An SI writer wasinvited to join NBA commissioner David Stern's five-country, eight-game,seven-day tour of Europe last month, during which Stern schmoozed, cajoled,teased, challenged, lectured and charmed sponsors, corporate executives,players, coaches, NBA employees, journalists and fans. The writer also was thedirect object of all the above verbs, especially teased.
"I saw youyawning just now," Stern said one day, "and I heard you snoring duringthe ride to the airport. Is this too much for you?"
"I heard yousnoring too," the writer said.
"Yes, but Ihave an excuse," Stern answered. "Unlike you, I'm actuallyworking."
November 6, 2006
DAWN, SOMEWHEREOVER RUSSIA. Cue a disembodied voice from the front of the private plane:"Harry (the Horse) Gallatin. Nat (Sweetwater) Clifton. Kenny Sears. CarlBraun."
The other fourpassengers begin to stir. What's he talking about?
"ConnieSimmons. Ray Felix. Richie Guerin. Dick McGuire."
The voice is flatand nasal, a New York City voice. The names are of assorted New York Knicksfrom the 1950s, the Knicks of David Stern, son of a Manhattan deli owner,graduate of Columbia Law School and a man whose bust would appear on a MountRushmore of league commissioners, right there next to Kenesaw Mountain Landisand Pete Rozelle.
Stern offers hisearly-morning litany to rouse himself between yawns and stretches. In thecourse of 60 hours he has flown across the Atlantic, taken a dozen meetings,answered questions at a half-dozen press conferences, shaken a thousand hands,signed a hundred autographs, witnessed basketball games in Barcelona and Romeand pressed the flesh at two postgame receptions. He has slept for 90 minutesof this 4 1/2-hour flight from Rome to Moscow (which turns into 5 1/2 hoursbecause of fog), stretched out on the front couch of the Gulfstream-4, his feetresting on a mound of magazines (Variety, Forbes, Sports Business Journal) andnewspapers (International Herald-Tribune, The New York Times, The Wall StreetJournal) that he has perused and gutted. "I'm an inveterate clipper,"he says, showing a binder groaning with paper. He'll snip anything that drawshis interest, particularly stories about the environment and medicalbreakthroughs--along with, of course, pieces on sports and business.
But an hour and ahalf of shut-eye is enough. Maybe not for the other passengers, all of whom areyounger than the 64-year-old Stern, but enough for the commissioner, who seemsto draw life from the enervation of others. "He crushes us," saysAndrew Messick, senior vice president of NBA International and two decadesStern's junior. "Just crushes us."
As his eyes adjustto the half-light, Stern turns on his BlackBerry. It brings bad news: anaccount of the arrest of Pacers swingman Stephen Jackson for firing a gunoutside an Indianapolis strip club. (One week later Jackson would plead notguilty to charges of battery, disorderly conduct and felony criminalrecklessness.) The commissioner shakes his head as he scrolls. "I wish wecould legally ban players from carrying guns," he says. "But wecan't." (On a conference call with journalists three weeks later Sternwould issue a plea to players to leave their guns at home.)
Stern smiles as hereads an invitation from the Charlotte Bobcats to attend their first home game."Guess I'll have to do the car wash," he says. Car wash is his term fora full day of activities: breakfast speech, lunch with owners, perhaps anafternoon sit-down with local movers and shakers, then the game. Immediatelyahead, as the plane descends, lies the intimidating Moscow car wash, beginningat 10:30 a.m.: sponsor meetings, interviews, a photo shoot at Red Square, awreath-laying at the grave of legendary Soviet coach Aleksandr Gomelsky, a gamebetween the Los Angeles Clippers and CSKA Moscow and a reception at the home ofU.S. ambassador William Burns--and that's all followed by a midnight flight toParis.
But Stern isenergized. He is eager to see his old friends in Russia, which he first visitedas commissioner in 1988 (when the national anthem still mentioned Lenin), andhe isn't even bothered when fog forces the plane to divert to an airportfarther from downtown Moscow, complicating a schedule that already seemedimpossible. Stern enjoys the thought that he will be taxed to the maximum andchuckles when he imagines his staff on the ground racing from SheremetyevoAirport to pick him up at the more remote Domodedovo.
"We could justfly straight to Paris," says Messick, half joking.
Stern shakes hishead and smiles. "No matter what," he says, "we are going to thisfreaking game."
The commissioneris in the middle of a 17,000-mile airborne whistle-stop tour that will enablehim to monitor his league's latest ambitious international venture, officiallycalled NBA Europe Live Presented by EA Sports. (In the NBA something is alwayspresented by something.) Stern sent four of his teams (the Philadelphia 76ers,Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs and Clippers) to hold a week of training campin four cities (Barcelona; Treviso, Italy; Lyon, France; and Moscow,respectively) and play games in three others (Rome, Paris and Cologne,Germany). The teams and locales were carefully matched: The Sixers' AllenIverson is extremely popular in Spain, where they apparently likeantiestablishment figures; Suns coach Mike D'Antoni was a prominent player andcoach in Italy; and Spurs guard Tony Parker is a Frenchman. As for the Clippersin Moscow, well, somebody had to go--it's a burgeoning market.
For someone whohas been in the public eye for so long--he was named commissioner in 1984, 14years before Major League Baseball's Bud Selig, 11 before the NHL's GaryBettman and five before the NFL's Paul Tagliabue, who was recently succeeded byRoger Goodell--Stern has been remarkably successful in deflecting requests toparticipate in behind-the-scenes profiles. He has agreed to this one only aftersome negotiation and on the understanding that the NBA's international business(page 63) will play a prominent role in the story. (Stern will no doubt thinkit's not prominent enough and will make his feelings known.) Over the course ofthe trip, pieces of his personal life slip out, though rarely does he offerthem.
For example, Sternloved the musical Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.He thinks of himself as a cross between a Manhattanite (Stern's Delicatessenwas in Chelsea) and a Jersey boy (he moved to Teaneck at age 12 and attendedRutgers). He was, he says, 114th in a class of 530 at Teaneck High; he stillremembers the stats.
Unlike his closefriend and former assistant general counsel Bettman--they talk everyweek--Stern is not a big hockey fan. He "sort of" follows the New YorkMets, he says, because he and his sons, Andy and Eric, used to watch themtogether when the boys were growing up. (Andy, 40, is a managing director of aninternational real estate development company; Eric, 38, is senior counselor tothe governor of Montana.) Stern occasionally takes in New York Yankees gameswith George Steinbrenner in the owner's box. "But if I'm going to watchanything besides the NBA, it's probably pro football," he says. "I'm aGiants fan."
In the past fiveyears Stern has had a few arthroscopic knee surgeries and sometimes limpsslightly. But he played recreational hoops as a youth and looks to be, and sayshe is, in excellent shape. He watches his diet and drinks alcohol sparingly,though on busy days he does ladle in the caffeine. He also has an incurablesweet tooth. (On the plane he tears into the disgusting-looking confectionknown as Swedish Fish.) He plays tennis regularly, often with his wife of 43years, Dianne, a freelance writer. (They met through family friends in Teaneckand married during Stern's first year at Columbia Law School.) The two alsoenjoy taking long walks and hikes; on David's only real day off during theEuropean tour, the couple legged it for hours through the streets of Paris.
Though Stern'sinner compass in leading the NBA has been largely unerring, he has troublefinding his way back from somewhere if his wife is not along. As he entershotels, for example, he invariably makes the wrong turn to get to the elevator,though he makes it decisively. "He has no sense of direction," saysDianne, "yet he always knows where he's going."
Had the clientlist of Proksauer Rose, the Manhattan firm at which Stern began workingimmediately after graduating from law school in 1966, not included the NBA, thecommissioner believes he would have remained, quite happily, "an intenselitigator," one active in the New York State Bar Association. Instead theyoung Stern was assigned to NBA matters and eventually left Proksauer Rose, in'78, to become the league's general counsel. He was named executive vicepresident in '80 and the league's fourth commissioner in '84, succeeding LarryO'Brien.
In the late 1980sand early '90s, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan helped Sternovercome the league's severe financial and image problems and usher in an eraof unprecedented popularity. As they began to retire, there was talk that thecommissioner would exit as well. But while Stern says he has had "myriadopportunities" to run companies and write his memoirs, he insists that hehas never come close to leaving the hot seat.
"Sure, JulyFourth comes and, man, you're really tired," he says. "But [in the NBA]there is always something to challenge you, always something to keep you young.I'm being completely honest when I say I'm not even thinking aboutretiring." The consensus among his employees is that he's telling thetruth.
Outspoken thoughhe often is, in public Stern stays away from politics. The wellspring of hispower, after all, is the NBA owners, some of whom have blue-state views andsome red-state. But in private the commissioner leans to the left. As he sitsin the drab Domodedovo Airport lobby, waiting for his documents to be checkedand his harried caravan of drivers to arrive, he sees Vice President DickCheney scowling on a Russian TV station. Stern lets out a hoot of derision.
"With ourleadership," he says, "we are in as big a trouble in this country rightnow as I can ever remember." As he and Dianne make their way through theNew York Times each morning, they swap sections, compare notes and generallycommiserate about the Administration in Washington.
Over the pastmonths the NBA drafted a mission statement of which Stern is exceedingly proud.It talks about values and social responsibility, and it pledges that NBAemployees will "conduct ourselves in accordance with the highest standardsof honesty, truthfulness, ethics and fair dealing." Stern's most satisfyingrecent business relationship has been with Adidas, which also espouses amake-the-world-better philosophy.
Now, there isplenty of room for cynicism when bottom-liners start talking altruism. And themany NBA haters in the U.S. would suggest that players such as Stephen Jacksonare living repudiations of the league's mission statement. But Stern holds thatthe document has had a "profound effect" on him and on those who workfor him. He hardly gets through a day without mentioning the NBA's BasketballWithout Borders program, which each summer sends dozens of players to conductclinics in far-flung and often impoverished parts of the world, and he fumeswhen the league is criticized for too often airing its NBA Cares spots."We're going to keep right on showing them," the commissioner sayspugnaciously, "because social responsibility is extremely important tous."
It troubles him,then, that the league is increasingly doing business in countries withabhorrent or at least questionable government policies. Three days after Burnswelcomes the NBA delegation to Spaso House following the Clippers' 94--75 lossto CSKA (formerly known as the Red Army team), the ambassador stands in therain among other mourners at the funeral of Anna Politkovskaya, the 13thjournalist killed since Russian president Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000.Politkovskaya, like the others, was critical of Putin's government. (Her killeror killers had not been apprehended at week's end.) Stern is intimatelyfamiliar with the details of the murder and decries it--suspecting, as many do,that government officials had a hand in it. Yet Russia, now fertile ground forcapitalists, is a prime NBA business target. "We have to think aboutopening an office here," Stern says as he rides through the streets ofMoscow with Rob Millman, an NBA International vice president.
China presents aneven greater conflict for Stern because it has both colossal business potentialand a terrible human rights record. The commissioner has traveled throughoutthe country, both for business and to satisfy his intellectual curiosity, andthere is no doubt that China is critical to the global future of the NBA. Yetits repressive policies fly in the face of the league's mission statement.
"Believe me,the China situation bothers me," Stern says one day, traveling betweenParis and Cologne. "And a voice at home [he means Dianne, who is moreoutspoken about politics than he is] reminds me about it all the time." Hesighs heavily. "But at the end of the day I have a responsibility to myowners to make money," he says. "I can never forget that, no matterwhat my personal feelings might be." Stern doesn't expand on that thought,which is atypical; his mind is nothing if not lawyerly, able to slither aroundand through the most vexing questions. But the road to China is littered withphilosophical land mines, and as the NBA snuggles up to Beijing, it will beinteresting to see if Stern speaks out when he's troubled.
Closer to homelies a neon-lit dilemma. Years ago Stern turned up his nose at the mere mentionof Las Vegas because he didn't want anyone connecting the NBA to gambling. Hestill doesn't. But times change. He okayed the 2007 All-Star Game to be playedin Vegas and--lo and behold--the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority isan official sponsor of the Europe Live tour. Which explains why the HonorableOscar Goodman, who was a mob lawyer (his own description) before being electedmayor of Las Vegas, is a prominent figure on the tour, escorting two showgirlsdone up in blue and pink. Stern doesn't pal around with Hizzoner (who recentlyadvocated cutting off the thumbs of graffiti artists who deface public propertyin Vegas), but he doesn't shun him either.
As one travelswith Stern, it becomes hard not to compare him with another liberal andpragmatist. David Joel Stern is, indisputably, the William Jefferson Clinton ofcommissioners. They have met on several occasions, and Stern and his wife talkwith admiration of Clinton's friendliness and his ability to expound on almostany subject. The commissioner is nowhere near as charismatic or as recognizableas the 42nd president, but he's a rock star compared with his peers: Bettmanand Goodell, like Tagliabue, come across as well-dressed lawyers (which theyare), and Selig is as beguiling as a small-town hardware salesman.
"Charisma isat some level the art of relating to people," says Don Luongo, a retiredU.S. Secret Service agent who sometimes works as Stern's one-man securityforce, "and that's what the commissioner is all about." Luongo knowsabout charisma, having been assigned to both Clinton and Ronald Reagan, men heholds in high esteem for their ability to connect to the masses. "Plus, Mr.Stern's energy level is off the chart," says Luongo. "People feel that.I feel that. I feed off it."
At 5'9" Sternis not physically imposing, but he looks good. He has a full head of gray hairand wears expensive suits, tailored shirts and classy ties. (Purple is afavorite color.) His self-confidence is unwavering, as might be expected from aman who reportedly makes more than $10 million a year and has increased leaguerevenues twelvefold. At every stop along the European trail he is asked to signautographs by both young and old. He relishes the attention.
Like Clinton,Stern also relishes being the indefatigable iron man, the alpha male whooutworks, outschmoozes and outlasts everyone else in the room. He could squeezein a short nap at the Swiss√¥tel in Moscow, but having found the downstairscoffee lacking, he suddenly claps his hands and, sounding like a high schoolkid organizing a beer party, says to a reporter and two NBA employees,"Hey, let's go to my room! I've got a great cappuccino machine!" Andall adjourn there. Later, en route to the ambassador's house after the game,Stern dozes, openmouthed, but suddenly cuts into a conversation with a commentabout Russian basketball history.
"My onlyexplanation," whispers Messick from the seat behind the commissioner,"is that he hears when he sleeps."
Stern's itineraryin Europe has been worked out almost to the minute by his executive assistant,Sue-Ann Pisack, who goes through her day with a cellphone in her ear, aBlackBerry in her hand and anxiety in her chest. Before each meeting, gabsession, dedication ceremony, press conference or reception, the commissioneris briefed by the p.r. person on-site, an NBA International staffer or perhapsAdam Silver, the deputy commissioner. They cover everything. "We don'tsuggest taking the lift at the arena," Sau Ching Cheong, a p.r. person fromNBA China, tells Stern before he heads for the CSKA Universal Sports Complex innorthern Moscow. (The elevator is at best cranky and at worst nonfunctional.)Stern listens while others talk, but more than likely he will follow his ownscript and instincts (though he doesn't take the lift).
He has beentraveling abroad for so long that he knows not only the names of internationalbasketball officials and TV executives, but also their kids' names.Nonetheless, Stern all but wins the day just by showing up. "Sitting downwith him says everything about the commissioner and his organization," saysCarlos Campos, an Adidas Spain exec who takes a meeting with Stern inBarcelona. "We have never even met [FIFA president] Sepp Blatter, far lesshad a meeting with him."
Stern's attentionto detail is astonishing. As he greets Coca-Cola officials in Barcelona, hisfirst question is, "How's Sprite Zero doing?" Perusing a notebook fullof bar graphs and sales-figure charts during a meeting in Rome, he stops andpoints to one. "You left a percent sign out here," he says to UmbertoPieraccioni, Adidas Italy's managing director. Before the tour's finaldoubleheader, in Cologne on Oct. 11, the commissioner's eyes run over theseating chart. "How about if you move George Bodenheimer over here?" hesays. The ABC Sports/ESPN honcho is duly moved. On planes and in cars Sternusually decides who sits where, calling for a reporter to sit near him onoccasion and, on others, exiling the scribe to a different seat or differentvehicle, depending on whether or not he feels like answering questions.
Even when he is inthe mood he doesn't speak--he filibusters, uninterrupted, withMohammed-on-the-mountain hauteur. In Stern's press conferences there is verylittle Q and much A. But he does not string together nonsense in Rumsfeldianfashion. (Man, would he hate being labeled Rumsfeldian.) He can be repetitiveand evasive, but there is no underground collection of Stern verbal miscues.His hands move as he talks, suggesting a conductor in mid-symphony, but he willoften stop and stare into space as he searches for the precise word or phrasebefore resuming, as Messick says, "in complete sentences." There aretimes when he seems to be finished but then adds his pet phrase "And by theway...." For Stern, by the way is not an introduction to a throwaway line;it's a signal to keep listening.
He doesn't justseize and hold the floor with underlings and overmatched reporters. When formerNBA center Vlade Divac arrives for a powwow in Barcelona to discuss thepossibility of Real Madrid, the Spanish League team for which Divac is now anexecutive, joining the NBA, the commissioner disarms him immediately."Vlade, why don't you flop for us," Stern says, alluding to Divac'swell-deserved reputation for faking fouls. Divac laughs and feigns falling. Butin the course of the 45-minute meeting Stern makes it clear that Real Madridshould get back in line and that the NBA will decide who joins the NBA, thankyou very much. Divac gets in about, oh, a dozen words.
At a Barcelonasit-down with Jonathan Ford, the London-based sports sponsorship manager forCoca-Cola, Stern was, to an extent, the party with hat in hand: The NBA wantsmore European sponsorship dollars from Coke, which was a major sponsor of theWorld Cup, and Ford is reluctant. During the meeting Stern preaches about theNBA's international appeal ("We are serious about becoming the mostrespected sports league in the world"), plays the underdog card ("Weknow we have our work cut out for us here with you guys") and gently teasesFord, an unabashed soccer fan, about the racial makeup of Britain's nationalteam. "It's the one place where your colonial policies might've had somelatter-day benefits," Stern jokes.
Ford may not beconvinced about the future relationship between his company and the NBA, but heis convinced about Stern. "Just meeting with him was fantastic," saysFord. "He is one of the forefathers of sports marketing."
There are storiesthat Stern can be a fire-breathing dragon. Ask for confirmation, and some NBAstaffers will roll their eyes in affirmation. "In the early days,"remembers former NBA executive Rick Welts, who came to the league in 1982,"there would invariably be a point during the day when he would absolutelydestroy you. You'd feel as tall as an ant over something you mishandled."But Welts, now the president of the Suns, says the commissioner always madeamends. "Your phone would ring at 10 o'clock at night, and by the time youwere finished talking to him, you were ready to charge into the office to dobattle on behalf of the NBA," he says. "He has a miraculous ability tocreate what seems to be a unique relationship with everyone who works forhim."
The consensus isthat Stern has mellowed, but his demanding nature is still there for all tosee. "Hey, Peter," Stern says to Peter Fink, a member of his eventsteam, the night after the game in Barcelona, "the NBA Cares spot [that wasplayed on the scoreboard] had really low volume. What happened?" He doesn'tbark, but it's clear that he wants an explanation of perhaps the only thingthat went wrong all night. "Technical glitch," says Fink.
As Stern reclineshis seat en route to Moscow, he pulls out his BlackBerry. "This isperfect," he says. "I can read the reports." (All NBA departmentheads are required to file them weekly.)
A weary Messick,who has been working 20-hour days for the past month, turns around. "Ididn't do mine yet," he says.
"That'sO.K.," says the commissioner, though his tone suggests, I wish you had.
When he meets withstaffers, Stern's favorite sign-off line--he uses it a half-dozen times duringhis week in Europe--is some variation of this: "Congratulations on a greatjob. And, as usual in the NBA, your reward for working hard is more hardwork."
It would be a vastunderstatement to say that Stern's staff is alert when gathered around him. Hisminions, pens poised for note taking, do attentiveness the way Nancy Reagan didadoration. Their efficiency is alarming. When a journalist travels with thecommissioner, someone greets him on the tarmac, reaches around his neck toremove the credential from the Barcelona games and replaces it with the one forRome. (In the real world a reporter could expire from thirst before an officialwould deign to point out the location of the press gate.) "David isextraordinarily demanding," says Messick, "because he understands howan event is supposed to be run. There's no part of the process he hasn't beenthrough, so he gets frustrated when he doesn't see the results he's lookingfor."
But Stern can alsobe disarmingly informal. Even if this is studied, it works. Almost everyonecalls him David. (When Stern is not around, a simple He is an adequatereplacement. What did He think? Is He coming to the meeting?) The commissionerremembers the names of his employees. He swears strategically. The NBA hires anextraordinary number of eager beavers, and Stern is able to reach across thegeneration gap--partly because they're focused on pleasing him, of course, butpartly because he can extemporize about the latest Xbox, the success of Grey'sAnatomy or the stylistic differences between Adidas's Stella and Y3 models.That stuff doesn't slide easily out of the mouth of Bud Selig.
On the afternoonof Stern's final day on tour, in Cologne, about two dozen of the NBA's younginternational staffers gather in a hotel conference room at his request.Sitting comfortably at the head of the table, the commissioner asks each ofthem to state his or her name and length of employment. After Tom Marchesi, ayoung NBA International p.r. man, finishes, Stern nods approvingly. "I'vebeen reading your stuff on BlackBerry," he says. You don't think youngMarchesi would run through a wall for this guy?
When Stern himselffinishes, everyone in the room applauds.
On his way out, hepasses a reporter. "You look a little tired," Stern says. "Are yougoing to make it till the end of the day?"
And the NBA'salpha male marches on.
Stern relishes being the indefatigable iron man whooutworks, outschmoozes and outlasts everyone else in the room.
It troubles him that the league is doing more businessin countries with questionable government policies.
His attention to detail is astonishing. He greetsCoca-Cola officials with, "How's Sprite Zero doing?"
Ask if Stern can be a fire-breathing dragon, and someNBA staffers will roll their eyes in affirmation.
Stern met with all manner of dignitaries on his trip, including WalterVeltroni, mayor of the Italian capital.
Stern and Clippers owner Donald Sterling (right) presented gifts to Russiandefense minister Sergei Ivanov.
Stern paid his respects at the grave of Hall of Fame Soviet basketball coachAleksandr Gomelsky.
Yao has helped the league build ties with China, which could one day have teamsplaying under an NBA banner.
Stern and Euroleague Basketball CEO Jordi Bertomeu (left) received a warmwelcome from the Cologne crowd.
Autograph hunters in Paris besieged Stern, who after 22 years in office is morerecognizable than most NBA players.