David Stern is a patriarch of professional basketball, with a never-stop-attitude, and someone who sought to capitalize on some of the league’s individual personalities and expand the game beyond the confines of gyms and arenas in the United States and in front of a burgeoning international crowd.
And despite helping lift the league out of its cocaine-induced coma in the late ’70s and early ‘80s, Stern has also been the steward behind some of the league’s biggest controversies – including the Tim Donaghy scandal, which put the NBA and its integrity under a finely-tuned microscope.
Through nearly 50 years of working in the league offices (30 years as commissioner), Stern remains a fan of the game – not that his fandom was ever lost, even with his once overarching responsibilities as commissioner.
“In my mind I made the most of it,” Stern told Bob Ryan – dubbed the “Dean of NBA journalists” by Stern himself – of his time spent doubling as a fan and commissioner today on Bob Ryan’s Podcast.
“I was always focusing on something different – I love the game, I loved the players, I loved the fans. It was fun to experience different arenas and different reactions to the teams and to see the passion.”
With a heavy travel schedule to NBA cities across the country, Stern had plenty of opportunities to experience NBA fans from coast to coast, some warmer than others.
Stern was particularly “fond” of Boston Celtics fans, who according to the former commissioner, made it a prerequisite that Stern be escorted out of the Boston Garden flanked by police officers (in fairness, the cops told him that this was nothing compared to the hockey commissioner at the time, John Ziegler Jr.).
“It was nuts,” said Stern harkening back to the rivalry between the Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers and of the mind games between Red Auerbach and then head coach of the Sixers, Billy Cunningham. “It was a passion actually – I don’t know if it was inspired by the fans or ascended down to the fans – but these cities were just bitter rivals and it was great fun.”
Auerbach was – and still perhaps remains – the greatest winner in all of sports, and to Bostonians, an almost mythical figure at this point in time.
To outsiders, he was an arrogant graceless winner who lacked the decency to wait until the game was over to light up his victory cigar. He was also rough around the edges and somewhat vicious with his verbal barbs, once telling a young Jackie MacMullan that the young reporter “didn’t belong” in the Celtics locker room, early on in MacMullan’s career.
He also had a tender side – experienced later on in her career by MacMullan – that Stern also understood.
“The one thing that I love to get a chance to say about Red is that he was a gentleman,” said Stern. “However gruff he was – and he could be gruff. He would call me up and announce to me what part of the anatomy I was missing because I refused to be tough enough with the other owners – in Red’s presence he was courtly with the way he treated other people.”
Stern was there for Larry and Magic – taking control of the league during a period in which the NBA was still broadcasting playoff games on tape delay, and there was very little (if any) national exposure.
(With today’s NBA League Pass, a friendly national television schedule, and a booming social media presence that allows fans to take in just about everything, this footnote in history sounds stupidly inane now).
For a white America still hesitant about a mostly black league, Stern endorsed the personalities of NBA stars in becoming brands unto themselves.
Wherever you stand on Stern – and there are plenty of warts on his tenure – he was undoubtedly a pioneer for expansion of the game, particularly overseas, where Stern felt (outside of soccer) basketball had the best chance to travel.
“We always felt that we were sitting on top of a vein of a gold if we properly mined it. That basketball would travel, and would travel the best of any sport – save soccer – and we had to do it justice, and that was our mission.”
As Stern attests to – and as many sports fans can reason with non-sports fans about – “sports leads the way in causing people to understand each other.”
For a man who calls Bill Russell the “best player ever” because, well, “Bill has 11 rings,” Stern remains an ambivalent figure for NBA nerds and casual observers alike.
His impact on the game, however, remains unquestioned.