David Stern brought together about eight lawyers in the NBA offices high above Fifth Avenue in New York. It was in the 90s, and now even the most illustrious men and women employed in the league knew that the commissioner was able to make them feel small when he was in the mood.
Stern was in the mood on that particular day because something had gone wrong. Although he could be a compassionate and generous ruler, Stern often adopted a zero tolerance policy for subordinates who allowed things to go wrong.
“We have 26 lawyers,” he shouted, “and I have to do everything. Guys, you can’t do it — I have to write everything for you. I have to do it all!”
Stern has done everything in his three decades as a commissioner, if only because he felt he had no other choice. I met him in his office in the Olympic Tower in the summer of 1998, when Stern was worried about the job stoppage to come, a block that would reduce the following season to 50 games. He recalled an era when the biggest post-season games were broadcast late on tape after the late night news, and when the NBA was, he said, “canceled as too black, too drug-infested “. Son of a deli owner, Stern was earning a $ 9 million salary after turning this barely relevant league into a global giant defined by megastars with a crossover charm.
He brought it out with the relentless power of his personality, becoming, at 5 feet 9, a giant in the history of American and international sport. In 1988, four years after becoming commissioner, Stern overheard fans in the Republic of Georgia cheering on the Atlanta Hawks’ 5-7 guard, Spud Webb, to crush the Russians in his hometown after seeing Webb’s stunts high quota on pirated tapes from Turkey. Holy Moses, Stern told himself. What do we have here?
Two years later, Stern was on tour in China when a guide told him he loved Michael Jordan and his “Red Oxen”, or Chicago Bulls. At the time, the commissioner was already looking for a Yao Ming. He would have created the Dream Team for the 1992 Olympics to improve the worldwide search for talent and, more importantly, for untapped markets that would have produced boys and girls who, in Stern’s words, “would have started dribbling the ball instead of kick it. “
Although he has become more recognizable than most of his players, Stern has figured out something that his former executive vice president of basketball operations, Rod Thorn, has claimed that his boss hasn’t had enough credit for a long time. “David was smart enough to realize it had to be about the players,” Thorn said Wednesday evening, a couple of hours after the news 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, plus some football stars. David knew that people would have to like our players if we were successful.”
Stern needed to please Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird; he didn’t need to like it. Respected? Yes. Admired? You bet. Feared? Absolutely.
But liked it was always optional. At the sight of the public, moving from his office to games to business negotiations, Stern projected an avuncular atmosphere that earned him the nickname “Easy Dave”.
Behind closed doors, the visionary scolded a long line of owners, managers, employees, lawyers, coaches and players when he felt that they were not aligned with his, well, vision.
“The people who do great things are the people who convince others to get along with what they feel,” said Thorn, former Bulls and New Jersey Nets executive and Stern senior lieutenant in the championship office for two bouts. and over 16 years old. “David was fantastic in getting people to do what he thought should be done.”
Thorn enlisted Jordan for the Bulls in 1984, but was fired the following spring. When he interviewed Stern to become the chief disciplinary of the NBA, the commissioner said to him, “People say you’re too kind to a boy. In this job, you can’t be too nice to a boy.”
Thorn really enjoyed his time in the league office. He saw Stern as an incomparable leader who was tough but fair.
“There was nothing soft about him,” said Thorn. “He expected me to do the job he hired you, and if I didn’t, he would surely let you know. From time to time I got some, some strong language, and in fact the vast majority of the time he was right. .
“David used to ask 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 harmless questions, and I was edging and reflecting on it. He said simply: “What the hell did I hire you for? Don’t you know? “… David had no grudge. It wasn’t something that lasted for weeks with him, or even days. 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 that it was difficult to take them into account. 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 coach Larry Brown, he added some profane remarks (he tore Brown for not giving more minutes to a 19-year-old LeBron James), and I he said he was going to the gym to say some of these things at a press conference. I assumed he couldn’t, but sure enough, Stern called a fantastic half-time pressor during Team USA’s semifinal against Argentina (the third loss of the Americans tournament) to scold Brown for blaming his team on the player selection committee.
“This was a team that was put together by everyone, including the technical staff,” said Stern that day. “And this is a great team, so I don’t buy” Well, I would like to have this, I would like to have it. “… It’s not about who hasn’t come. I’ll tell you what, we’re all sports. Bring your team to the gym and you play what you have and then you win or lose. And this whining and stealing is not right for young people … who represent their country in an admirable and good way “.
On further review, I was struck by two thoughts. One, Stern was protecting players the way Thorn said he always wanted to protect them. Two, as much as he appreciated the growth of the sport, Stern hated the fact that the NBA players – his players – had failed to win the Olympic gold for the first time. The commissioner hated losing the global monster he had created.
No, David Stern didn’t like to lose anything, anyone. Most devoted basketball fans have heard stories of how Jordan tormented teammates in practice when they crossed him or didn’t meet his standards of size. Stern had a lot of Jordan in him, minus the suspension time.
It went hard after those who let him down. Fordham principal John Feerick for drastically reducing the penalties Stern imposed on Latrell Sprewell for stifling his Golden State Warriors manager P.J. Carlesimo. The New York Times, for publishing a study that concluded that referee calls are affected 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 role of the madman in the case of sexual harassment against Anucha Browne Sanders against Madison Square Garden and former Knicks president Isiah Thomas.
Stern did not create the modern phenomenon which is the NBA by refusing to respond. Only once have I personally seen Stern appear in front of and unable to launch an effective counter: at his 2007 press conference to answer gambling charges against referee Tim Donaghy. “I can tell you,” said the commissioner then, “that this is the most serious and worst situation I have ever experienced as an NBA fan, NBA lawyer or NBA commissioner.” For a man who had led the league through Magic Johnson and HIV, Sprewell and Malice’s attack on the Palace, he was saying a bite.
But in the last months of his life, Stern has mastered every mind-boggling thing he had accomplished. Thorn and his wife Peggy joined Stern and his wife Dianne for dinner a few weeks before the commissioner suffered from cerebral hemorrhage in a Manhattan restaurant in December.
“He seemed in good spirits and health,” said Thorn. “He just looked great on him. David has always been so proud of the league and what [his successor] Adam Silver had done it. Some of these guys who leave big jobs have a hard time staying away, but I think David did a good job of not trying to get away from what Adam was doing.
“I loved the boy, and I have so many fond memories of him. He cared so much about the players and fans, and did everything he could to make the game better.”
David Stern built a dynasty that hardly anyone thought could be built by driving with his chin, his fists flying. This is how a 5-9 year old man became an imposing figure in the game of a great man.