NBA commissioner David Stern towered over the league he built

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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.

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