My Homage to David Stern

Published: November 1, 2012

David Stern has had a long 30 years as commissioner of the NBA. His journey is over in 15 months and his impact has been felt from New Orleans to the globe abroad. 

“I joined the NBA in 1978 as general counsel, I worked at a law firm for 12 years before that, I’ve spent my entire adult life failing to meet the standards and I’m determined to keep pushing.” — David Stern, June 17th, 2012

Since the days of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, no sport has seen a rise in global prominence quite like the NBA. Along with the Dream Team, Michael Jordan, Yao Ming and other cultural icons, the NBA has reflected the United States global appeal.

David Stern has overseen all of this and while he gets his fair share of criticism from fans, no other commissioner has guided a league’s transformation quite like he has. Along with this transformation, Stern and his business model is the cause for my very fandom of the league. Without his direction and global view it’s very likely I wouldn’t be a fan.

My respect for David Stern is right up there with many others. His vision and entrepreneurship have been outstanding. People may say that he happened to be the driver of a very talented bus. But it is that driver and the decisions he makes that get it to its destination on time.

The Hornets

We’ve been embraced by New Orleans through difficult times. The city is one of the countries treasures. We really have found the perfect owner. — David Stern, April 13, 2012 [Team Sold to Tom Benson].

From 2009 through till 2011 many Hornets fans wondered whether the team would be in New Orleans for the long term. Uncertainty run amok and many believed the team should move to a city more economically viable. But speculation aside David Stern and his associates tried to set up a successful business model and test it when they purchased it from George Shinn in 2010.

Season ticket holders increased, business partners and sponsorship’s too. In a city still recovering from a disaster like Katrina (both of man and natural cause) it was staggering to see a commitment from a global corporation like the NBA.

No one is sure why Stern stuck with New Orleans through good times and bad. It would have been easy for him to pack it all up and leave. Some will say he did it as a goodwill gesture, that leaving the city would be a set-back PR-wise. But I’m not so certain.

While that may be the case on some level, I really take Stern at his words that New Orleans really is financially and economically viable. I guess he saw that it was creating more jobs than Kansas City and Anaheim, two areas of suggestion for relocation (varying time frames). His team of associates were able to create a business model that encouraged more season-ticket holders, generated more corporate partnerships as well as a better media platform to expand its influence throughout the region.

Stern’s commitment to New Orleans could be viewed as a measuring stick for other small-markets to showcase a model for economic success, even in the most dire of situations. Teams failing to follow this can then really only blame management, though that’s hardly the case.

Whatever the reason, Stern saved basketball in a region heavily dominated by football. The generations looking for an alternative to pig-skin can thank the man demonized by many others.

The Chris Paul Trade

Stern’s taken criticism before, and he honestly doesn’t give a s*** what you think about some fanciful concept of “integrity.” He’s got his own bosses to please, and they’re all thrilled this morning. And if us little people are satisfied enough to put away the torches and pitchforks, that’s just gravy. — Barry Petchesky, Deadspin, December 15, 2011, on the Chris Paul trade.

No discussion about Stern and the Hornets would exclude The Chris Paul trade. For those hiding under a rock, David Stern and the NBA (acting as principal owners) rejected a Hornets-Lakers-Rockets trade that sent Paul to the Lakers.

It’s been discussed thoroughly over time and there are two sides to the argument. Those for the trade are clearly Los Angeles Lakers fans and/or sympathizers  The sentiment is that Stern, who is the commissioner of the NBA, could not of made the trade without a conflict of interest. They say that because he vetoed this he could veto any other trade in the league.

This was and still is completely false. Stern acted as an owner in the interests of the Hornets not the NBA. The Hornets would of taken on more long-term salary and netted low-draft picks. It did not meet the criteria for the Hornets.

“No one trades a future hall-of-famer because a GM thinks we should do it, are you kidding? I said either we’re in or we’re out. I said we’ll speak up when we make the next trade, which we think will be better for the long-term prospects of the franchise and it was.” — David Stern, June 20th, 2012,

Stern acted like any owner would. He gave out a criteria for Dell Demps, it was not met and thus rejected. Stern’s actions helped the Hornets long-term and he should be praised not just locally, but nationally.

Michael Wilbon, Colin Cowherd, Chris Sheridan and many others were all wrong about the trade. Even when pressed about the issue, Stern held firm in his belief that the trade was best for New Orleans. With the same “hindsight” used by the media that the trade wasn’t the best for New Orleans after two-months, can be used after a year to say it was best for New Orleans.

Executive of the 2011-2012 NBA season, David Stern.

Legacy Internationally

“I have this view that there’s this ship called the USS NBA and I’m supposed to be the captain and that’s my job. We’ll occasionally go through rough waters but we’re going to get through it because at the center of it all is basketball.” — David Stern

The NBA has around 80 international players in the league. Compare that to many other major sports (don’t count soccer) and that’s a fair amount. For a league that is so ingrained in North American society it’s kind of amazing the appeal it has around the world.

The personalities, the language and the culture transcend any barriers put in place. The rigorous protectionism of countries like China can’t even keep out the Western ideals of the NBA and its appeal to citizens.

I still remember going to school when I was 6 years old and playing basketball on an NBA hoop decorated with its logo and superstar Michael Jordan.

Stern was able to capitalize on opportunities others might of failed in. He and the NBA was the first to launch international league-pass broadband that allowed fans in other countries to watch entire games of their team. He sent over free tapes to China in the 1980’s to broadcast as what was seen as a goodwill gesture.

In fact, my brothers across the ditch (New Zealand) feared the NBA would take over from their national sport of rugby with the emergence of Michael Jordan. Ian Robson the former CEO for the Auckland Warriors had this to say:

“… we’re in a time now (1995) where… the most admired, recognizable and acknowledged sporting hero is not a New Zealander, he’s a black American by the name of Michael Jordan. Basketball in this country is the sleeping giant of all sports.”

This speaks volumes as to the NBA influences globally. Stern was able to see this, utilize media channels and spread the brand around the world. The NBA is arguably the most recognizable next to any soccer team. In the American sports market the NBA has nearly as many twitter followers as the NFL, MLB and NHL combined (6.2 million to 7.9 million).

From my personal experience I would say there are two international sports with clear influence in Australia. These are soccer and the English Premier League as well as the NBA. People that barely even follow the sport all have a team. I have friends that are Grizzly fans, Laker fans, Celtic fans, Heat fans, Thunder fans and of course, Hornet fans. This is a country removed by the largest ocean on the planet and yet is deeply passionate about the league.

While the NBA has a long way to go in generating brand equity like Manchester United, the New York Yankees or FC Barcelona, they’re on the right path.

Where to from here?

“David has transformed an industry, not just the NBA… I think David is the one who turned sports leagues into brands if you want to speak business… As Glen [Taylor, Minnesota Timberwolves Owner] pointed out, 40-fold increase in television revenues. There’s all kinds of business metrics that would define David as one of great business leaders of our time.” — Adam Silver, Deputy Commissioner of the NBA

For years there has been studies into succession planning for CEO’s. Many have theories as to how this should be done. The truth in the case of the NBA is that any person taking over from David Stern should have similar qualities to him. He/she must fill his obligation to the owners, he/she must advance the business from its previous standings and he/she must uphold the integrity of the game in every aspect of business.

Adam Silver fits that criteria and has been “groomed” of sorts to take over. David knew that any replacement must not only be as good as he, but be better.

Stepping aside now, while the game is still growing, is risky but also necessary. With Silver taking over we might see a different direction of the league.

Capitalizing on growing markets (female, Asian and youth), resistant ones and ones not foreseen will be the task of a predominantly younger viewership of the NBA.

The NBA was clearly the worst league in all of American sports when Stern entered in the 1980’s. A culture has been transformed from a worrying, dangerous league, wrought with drugs, violence and complete disregard for others to a vibrant, youthful league on the up-and-up around the globe. It is now the hipster under the vast fabric of professional sports.

Some people may hold the league’s transformation to players and they deserve a major part of the acclaim for this, but Stern was able to form a product that would appeal universally and not stray out-of-line with societies values.

David Stern will remain unpopular with many. His bravado, confidence and lawspeak have rubbed most during his 29 years at the helm. But this is precisely what made him so appealing. Everyone has an opinion of Stern and not one is down the middle. As a figurehead people had juxtaposing positions but as a commissioner he was able to walk the tight rope, fulfill his obligations to the owners and help transform a game that began in a gym in Springfield, Massachusetts over 120 years ago.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.