An interview with former NBA commissioner David Stern

Stern jc x image

For the last 30 years, the NBA has known only one commissioner-David Stern. That changed in February, when on the 30th anniversary of his first day as commissioner, Stern stepped down.

As the NBA continues to grow in Stern's absence, however, his legacy will continue to grow with it. Stern helped turn American basketball into a highly profitable sport with tremendous national and global appeal.

Stern will speak at JUF's Lawyers & Government Officials; Foods & Hospitality and Wholesalers, Retailers & Manufacturers Divisions Dinner on Monday, June 2.

JUF News: How have the last couple months been? Has it been an easy or challenging transition?

David Stern: It's been a very easy transition. I've been mixing things up a bit. I'm getting ready to travel for the NBA Europe. I'm beginning my speaking engagements and I'm taking some vacation time. I'm talking to a variety of firms about exactly how my talents might fit with some of their needs, so I'm engaged in very active discussions, but I'm not in a hurry to commit to anything full time now that I have my calendar back. 

It sounds like you are interested in continuing to play a part in the ongoing globalization of basketball.

That's the place where I told Adam (Silver) I'd be happy to be the most helpful. I'll do anything he'd like me to help out with, but particularly the globalization of the NBA. In May I'll be going to Italy, Spain and London all on NBA matters. 

What of your many accomplishments as commissioner were among the most challenging or rewarding for the work you put into it?

I think we figured out that we can have enormous influence on important issues. That was brought to bear when Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive. We participated in changing the debate in this country and around the world on HIV. In some ways, people look at the economic success over the 30 years going from $78 million in revenues to $5.5 billion, but I think the unspoken, to me, is the fact that we started the journey with a sport that was viewed as having "too many black players" and not being accessible to America, and as of now, our NBA players are at the top of the celebrity pyramid and most of them are African-American. That means that we had something to teach America as a sport about focusing on talent rather than race and that's a very important thing ... We put the sport very much at the center of an understanding that social responsibility is an obligation, not just of sports leagues, but all enterprises.

What lessons did you learn in your time as commissioner that can be applied to anyone's work?

To me it's about the narrative. You can have a narrative that's better than the one you inherited through focusing on it, directing it, and getting people to join in it. You become a singular organization that's focused on bringing the narrative to pass with a serious focus both on the business and the execution and detail of all aspects of it and the opportunity to do something more than just make money for your stakeholders. Our narrative became we had the best athletes in the world and rather than apologizing because they happened to be black, we had something to teach the world about talent. We had a great game and it televises well and television became cable, which became satellite, which became digital and it's really not television anymore but all forms of media.

What might people not know about how Michael Jordan and the Bulls teams of the '90s shaped the NBA and the direction of the sport?

At a time when we were moving to NBC, the Bulls took off and our ratings soared. NBC spent enormous amounts on promotion and so the sport took off with Michael Jordan and his teammates and our global aspirations began to be fulfilled. The Bulls were ruling the world, not just the American market. So the Bulls were a very important part of the growth of the NBA and the globalization of the NBA.

What do you think of the Bulls now?

Management ultimately makes teams successful on the court and off the court and the Bulls are a very well-managed team and always have been.

What do you see as Adam Silver's biggest challenge going forward?

I'm hoping that Adam will have very smooth sailing. There's continued growth of the NBA on a global basis, continued growth on network television, there's a new TV contract that has to be negotiated. We've only two years to go after this season so this is normally the time when we negotiate and I expect there will be a large increase. Digital is a friend of the NBA because we are very relevant through social media and our images travel well around the world with the streaming of NBA games. And franchises are in high demand and short supply.

What will you miss most about being commissioner?

The thing that I enjoyed the most was going out and being amongst fans and seeing games. That was fun and the fans were always uniformly good-natured and I suspect I haven't been to my last game. I'll always enjoy watching the success of the NBA and participating in it if I can be helpful.


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