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We open with David Stern striding atop a conference table—surrounded by television executives, gesticulating theatrically, debating a point with his nimble, sharp-edged wit—not because this is the modus operandi of the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, but because the image fits. Even if the event never happened (and there are those who doubt that it did), it fits.
"I really don't think he has the agility to do that," says Howard Ganz, a chum of Stern's since their Columbia Law School days in the mid-'60s and a partner at Stern's former law firm, Proskauer Rose Goetz and Mendelsohn.
"No, I never heard of him jumping on a table," says Larry Weinberg, chairman emeritus of the Portland Trail Blazers, whose team was fined a quarter of a million dollars by the NBA in 1984 for contacting Hakeem Olajuwon's agent while Olajuwon was still Akeem and, more important, still in college. "I doubt he could jump that high."
Even Stern can't quite recall the incident, although he stops well short of denying it. "It's totally plausible, but as a rule I don't stand on tables," he says. "I am an inveterate pacer."
And thinker and kibitzer and needler and innovator. Stern's mind is a barrel of fermenting ideas, and the NBA is a master with an unquenchable thirst. The reason why it is plausible for him to have held court on a conference table—plausible in a way it would never be for baseball commissioner Fay Vincent or National Hockey League president John Ziegler—is the unpredictable and spontaneous nature of the man himself. "When David sees an opening, he takes it," says David Beckerman, the president of Starter International, a sportswear company that last year paid the NBA more than $2 million in royalties on the sale of apparel bearing the league's logo and/or the logos of its teams. "I look at David as a basketball player in that respect. Other people may stick to some grand plan, but David reacts to the defense as he's coming down the court. He has polished instincts."
Stern prods, he charms, he teases and, when necessary, he tears apart to get his way. One of the great myths surrounding this 48-year-old, 5'9", basketball-shaped man is that he is the cuddly commish, quick with a joke, invariably gentle and the picture of equanimity. "His temper is part of his personality," says David Green, senior vice-president of marketing for McDonald's, which is one of the NBA's principal sponsors. "He can yell and rant and rave with the best of them. But he never does it in a threatening way. He is never overbearing. You have to have a feel for theatrics, and he does."
"Temper's not quite right," says Russell Granik, Stern's deputy commissioner, who has worked with Stern at the NBA for the last 13 years. "That describes someone who loses his cool. When David gives you a hard time, it's calculated."
Stern became infamous around CBS—the network that televised NBA games from 1973 to '90—for calling on Monday mornings to critique the weekend's telecast. "He used to tell me he could run CBS Sports better than I," recalls Peter Lund, a past president of that entity. CBS Sports executive producer Ted Shaker remembers that Stern read him the riot act for having closed an '83 telecast of a New York Knicks-Philadelphia 76ers game by panning across vast expanses of empty seats in Madison Square Garden. "I can think of any number of phone conversations where he did all he could to reduce me to the size and stature of an ant," says Shaker, "or at least to leave me with the opinion that my brain is the size of an ant."
"It's not table pounding," says Beckerman. "It's more his cutting you up and putting you in your place. You have to be prepared with him. You have to know your facts."
Dave Checketts, former president and general manager of the Utah Jazz and vice-president for development of the NBA, and now president of the Knicks, vividly remembers the first time he met Stern, in the early 1980s. "I was working for Bain & Co., a Boston management-consulting firm, and some of my clients were interested in buying the Celtics," says Checketts. "David invited me back to his office, and before I knew it, he's screaming at me. You see, I told him I'd been studying the league and that I had suggested to my clients that it would be ridiculous to get involved in the NBA. The league looked like it was heading for disaster. I asked David how my clients could justify plunking down $18 million for the Celtics. His approach is always to throw you off guard, and he looked at me and said, 'I thought Bain & Co. was a good firm.' Then he asked if I had considered this and that, and went on to explain how $18 million was actually a bargain. We battled back and forth for 2½ hours. You can't be loose with your facts or imprecise with him, or you'll pay with a pound of flesh."