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The New Year started for me on a sad note, as former NBA commissioner David Stern died on New Year's Day, at 77, having suffered a brain hemorrhage three weeks earlier. Stern was usually credited with being the man who turned the fortunes of the NBA around, and to me is one of the two visionary commissioners in North American pro sports in the past century, the other being, of course, the NFL's Pete Rozelle.
Like Rozelle, his success owed something to luck, to his taking the reins of the league at a time when media was changing and certain star players were coming to the fore. Rozelle had realized that television loved football, the game suited the box better than any other, its breaks allowed analysis, and the NFL's short season made every game important, more so even than the college game which was, until the Sixties, the more glamorous offering. He saw how TV kept the competing AFL alive in its early years, and probably his greatest move as commissioner was persuading the NFL teams to share TV revenue: a ‘socialist’ approach which ensured the league would move from strength to strength.
While Rozelle was a PR man, Stern was a lawyer. When Stern became the NBA's chief counsel in 1978 (after working for them with an outside firm) the league was in the doldrums. Their championship playoff was shown on tape-delay on national TV. Coming off their long battle with the upstart ABA, there was a perception that the league was offering playground basketball, played by people with too much money spent on too many drugs.
In 1980, then-commissioner Larry O'Brien made Stern Vice President for business and legal affairs, which turned him into the league's PR man, just as Rozelle had been.
Stern had a good relationship with the players' association going back to the NBA/ABA merger; his compromise allowed free agency to the players. Now he got the National Basketball Players Association (NBAPA) to agree to drug testing and, along with the owners, to the implementation of a salary cap, moves that started to right the staggering ship. And his timing was good. In 1981 Magic Johnson and Larry Bird came into the league: two college rivals joining two major rival teams; one black, one white; each offering a version of the game which emphasized the team in a selfless fashion, even though either could take over a game with individual skills.
Even better, Stern became commissioner in 1984, the year that Michael Jordan starred in the Olympics and entered the league. He had realized with Magic and Bird that he had stars to promote: players not hidden under padding and helmets, who - unlike in baseball - could be counted on to do something entertaining every game. Suddenly the league had the most exciting player it has ever seen, and at a time when television was changing: ESPN and Sports Center were desperate for highlights every night, and the NBA provided them.
Stern also saw the pull of basketball worldwide and trailblazed the melding of the NBA and international basketball. Those Olympics showed how big the game was around the world; people in Britain don't realize the reach and the popularity of the sport, especially in Europe. Stern went to work building relationships with FIBA, the international federation, of which the US had been dismissive, particularly under the leadership of its British president Robert Jones. Jones was perceived as the villain of the 1972 Olympic final, eventually won by the Soviets. Stern got McDonald's to sponsor his international series of games, brought FIBA on board, and finally got the International Olympic Committee to give federations the freedom to define who could participate in the Olympics, amateurs or professionals. The IOC wanted Michael Jordan and the Dream Team, the NBA wanted international exposure, and everybody won.
It was in the international business that I met Stern. For ABC I covered a McDonald's tournament featuring the Boston Celtics in Madrid (takeaways: Danny Ainge and Kevin McHale were among the funniest guys I'd ever met; bullfighting was best left to Hemingway, not to me; and after seeing the 'cheerleaders' from Memphis State a Spanish colleague's teenaged son decided he was heading to Tennessee for university). But meeting the NBA's international staff, and talking with Stern, I was most impressed by his clear vision of how his game could be sold.
When I worked for Major League Baseball I stayed friendly with my NBA colleagues. I figured we were in the same business, and to an extent what was good for one sport would help the others. We tried to bring a major league team to Barcelona before the 1992 Olympics to play a Japanese team; when that fell apart, at MLB we tried to stage a game between minor-leaguers from the Red Sox and Mets at London's Oval, hastily 'converted' for baseball. My employers weren't impressed. 'Why can't you do what the NBA does?' they would ask. 'Give me the money they spend, the existing leagues that help them, and I will' I replied. I wanted to say, why can't one of you pretend to be David Stern?
Finally, after MLB closed down my office (you're not surprised, are you?) I went to Paris to cover the McDonald's tournament with Jordan and the Bulls for USA Today. It managed to upstage Paris Fashion Week (finding a hotel was almost impossible) and again I talked to Stern, and even better talked about Stern with the great journalist David Halberstam who was writing a book on Jordan. We agreed on the visionary nature of his project, and I'd like to think much of what has followed, including the miracle of Major League Baseball in London, for which I was immensely grateful last summer, arose out of similar discussions elsewhere.
Stern had his Bowie Kuhn moments: especially when he voided the three-way Chris Paul, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol (formerly of Barcelona) trade; though you could argue that since Odom was going to the NBA-owned Hornets, he showed better judgement protecting the league's interests than the team's GM did!
He was a demanding boss, but a fair one, and as Steve Hellmuth, who helped develop a number of great NBA computerized tracking/scouting programmes told me in Atlanta once: it's easy to work for someone who has vision, and gets you to share that vision. RIP David Stern.