David Stern gathered about eight attorneys in the NBA’s offices high above Fifth Avenue in New York. This was in the 1990s, and by then even the most distinguished men and women in the league’s employ knew the commissioner was capable of making them feel small when he was in the mood.
Stern was in the mood on this particular day because something had gone wrong. Though he could be a compassionate and generous ruler, Stern often embraced a zero-tolerance policy for subordinates who allowed things to go wrong.
“We’ve got 26 lawyers,” he shouted, “and I’ve got to do everything. You guys can’t do s—. I’ve got to write everything for you. I’ve got to do it all!”
Stern did it all in his three decades as commissioner, if only because he felt he had no other choice. I met with him in his Olympic Tower office in the summer of 1998, when Stern was fretting over the labor stoppage to come, a lockout that would reduce the following season to 50 games. He recalled a time when the biggest postseason games were broadcast on tape delay, after the late-night news, and when the NBA was, he said, “written off as too black, too drug infested.” The son of a deli owner, Stern was earning a $9 million wage after turning this barely relevant league into a global juggernaut defined by megastars with crossover appeal.
He pulled it off with the unrelenting power of his personality, becoming, at 5 feet 9, a giant in the history of American and international sport. In 1988, four years after he became commissioner, Stern heard fans in the Republic of Georgia rooting for the Atlanta Hawks’ 5-7 guard, Spud Webb, to dunk on the hometown Russians after they’d watched Webb’s high-flying acrobatics on pirated tapes from Turkey. Holy Moses, Stern said to himself. What do we have here?
Two years later, Stern was touring China when a guide told him she adored Michael Jordan and his “Red Oxen,” or Chicago Bulls. The commissioner was already searching for a Yao Ming back then. He would create the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics to enhance the worldwide hunt for talent and, more importantly, for untapped markets that would produce boys and girls who would, in Stern’s words, “start dribbling the ball rather than kicking it.”
Even though he became more recognizable than the majority of his players, Stern understood something that his former executive VP of basketball operations, Rod Thorn, said his longtime boss didn’t get enough credit for. “David was smart enough to realize it had to be about the players,” Thorn said Wednesday evening, a couple of hours after news broke of Stern’s death at 77. “He really cared about the players, and they went from nowhere to the most recognized athletes in the world, other than some soccer stars. David knew that people needed to like our players if we were going to be successful.”
Stern needed Jordan and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to be liked; he didn’t need to be liked himself. Respected? Yes. Admired? You bet. Feared? Absolutely.
But liked was always optional. In public view, moving from his office to games to labor negotiations, Stern projected an avuncular vibe that earned him the “Easy Dave” nickname.
Behind closed doors, the visionary berated a long line of owners, executives, staffers, lawyers, coaches and players when he felt they weren’t aligned with his, well, vision.
“People who do great things are people who get others to go along with what they feel,” said Thorn, the former Bulls and New Jersey Nets executive and a senior Stern lieutenant in the league office for two stints and a combined 16-plus years. “David was amazing at getting people to do what he felt should be done.”
Thorn had drafted Jordan for the Bulls in 1984, yet was fired the following spring. When he interviewed with Stern to become the NBA’s chief disciplinarian, the commissioner told him, “People say that you’re too nice of a guy. In this job, you can’t be too nice of a guy.”
Thorn cherished his time in the league office. He saw Stern as an incomparable leader who was tough, yet fair-minded.
“There was nothing soft about him,” Thorn said. “He expected you to do the job he hired you to do, and if you didn’t do it he certainly would let you know about it. I was on the receiving end of it from time to time, some of the strong language, and in reality the vast majority of time he was right.
“David had this habit of asking you questions he already knew the answers to. One day I was walking down the hall, and he was walking the other way, and he asked me some innocuous question, and I was hemming and hawing about it. He just said, ‘What the hell did I hire you for? You don’t know this?’ … David didn’t hold a grudge. It wasn’t something that lasted for weeks with him, or days even. He just said what he had to say, and you didn’t make that mistake again.”
Stern fought so many battles on so many fronts, it was hard to keep count. I was covering the 2004 Olympics in Athens when I received a call from a familiar voice — Stern’s. I told him I was watching gymnastics; he told me he wanted to talk basketball. Stern wanted to tell me he agreed with my written criticisms of Team USA’s coach, Larry Brown, added some profane observations of his own (he ripped Brown for not giving more minutes to a 19-year-old LeBron James), and told me he was heading to the gym to say some of these very things in a news conference. I assumed he wouldn’t actually go through with it, but sure enough, Stern called a stunning halftime presser during Team USA’s semifinal loss to Argentina (the Americans’ third loss of the tournament) to reprimand Brown for blaming his team’s showing on the player selection committee.
“This was a team that was put together by everyone, including the coaching staff,” Stern said that day. “And this is a great team, so I don’t buy the, ‘Well, I’d like to have this, I’d like to have that.’ … It’s not about who didn’t come. I’ll tell you what, we’re all in sports. You take your team to the gym and you play what you’ve got and then you either win or you lose. And this whining and carping is not fair to the young men … who are representing their country admirably and well.”
On further review, I was struck by two thoughts. One, Stern was protecting the players the way Thorn said he always wanted to protect them. Two, as much as he appreciated the sport’s growth, Stern hated the fact that NBA players — his players — had failed to win Olympic gold for the first time. The commissioner hated to lose to the very global monster he created.
No, David Stern didn’t like to lose to anyone, at anything. Most devoted basketball fans have heard the stories of how Jordan tormented Bulls teammates in practice when they crossed him, or didn’t meet his standards of greatness. Stern had a lot of Jordan in him, minus the hang time.
He went hard after those who disappointed him. Fordham’s dean of law, John Feerick, for sharply reducing the penalties Stern imposed on Latrell Sprewell for choking his Golden State Warriors coach, P.J. Carlesimo. The New York Times, for publishing a study concluding that referees’ calls are influenced by the players’ skin color. Bryant Gumbel, for accusing the commissioner of acting as a “modern plantation overseer” in governing his largely African American workforce. James Dolan, for playing the fool in the Anucha Browne Sanders sexual harassment case against Madison Square Garden and former Knicks president Isiah Thomas.
Stern didn’t create the modern phenomenon that is the NBA by declining to punch back. Only once did I ever personally see Stern look ashen-faced and unable to launch an effective counter: at his 2007 news conference to address the gambling allegations against referee Tim Donaghy. “I can tell you,” the commissioner said then, “that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA, or a commissioner of the NBA.” For a man who had shepherded the league through Magic Johnson and HIV, the Sprewell attack and the Malice at the Palace, that was saying a mouthful.
But in the final months of his life, Stern stood tall over every staggering thing he had accomplished. Thorn and his wife Peggy joined Stern and his wife Dianne for dinner a few weeks before the commissioner suffered his December brain hemorrhage at a Manhattan restaurant.
“He seemed in such good spirits and health,” Thorn said. “He just had a great look about him. David was always so proud of the league, and of what [his successor] Adam Silver had done. Some of these guys that leave big jobs have a hard time staying away, but I think David did a good job of not trying to take away from what Adam was doing.
“I loved the guy, and I have so many fond memories of him. He cared so much about the players and the fans, and he did everything he possibly could to make the game better.”
David Stern built a dynasty almost nobody thought could be built by leading with his chin, fists flying. That’s how a man who stood 5-9 became a towering figure in a big man’s game.