- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- He was installed as NBA commissioner a few months before the drafting of Michael Jordan. He has lasted long enough to call LeBron James up to the same podium. David Stern, now 61, celebrates his 20th anniversary as Lawrence O'Brien's successor on Feb. 1 and sat down with ESPN.com last week to look back and look ahead.
Did you come to the NBA with the idea of being commissioner?
Stern: No. No, no, no. I came here because Larry said, "You should come in-house and set up the legal department." I agreed that I would do it for two years, with a one-year option. That was in 1978. Frankly I was afraid that if I didn't go in-house, Larry would hire somebody else and I wouldn't be doing the legal work at all.
When did it become apparent that you were being groomed to replace Commissioner O'Brien?
Stern: It didn't. Not until 1983, really, when Larry announced he was stepping down and the owners decided to start looking.
Deputy commissioner Russ Granik suggested to us that, at the time, it was paramount for a sports commissioner to have a legal background. You became NBA commissioner without an extensive basketball background.
Stern: Absolutely. If you would (examine) it in some broader context, you would see that the '70s and '80s were places where there was a lot of confrontation in sports. If you look across the landscape, everything seemed to be about confrontation, litigation and the like. The relationships between the teams and the leagues, between the players and the leagues, between the leagues and the cities ... there was a lot of agitation. Gradually a lot of that was ultimately resolved either through the completion of litigation or collective bargaining. ... I think it's much more manageable for non-lawyers (now) than ever before.
I think that, today, if the consultants came down and deconstructed the industry, they would say that it's now no different than any other CEO. You've got to understand the league, the structure, the referees, etc., but the president of (General Motors) is not necessarily an engineer that knows how to construct cars. But he better damn well know people that can and have a big interest in them. Obviously everyone would tell you that the car is at the core of GM's business. ... But, to me, the most important part (of my job) is to make sure you protect the game, that you don't change it radically and try to keep it away from bad influences.
In terms of your legacy, what are you proudest achievements and biggest regrets?
Stern: Not in the context of a legacy. I don't believe in that.
OK. What are your proudest moments and biggest regrets as commissioner?
Stern: I'm pretty consistent here. To me there were sort of two proud moments. (The first is) being represented by our players when they stepped up to the medal stand in Barcelona in 1992. Here was a sport that was too black, too highly salaried at a quarter of a million dollars, too much drugs -- blah, blah, blah -- but the march to Barcelona where the world was saying ... it was, I thought, an important reclamation of our spot that we deserved and in an interesting kind of way a reaffirmation that America was great. The sport wasn't too black. In fact it was a very talented sport and people recognized that. ... It was like being with the Beatles and the Kirov Ballet at the same time.
The other proud moment came at about the same time and had to do with Magic (Johnson) and his being HIV-positive. We got a first-hand view of the impact a sport can have. We think Magic -- with us sort of mildly assisting -- changed the debate on AIDS in this country. There was a young man in Indianapolis before that named Ryan White. He was kept out of school because he was a hemophiliac. It was pathetic. But here was Magic, suddenly, a different face. It didn't happen overnight -- infectious control procedures, players refused to play with him, etc. -- but globally (attitudes changed). We had a lot at stake obviously. Our behavior, our reaction, but I felt proud for all of sports and particularly for us that we had the capacity to have that kind of impact.
And the regrets?
Stern: The downers are always ... Micheal Ray Richardson, being the vehicle for someone announcing that his career was over. That's pretty bad and that's very personal and that's a real downer. Losing people who have lost themselves. That's a terrible thing.
Less important but nevertheless real was having to lose half a season (in 1998). That's sort of the worst of sport. Here's a growing pie and two sides not able to agree on a rational way to divide it up. So instead they shut down and cost everyone a billion dollars.
The NBA was the last of the major sports leagues to have a work stoppage. Did you think it would never happen to your league?
Stern: No, I was certain that it would happen, because the players never believed that we would do it, and we knew we would. And so the negotiations never got to a place where we needed to get to until we were locked out. That was not a fun time.
Why does the word "legacy" bother you?
Stern: Because I'm very focused on the here and the now. I don't take notes. I'm not going to write a book. I decided long ago that if you spend your time taking photos, you don't enjoy the journey as much. I have the greatest job in the world and I'm enjoying it. I don't focus on the history aspect of it.
Have you ever been close to leaving?
Stern: No. I've been flattered by opportunities but I've never been close.
Aren't you curious to know how you would do running a different kind of company? What keeps you here?
Stern: Actually, what keeps me here is the fact that everything changes here, and it's an awful lot of fun. We're sitting here, and in that room on the other side of the wall is a discussion going on with Comcast over the carriage of NBA TV. We're working together on Video On Demand, High Definition TV, statistical feeds, etc. We're programming our own network. We're talking about commissioning a study about whether there can be (NBA) buildings in Europe. ... There's been a complete reinvention by the teams and the league of everything we do.
I thought you had political aspirations.
Stern: No, none. I support candidates and the like, but I have not and will not be involved in politics.
Is this the last job you'll ever have?
Stern: The answer is I think, other than this, I'm hard-core unemployable. But I don't anticipate. I came here as a lawyer, and one day I had a great opportunity and I said OK, "I'll try that." I do note that it is now of more than passing interest to me when a Boeing or a Delta brings back an executive who's 70 or 71. It now seems younger to me than it used to. ... I was a little disappointed to hear that Chuck (Daly) isn't coming back (to coaching). He's only 74. Everyone has one more career left.
Does the commissioner of the NBA have a contract?
Stern: No. I'm year-to-year. By agreement. That was at my insistence, that we (Stern and the NBA's owners) have a mutual option for termination.
After 20 years, it's hard for a lot of us to imagine a time when you're not the NBA's commissioner. Can you?
Stern: Sure. I think one of the most important things that's driven me is to absolutely prepare for that eventuality, however soon or not soon it comes. With Russ Granik, we've got one of the top executives in sports. In Adam Silver, we have one of the top marketing and television executives in sports. ... The one problem we don't have in sports today is attracting new and good talent. Nothing is ever dependant, certainly not an organization with more than a 1,000 people, on one person. It's anything but.
What is more likely: An NBA franchise in Las Vegas or an NBA franchise in Europe?
Stern: Europe. ... I spoke too soon. I'm just being a wise guy. I don't know the answer. It's hypothetical, quite frankly, because we have no reason and no agenda to expand domestically right now, and I'm working very hard to make our clubs successful where they are. But, that said, Europe is sufficiently different and expansive of our market, with television and all those others things that we talk about, that that's going to occupy our time in terms of deciding whether there's a business there.
Our current view is that Las Vegas is a great city. Gambling is a fine commerce activity, legal, government-regulated and encouraged, just as it is in other states that have lotteries. But so long as there's a sports book, it's not a subject that's of great interest to us. And we have no teams to move there. And we're certainly not going to be expanding. So it's academic.
Where does the success of the salary cap fall on your list of proudest achievements?
Stern: It's essential to the long-term success and viability of a professional sports league. There may be other things that can duplicate it, but the concept behind it is essential. And that is that teams need to tell their fans that if they're well-managed, they can compete.
How did the NBA come up with the salary cap?
Stern: It wasn't our idea. Angelo Drossos had the idea of a salary cap. Ed Garvey from the NFL(PA), his idea was to say to the owners, "I want to share the revenues," and they said, "Absolutely never, we'll shut down before we do," and they did. What we did is say to the players: "How about if we share revenues? If we share revenues, you give us a salary cap." Our owners just wanted a salary cap. That's where we came up with it, by borrowing ideas that had been forwarded and rejected in an earlier negotiation. And now teams in San Antonio and Utah and Phoenix and Orlando have the ability to compete not based upon the size of their market but by the rules of the game.
How much does it hurt you that there are people who believe that you sit behind that door and pull all the strings in a conspiracy that controls what happens in this league?
Stern: Actually, I get a kick out of it. What it basically says is that, because business is good and things go pretty well, the assumption is that it's happening because we're in here cooking up the plot. It's so ludicrous. I accept it as a compliment to the success of the league.
Just to give you an example: My best friend from high school e-mailed me the other day when the news broke about John McEnroe and steroid use. He told me that he can't believe in sports any more because the NBA is fixed and we can't trust any of our heroes and ...
Stern: Fine. What can I say to that except, "Come watch our games." And so far, lots of people do. We're playing to close to 90 percent capacity. But I guess the more serious answer, and the one that usually gets people to stop and think, is that you realize that person is alleging at least a felony, probably a violation of both state and federal law, punishable by 20 years in a penitentiary. That's why it's also ludicrous, and that's why the media should be held a little bit more accountable for re-uttering the slander too easily by saying, "People say." ... But, really, we don't take it too seriously. It's really the result of coaches, to a degree, who have been trying to manipulate the media. "We lost ... the refereeing ... it's clear the league wants another (playoff) game ... the network wants New York in it."
What worries you when you're alone with your thoughts? Is it all the new forms of competition for the consumer dollar that the NBA faces? Is it Kobe Bryant's legal situation?
Stern: The issue of player reputation is a serious issue, but then I say that if he were playing X and you fill in the sport, it would not be worthy of any attention. What people forget is that scandals that rock politics, business, government, entertainment. It's everywhere. So if the conclusion is that we have higher standards of our athletes than we do of our politicians, then OK. I accept that on behalf of all athletes. We'll try to meet those high standards, but look out there. Humans are imperfect.
As a lawyer, how concerned are you for Kobe? It's often said that you can't predict what might happen when you get in a courtroom.
Stern: That's correct. Whenever there's an indictment, you worry about the jury and the ultimate outcome. But we'll see. I don't want to go too much further but hopefully it will be resolved soon and favorably to Kobe.
What is most important to you for the rest of your tenure as commissioner?
Stern: We just need to find a way with our players to say, "Listen, this pie is growing and growable. Let's not fight too much about shutting down."