Thanking David Stern

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (Agence France-Presse) - January 4, 2020 - 12:00am

Atty. David Stern forever changed global basketball. He saw trends coming, promoted rivalries, created new markets, saw the potential of Asia, and crafted a merchandising juggernaut and television brand unparalleled. Upon his passing, we acknowledge how he propelled the game forward at a speed no one else foresaw.

Stern (which means “shining star” in German) was descended from Eastern European immigrants who migrated to the US to escape war. Of course, many of them settled in New York, their point of entry. There, they formed communities after World War I and World War II. Many continued the trades they left behind and were grocers, carpenters and the like. The luckier ones taught their children to become lawyers and doctors. They had a toughness to them bred from harsh weather in Europe and being uprooted and doing anything they could to escape to a better life. And these first-generation immigrants made sure their children would have the same killer’s instinct. Lawyers from the persecuted Jewish faith were particularly sensitive and fierce.

For example, when messy corporate mergers first started in the 1950’s, no American-grown lawyer wanted to touch them. They were acrimonious, complicated, and often left participants with lasting resentment, hence the evolution of the term “hostile takeover.” But Jewish lawyers thrived in that kind of environment. So by the 1970’s when takeovers were the trend, you hired Jewish lawyers to wade in and clean up. It was a virtual monopoly.

That was the culture David Stern grew up in. That tempered ruthlessness with a shrewd marketing sense and protective nature blended

When Stern was still the NBA’s legal counsel, the league hit several lows. Worst was a finals series that was broadcast on a tape delayed basis. The league was perceived as drug-riddled and – in the eyes of a racially-bent public – too black. This was barely a decade removed from the league’s first black players and coach. Stern set about subtly selling change by packaging the draft as an event. By the time the 1980’s rolled around, the league has seen a new generation of Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics rivals, spearheaded by the magnificent Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They battled for eight championships throughout the 1989’s. They were immediately followed by the bumper-crop Rookie Draft of 1984, led by the transcendent Michael Jordan. His Airness helped capitalize on the media and marketing frenzy that followed, in an era when actor Ronald Reagan became president and proclaimed “America’s number one, and don’t you forget it!”

The following decade, Stern rode several waves. Media multiplied, and after America was bludgeoned into a bronze in Olympic basketball in 1988, open basketball was declared, following in tennis’ footsteps. The NBA seconded players’ sentiments and fielded 11 of its best to Portland for the Tournament of the Americas and to Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics. The team was so popular that they had to be housed away from the athletes’ village, and even opposing players were posing for photos during games. The merchandising bonanza spread the NBA’s new image all over the world. In four years, another Dream Team would win an Olympic gold medal, as would a star-studded US women’s team that would form the core of the WNBA.

Stern was strict with everyone in protecting the sanctity of the product. He was known to personally phone TV producers if announcers said anything derogatory about the game. There is even a story that he jumped on top of a table to berate team owners about harming his league. He was rewarded with a new, long-term contract. He used his clout to keep his players in line, too. Stern was the genius who tied the league’s earnings to the players’ income. And in the last collective bargaining agreement stalemate he was part of, Stern gave the hardheaded players an ultimatum: if they didn’t accept the offer on the table, the next one would be lower.

The NBA played in Japan and other countries, did charity work, promoted the game. He worked behind the scenes to get Chinese players released to the NBA, and considered the 2002 draft of Yao Ming his favorite. This writer met Stern before the first NBA China Game in Shanghai two years later, and he was bent on expanding the league’s presence in the Philippines, its most intense fan base outside of the US. In 2011, this writer also organized the first NBA 3x3 in this part of the world.

Even when they balked,  commissioner instituted a dress code for players going to and from games and to league events. No more tie-dyed shirts and sandals for the younger, more rebellious “street” players. They were professionals, period. David Stern never let them forget that.

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