean, do you remember Howard Dean during the debate? [He refers to the then-presidential candidate going a bit, well, nuts after a third-place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucuses.] Except that Howard Dean happens to be a white former governor, not a black athlete.
SI.com: It will be 10 years ago this November, but when people want to criticize the NBA, they still bring up the brawl in Detroit, the Malice at the Palace. Does that bother you?
Stern: Of course. Look, after Ron Artest went into the stands at 9:45 on that Friday night, I spent most of the weekend in my bathrobe looking at tape. But by Sunday night we were ready to go, ready to talk about it. It was a terrible time. You begin to get a chip on your shoulder when people ask you dumb questions that play to type. Every other commentator calling NBA players thugs. And most people forget that the whole thing was started by a white fan throwing a beer on him.
SI.com: With the stiff penalties you handed out, fighting has really been reduced ...
Stern: Not reduced. All but eliminated. I had an ongoing argument with Rod Thorn [now back in his former role as the league's disciplinarian] for 15 years that I finally won ...
SI.com: I thought you won every argument.
Stern: Not true. I would not issue a directive unless Rod agreed with me. Rod used to make fights outcome-determinant. Meaning that if you threw a punch and you missed ... hey, no harm, no foul. My thinking was, No, you throw a punch and the penalty should be the same even if you miss. Because what you don't want is players throwing punches.
And for a long time I had this image of Greg Anthony coming off the Knicks' bench [during a 1993 brawl with the Suns] and getting into it. So we made the rule that if you leave the bench to join a fight, you're done. We turned it into an IQ test. And several teams have failed it.
SI.com: There was also the 15-game suspension of Carmelo Anthony in 2006 that was considered overly harsh.
Stern: He went back in when the fight [between Anthony's Nuggets and the Knicks] was over. We wanted to stop that. And in these cases, we made the punishment as fast as possible and as harsh as possible so the conversation would turn to what an idiot the commissioner is, rather than on the perpetrator.
And it's made a huge difference. We have the best seats in all of sports and we could not have a situation where fans are in jeopardy. No fighting, no endangering fans. Period.
Now Kobe [Bryant] is moaning that it's too much of a wussy league. And I couldn't be happier.
SI.com: Speaking of IQ, did you get involved in discussions with North Korea ambassador Dennis Rodman?
Stern: I have not talked to Dennis. I made a call to someone else whom I respect urging that player not to go [to North Korea for a recent Rodman-led exhibition]. And he did not.
SI.com: And that was?
Stern: Can't say. Actually, back in 2006, I had some preliminary talks about sending our national team to North Korea. This is when Kim Jong-il was in power. We were playing in the World Cup in Seoul and it's not that long a distance to Pyongyang. We could've done it. Ambassador Bill Richardson had made some inquiries.
But, ultimately, I lost my nerve and didn't pull the trigger. And I felt worse about not going when the New York Philharmonic made a trip there later. I view basketball and music the same way, as vehicles for cooperation, and the sad part is that no one proselytizes as much as I do about the value of sport as an international icebreaker and unifier. That's why the Dennis thing was so disappointing. He didn't go there for goodwill; he went there as a birthday celebration for "The Great Leader." It was sickening.
SI.com: Speaking generally, the NBA seems immensely popular overseas. In those situations, which I've seen you in many times, there doesn't seem to be the kind of baggage -- be it racial or whatever -- that you sometimes face over here. Why is that?
Stern: Part of the reason, beyond the popularity of our players, is that we're one of the few major countries that does not have a ministry that includes "sport" within its purview. We have leagues that act as separate entities. So when we go over there, it's almost like we're representing the whole country. A respect is accorded us beyond our intrinsic value.
SI.com: After all your international travel, what languages to you speak fluently, beyond, presumably, English?
Stern: None. I speak some combination of French, which I took for four years in high school; Spanish, which I took for two; and Italian, which I studied through Berlitz when we were gearing up for a TV deal. So I speak some sort of gibberish that combines all three. It's actually frightening.
SI.com: I see the three portraits on the wall -- Maurice Podoloff, Walter Kennedy and Larry O'Brien, the three men who preceded you as commissioner. Is an artist working on Stern right now?
Stern: I actually commissioned those portraits. And my rule was: You have to be dead or officially retired. And I am neither.