David Stern grew up in New York City and he can tell you about going to the old Madison Square Garden with his father to watch the Knicks, when a middling ticket cost 50 cents and slipping a quarter to an usher could get you moved up close. He can tell you how he would read about the game in the New York tabloids, newspapers he consumed from back to front, right to left, because he was another boy besotted by sports, and not, as he was saying last night with a laugh, some six decades after the fact, “because of my interest in Hebrew.”
He can also tell you about how his love for the game came from the things that he saw in it and the things that he believed it could be. He believed, for example, that an NBA team that was winning championships in the fractious early 1970s led by Willis Reed, an African American center from Lincoln Parish, La., and Grambling State University, and Bill Bradley, a Caucasian forward out of Crystal City, Mo., and Princeton, might represent something good in the world.
Stern can tell you about his early years as NBA commissioner and his conference room battle to secure a four-year, $173-million broadcast television deal with CBS in 1986, and how under his stewardship the league grew to the point that in October his successor, Adam Silver, agreed to a $24 billion (and that is billion with a b), nine-year media rights deal.
It has been just over a year and since the great Transfer of Power, since Stern, after 30 earth-moving years as commissioner, passed along the job to his dear and younger colleague, Silver. And as Stern spoke last night on a stage in a building at NYU—50 blocks from the old Garden, 47 blocks from NBA offices—there was in the audience a very clear understanding that the NBA we know now is a league in large part of David Stern’s making. Silver has had a marvelous and at times bold entrance into the league (the Donald Sterling ban, the public embrace of legalized sports betting, the openness to a revamped playoff structure) but he could raise the basket by 10 inches and the fact of Stern’s singular influence would not change.
Stern was humble, pointedly so. He had drawn a large crowd of students, alumni and others to the invitation-only event (after getting 500 acceptances, organizers had to start turning people away) and he was interviewed by Arthur R. Miller, a groundbreaking civil procedure scholar, and, in legal and academic circles, a celebrity himself. The talk was put on by NYU’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media and Business and all night Stern deflected credit for the league’s economic growth to the other people—to the NFLPAs Ed Garvey for the idea of revenue sharing; to former San Antonio Spurs owner Angelo Drossos for suggesting a salary cap; to the talents and charisma of Michael, Larry, Isiah and Charles; to the goodwill of the American people; to just about everyone and everything but himself. “I’m not as creative as I get credit for,” Stern says.
He was willing enough to talk about the league’s riches, but the moments he was proudest of were the NBA’s reach into new populations. He recalled a tenure of simple pleasures (riding in an elevator with 7’4” NBA center Mark Eaton and a diminutive, awestruck Japanese man during the league’s trip to Tokyo) and more profound ones (hearing a Georgian crowd cheer for the Hawks rather than the Russian team during an exhibition game in the old USSR.) Sports, Stern says, were often “the canary in the mine.”
Stern talked about some of the issues of the day. He agrees with Silver on the sports betting issue, for one thing, and he said that although he has a precedent of fining folks for speech (especially criticizing referees, and Mark Cuban) he would not have disciplined Knicks owner James Dolan for sending an email to a fan calling him an “alcoholic” and telling him to “go root for the Nets because the Knicks don’t want you.”
“Why would I [discipline him]?” says Stern.
“In other words you believe in the first amendment?” Miller remarked hopefully.
“Not exactly,” says Stern. “I believe in acting fast.”
For the most part, this turn at NYU was a victory lap for Stern, a reminisce. The high point of the evening (and, Stern would allow, one of the high points of his career) traced back to the 1992 All-Star game and Magic Johnson, who had recently revealed he was HIV positive at a time when the nation was full of fear and ignorance about the disease. Magic hit dramatic three-pointers late in the game, he put defensive stops on Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. And when his last three-point basket went in, with 14.5 seconds left on the clock, the crowd at Orlando Arena erupted. All of this was shown on a big screen last night during a pause in Stern’s talk. Then there was Magic at the post-game ceremony, and Stern, giving out a trophy, saying, “Magic, you're the Most Valuable Player. You're a most courageous person. The moment is yours. Congratulations.”
Stern said his favorite part of that day in 1992, and of the clip that the NYU crowd saw, was how at the end of the game the sweat-soaked players came and put their arms around Magic, even though there was a body of the public who still thought HIV might be transmitted through perspiration. “I believe that Magic Johnson changed the world debate about HIV,” says Stern.
He also said that as he looked back on all that he had done, the billions in revenue, the expansion of the league from 23 to 30 teams, the NBA merchandise that you can find today in Brazil, in Budapest, in Bhutan, that the moments of social change—and the name Jason Collins came up too—were the times he treasured most. He meant it. Mr. Stern will turn 73 years old this fall, and he still wants you to call him David, the kid who went to Knicks games for 50 cents a pop.