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By Chris Broussard
As a kid, I always liked college basketball better than the NBA. Don't get me wrong, I was an NBA fan, one who spent hours drawing pictures of Dr. J soaring through the air en route to a spectacular dunk. But overall, in my heart, the NCAA was king.
I lived for watching college teams battle on Saturday afternoon. Mark Aguirre's DePaul Blue Demons. Lancaster Gordon and the McCray brothers at Louisville. Phi Slama Jama and the Hoyas of Georgetown.
It obviously wasn't that college games were better played. It was that there seemed to be more surrounding the game -- more school spirit, more intensity because there were fewer games, and to be honest, more player recognition. Back then, the NBA was a league of limited household names -- Magic, Bird, The Doctor, Kareem. Even fairly well-known Hall of Famers like George Gervin and Moses Malone were kind of off the grid, relegated to some degree to a second-class NBA existence.
But that all changed with David Stern. One reason the NBA has become so incredibly popular, one reason its players are the most recognizable athletes on the planet, is because under Stern, the league marketed individuals.
From a basketball standpoint, that marketing strategy may not have been the game's best friend, as many would argue that team play has declined over the years. But from a business standpoint, it was pure gold.
Just think about it: Nowadays, practically every team has a marquee name. That player may not have a marquee-quality game, but his name recognition makes him a draw at the box office. The Sacramento Kings are pretty sorry, but we all want to watch DeMarcus Cousins play. Detroit is pretty weak, but Brandon Jennings, Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith are all guys hoop fans want to see. Before the Clippers became a legitimate NBA franchise a few years ago, they always seemed to have a player or two whose name alone could entice fans to buy a ticket: Lamar Odom ... Darius Miles ... Eric Gordon.
Baseball has been the nation's pastime forever, but what baseball player has a commercial like Chris and Cliff Paul's State Farm Ad, or Blake Griffin's KIA gems? And that's not even to mention LeBron James and the NBA's other superstars who hog air time off the court.
Some would say Stern simply came along at the right time. In 1984, when he took over as commissioner, Magic and Bird had already saved the game and started its upward climb, and Michael Jordan was drafted within months of Stern's first day on the job. Couple that with the rise of cable television in the early years of Jordan's career, and Stern detractors say it was such a perfect storm that any intelligent lawyer could've ridden the NBA wave to unprecedented popularity.
But while all those factors certainly helped Stern, it's not as if the league didn't have great, colorful and fun-to-watch players before Jordan, Magic and Bird. Dr. J may not have been as great as Jordan, but his game was definitely as exciting. Who had more style than Walt "Clyde'' Frazier? And let's not forget David Thompson and the aforementioned "Iceman,'' just to name a few. And for those who want to say Bird's color saved the day for Stern and the NBA, there was even a white player doing his thing in the down days of the league. Remember Rick Barry, who averaged 30 points and led Golden State to the title in 1975?
And I didn't even bring up Wilt Chamberlain, who was coming of age in the NBA around the same time that average Americans were able to afford television sets in their homes. Yet Stern's predecessors couldn't capitalize on the dream combination of Chamberlain's larger-than-life game and persona and the new technology of TV. Heck, three years after the otherworldly Dr. J's NBA debut, the NBA Finals were on tape delay.
So it was a unique vision on Stern's part that allowed him to bring it all together -- wonderful players and a technological boon -- for the good of the league.
Stern's marketing genius enabled him to sell mainstream America on a sport dominated by African-Americans and reputed in the '70s to be drug-infested. He did it by becoming the first commissioner in sports to institute an anti-drug policy and by embracing the style of the league's black ballplayers to a degree never before seen in any mainstream American industry, other than perhaps music.
Taking a page out of the ABA's book, Stern adopted the Slam Dunk Contest, which showcased the flavor of the African-American players. And over time, the NBA under Stern would even embrace hip-hop, at least more than any other professional sport did. The league's connection with youth and hip-hop culture is undoubtedly a major reason it's so popular with younger fans (baseball, are you watching)?
With an overwhelmingly white audience -- remember, corporate dollars fuel the league -- Stern found a way to walk the fine line of pleasing his sponsors while at the same time allowing his players more freedom of expression than players had in the NFL and Major League Baseball. The dress code, which I don't agree with, was a sign of this, as was Stern's strong suggestion (wink, wink) to Allen Iverson that he not release a gangsta rap album early in his career. While those moves may have seemed heavy-handed to some, they were probably good for business.
After all, at more than $5 million per year, the average salary of an NBA player is roughly $2 million more than the average in baseball and $3 million more than the NFL average.
Oh, and for what it's worth, in my book, college basketball no longer compares.
David Stern is a small man who contains multitudes. He is sweet, he is wise, he is sharp, he is hardworking. He is everything you might hear said about him in the tributes and remembrances on the occasion of his retirement.
And he deserves a gold star on the tongue-lash walk of fame.
In an excellent and balanced oral history of Stern, NBA.com's David Aldridge quoted an anonymous witness from a Board of Governors meeting where Stern tangled with former Sixers owner Ed Snider: [Snider] raised a point that David didn't agree with, and he just went at him, to the point where Ed's face went purple. It was just uncomfortable, the way David went at him."
Another witness remembers that "Ed left before the meeting was over."
There are very few stories like this on the record. But there are lots of stories like this, because that's how it has long been with Stern.
Sports are a funny environment where vicious tirades -- for instance, from a coach to a player or a veteran to a rookie -- can be conflated as "leadership." (Grotesquely, this even seeps into how parents and coaches behave in youth sports.) That attitude embarrasses the league on the regular -- for instance, when the lip-readers get to interpreting how Kobe Bryant talks to referees.
And in this league, some of that testosterone-fueled talk comes from the top.
In the 15 years I have covered the league, I've come to know Stern some and many of his employees better. Plenty are still around, but many others have moved on in part, a few have told me privately, because they didn't like Stern's style. One of the rewards of leaving is getting to enjoy work without the humiliation of being berated.
I've seen a few silly glimpses. You know what a "nanny-nanny-foo-foo" is? It's a tongue-out, finger-waggling move a kindergartner might use to show up a classmate. Stern did that to me after I made him talk about disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy at an All-Star news conference.
Another time, I had been writing about hard intentional NBA fouls, and he happened across me in a hallway off the court in Miami as I was talking to my boss. Stern was walking fast, but simply grabbed me by the elbow and dragged me with him as he walked out onto the busy pregame court. Every step, he had his mouth to my ear, making it beyond clear that I was to stop saying that NBA players were too violent.
During the lockout, I asked Stern a tough question, about how the history of sports economics undermined some of the owners' key claims. He answered in some pro forma way, and the conference was ended. Then media and executives alike crammed into elevators to the lobby of a Manhattan hotel where the bargaining had taken place. I had a bus to catch and was hustling for the door when I heard, shouted across a lobby full of executives, tourists, hotel guests and media: "ECONOMISTS SAY … F--- YOU!!"
My back was turned, there was no reason to believe this had anything to do with me. Except … it had happened that my question of five minutes' prior had begun with the words "economists say ... "
I turned and saw Stern making his way across the lobby to me. "Commissioner?" I asked. He smiled, and asked me to walk him back to his office, and he charmed me every step. He wanted to warn me about pursuing that line of questioning, and he wanted me to like him.
Which I do. I genuinely enjoy David's quick mind and Rubik's Cube of a personality. He's welcome to dinner, and if he's not always warm, it's at least possible to believe this lion bares his claws in the name of good. As you'll read in so many other tributes, he has done a lot of things that were truly decent or classy.
That Stern has a bully's personality is not news, and it's unimportant now that he's retiring. (If this affects you, you already know about it.) The one way it might matter is as insight into how we discuss and think about powerful people. For whatever reason, this ugly pillar of his power is, in many descriptions of his career, entirely ignored. Anyone who tells you that Stern's best work can be summarized by trite phrases like "marketing genius" or "globalization pioneer" doesn't know Stern, is amnesiac or is holding back.
They're also skipping over one of Stern's most essential qualities.
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.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor explained to Aldridge that the key financial dealings among owners functioned because of Stern's ability to bring billionaires into line: "He had to be, let's just call it, the tough guy on it. I played the role of maybe being the nice guy on it. We thought that out. We had to bring them along collectively. David is kind of the master planner of all that. … David was there all along, knowing all the pieces. Personally, from my viewpoint, it worked out very well."
So, the guy who thrived in conflict exits with conflicting legacies. The one thing people will miss about him least is the rough way he treats people. And yet that exact audaciousness has been a linchpin of the league's functioning, which may be missed most of all, when someone needs to get some billionaires in line.
Let's hope Adam Silver can lead the league as effectively, but without such tactics.
Man With A Plan
David Stern's rise to commissioner in 1984 launched a period of extraordinary growth for the NBA. He was at the forefront of every major innovation, from expansion to marketing to globalization. At the heart of it all was the league's partnership with its players, embodied in its collective bargaining agreement, or CBA.
Stern knew that he needed to effectively create an economy that would benefit both the owners and the players. He realized that the league would not prosper as a free market -- he needed to put limits on big-market spending and control superstar salaries so that small-market teams had a chance to compete. His paradoxical but brilliant mechanism to achieve these goals was to utilize the players union.
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."
Stern was no stranger to either criticism or strife. "Easy David," as he ironically labeled himself, was widely regarded as someone who could drive a hard bargain as a negotiator, and one who didn't hesitate to get animated and vitriolic with those with whom he disagreed. The result was that he mostly prevailed, with team owners -- to whom, technically, he reported -- usually falling in line behind him.
The same was true with the players, exemplified by the league's work stoppages in 1999 and 2011. In 2011 the league pleaded the case (with incoming commissioner Adam Silver leading the negotiations) that the system was unsustainable, with a majority of teams losing money. The result -- following a 161-day lockout, months of negotiations, a failed mediation, dissolution of the union and the filing of an antitrust lawsuit – was a revised system in which the players agreed to reduce their cut of the pie from 57 percent to 50 percent, and in which the teams greatly increased revenue sharing and the penalties for overspending.
With the league's financial house in order, both revenues and franchise values skyrocketed -- the average franchise value increased 25 percent over the past year alone according to Forbes -- a benefit enjoyed by the owners, but not the players. With this influx of wealth, blockbuster local TV deals and the national TV deals up for renewal in 2016, the league's pleas of financial hardship should become a distant memory.
According to Forbes, three NBA franchises -- the New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls -- are each worth more than $1 billion, and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban predicts that within five years every NBA franchise will be worth at least that amount. Stern has surely served the owners well.
This is not to say that the players haven't also benefited during Stern's tenure. NBA players continue to be among the best paid athletes in the world. The $3.6 million salary cap in Stern's first season as commissioner equates to $8.4 million today. Compare that to this season's cap of $58.7 million.
Even today's rank-and-file players are making -- after adjusting for inflation -- what would have been star money in 1984. Larry Bird made $1.8 million in 1984-85, which equates to about $4 million today. Today, the average player salary is well above that amount, at about $5.5 million.
The players today receive a smaller share of a phenomenally bigger pie. This is due, in no small measure, to Stern's vision and execution.
Leader And Friend
By Ramona Shelburne
Jeanie Buss has been thinking a lot about her father lately. Monday would have been Dr. Jerry Buss' 81st birthday. On Tuesday, the Lakers honored their late, great owner with a video tribute during halftime of their game against the Indiana Pacers.
"He was never shortsighted. He would never just do things that only benefited him," Buss said of her father. "At his memorial, that was a theme that came out over and over. Jerry Buss wouldn't leave the table if a deal was too one-sided for him. He knew that no deal was good unless it worked for both parties."
It was that sense of fairness that elevated Buss among his fellow owners, and why he often became such an important ally for NBA commissioner David Stern during contentious Board of Governors meetings.
"That's what made my dad so successful, and that's also what makes David such a fair and honest leader," Buss said. "He would always try to work things out and get people to compromise and get on the same page for the good of the whole. That's a hard place to be. You walk in with your own agenda, but you have to get everybody to buy in, and that takes a strong leader.
"One was very West Coast, one was very East Coast, but they definitely had a meeting of the minds."
In her autobiography, "Laker Girl," Buss wrote of Stern's role in the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations: "It was a very intense battle. Some of the owners were pounding David during those eight hours of negotiation, but he was like a ninja. He fought off every objection while striving for fairness and balance. The guy was amazing. He has an incredible ability to handle divergent opinions, reach compromises, and push through policies he feels are the most advantageous to the league as a whole. I honestly think that David, had he not become NBA commissioner, could have run a country."
So great is Buss' respect for the outgoing commissioner, she says she never once questioned his motives when Stern -- acting as owner of the league-operated New Orleans Hornets -- infamously nixed the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers.
"It was just timing," Buss said of the deal, which leaked at virtually the same time owners were ratifying the new CBA. "He wasn't out to get the Lakers. I don't feel that way. My dad would never feel that way. It was just bad timing.
"I don't even think about the Chris Paul thing anymore and I hope that this organization can stop thinking about that because it doesn't allow us to move forward."
How exactly the nixed Paul trade was good for both sides, if we're to go back to the earlier lesson, takes a little explaining. It certainly wasn't good for the Lakers then or now. But the Buss family has owned franchises in leagues where only a few teams were profitable and learned what happens over the long haul when the gap between the haves and have-nots is too wide: The whole league ends up folding.
"He [Stern] knows that the league needs 30 healthy teams to survive and he does things that are best for the league as opposed to favoring one individual team," Buss said. "Sometimes you have to sacrifice and things don't always benefit you in the short term. But look at the business he's grown, look at the Forbes valuations. The equity he built for the owners of this league is impressive. He's made basketball, to me, the most popular sport in the world. You could debate that with soccer, but I think he's made basketball important not only in terms of sports in the country, but in terms of pop culture. Having that effect on society and community, it's something to be so proud of."
Buss has developed a close relationship with Stern over the years. He's a mentor and a confidant. Now that her father is gone, he might be the person whose business advice she derives the most from. So, selfishly, she says she's glad he'll have more time to consult with her directly.
"He's always somebody that you can bounce things off of," she said. "He will give you a pretty straightforward reaction and ask you the right questions. He's got a worldview. He's a diplomat. He's a thinker. He's wise.
"My family is important to him and I know that he's going to be a continued source of experience and knowledge."
Disarming With Sarcasm Since 1984
For those who spend time in David Stern's company, "You're one player away" will go down as the commissioner's defining quip. When a new owner was welcomed at his first official meeting, Stern would tell him, "Welcome to the NBA! You're one player away." If Stern encountered a group of fans of a woebegone team on his travels, he'd tell them, "You're one player away!" When Stern wanted to poke fun at an exec who had made a mess of his roster, he'd point at him and say, "You're one player away!"
A few years ago, I appropriated this Sternism when dispensing romantic advice to lonely friends. Because no matter how terminal your life seems as a single person navigating the far reaches of the dating pool, "You're one player away!"
The line is classic Stern -- droll and ostensibly good-natured, but not without an edge. To the owner, it's Stern's way of saying, "You think you're smart enough to do this? We'll see." To the depressed fan, "That's NBA basketball out there. The show is good. Stop worrying and enjoy it." And to the exec, "Don't screw up that nice franchise you've been given to play with."
Stern was the Borscht Belt Commissioner, armed with a repertoire of self-deprecation, zingers, the occasional veiled insult, but most of all sarcasm. That's not a small thing because as much as our comic and cultural realms rely on sarcasm, most public representatives stay away from it. British politicians will dip their toes in the waters of sarcasm, but Americans fear any scenario by which an on-the-record comment, if read literally, could be damning. So most people who speak for larger entities keep it earnest.
Yet Stern never worried about sarcasm causing misinterpretation. This is a much different thing than being unfiltered or candid. Highly trained lawyers by their nature filter their words, and Stern always did. His material might not have been 100 percent rehearsed, but like the Catskills comic, Stern was always aware of where he was going with a bit. Stern knew the instant that he took the podium in Brooklyn last June to preside over the final draft of his 30-year tenure as NBA commissioner, he would be booed. The pregnant pauses and encouragement of the crowd were Stern's way of conveying to everyone that he understood the underlying dynamics better than everyone: The NBA is an entertainment product, and that night his role was the heel.
There are well-meaning people who believe there's something unseemly about falling to Stern's charm and letting him off the hook just because he evokes the charismatic patriarchs who have dominated the family's Seder table over the years. Such an easy surrender clouds one's judgment to look soberly at the serious issues posed by Stern's reign -- some of which Stern was on the wrong side.
I look at Stern like I do these other men. Their manner is so infectious, the sarcasm so disarming that I look past the verbal bullying and the cranky political views and the very real possibility that they're hell to work for. I excuse the sneaky way they're always able to slip a disapproving remark (in the form of a wisecrack) into the casual repartee before dinner or after dessert, and the subtle ways their temperament can make life harder for themselves and others.
Stern knew, too, that whatever deficit there was in goodwill could always be made up with good humor.
All The World's A Stage
Victor Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
By Michael Huang
While the NFL and MLB battle over which sport is truly America's pastime these days, professional basketball -- the NBA in particular -- has become a global sport. And much of that has to do with the vision of David Stern.
In 1990, Stern charged former Portland Trail Blazers coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Jack Ramsay to develop a program that would help transform basketball into the premier sport on the international scene.
Thus, Ramsay developed the first World Coaching Clinic, which was held April 17-19, 1990, in Zaragoza, Spain. He trained and worked with coaches from all over Europe, exchanging basketball ideas, theories and methods.
The very next year, Ramsay enlisted the help of current ESPN NBA analyst Hubie Brown and NBA Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Calvin Murphy to help spread the NBA gospel around the world. In that three-year span, they held 24 three-day clinics around the world, jump-starting the league's global expansion of the sport.
"Look, basketball was always a popular sport around the world," Brown said. "But it was David Stern's vision and foresight to globalize the game that got it to what it is today."
What the NBA is today is a reported $5.5 billion industry that features more than 75 international players among its 30 teams, is televised in 215 countries, has 13 offices worldwide, and is perhaps, along with soccer, the most widely played sport in the world.
"Players have talent. But someone has to give them a stage to showcase that talent," Brown said. "David Stern not only gave basketball players a stage, he gave them a world stage."
Brown recalled the humble beginnings at some of those early clinics. Attendance varied largely according to the size of the country. But as "basketball evangelists," no country or number of coaches was too small.
"It was incredible to see. Some places, these coaches would take 12-, 14-hour bus rides to get to where we were holding the clinic," Brown said. "I remember one time -- we walked out there and 900 coaches were sitting there at 9 a.m. sharp with their pads out so hungry to learn. It was tremendous."
Ramsay would handle the training and conditioning theories as well as offensive philosophies. Brown handled the defensive portion of the clinic. Walton taught big man and frontcourt techniques and strategies, while Murphy instructed on ball handling, dribbling and shooting.
They demonstrated everything on the court, often using a country's junior national team as their models, performing drills, techniques and plays.
"It was organized and the instruction was excellent," Brown said. "They would video it so the coaches could take it back to wherever they were from and continue to use those same techniques and plays."
At first, the idea of a series of international coaching clinics was met with some resistance and skepticism.
"People didn't think it would sell," Brown said. "This was coming from a guy who wasn't even the sport's first choice as commissioner. They had no idea of his vision and how he would be a master negotiator in so many aspects that raised the sport to a new level. The clinics helped popularize the sport in so many countries. This in turn helped pave the way for Stern to secure TV and merchandising rights in all those countries in future years."
Brown said he envisions a day when the NBA will expand to include eight teams in Europe, and it will all be because of Stern's vision.
"They have the backers financially, and certainly the fan popularity is there," Brown said. "But they just don't have enough adequate arenas, buildings to play in. When they finally have that, you'll see it happen, and it'll be because of David Stern."