David Stern was here for Sacramento’s first NBA breaths, and three decades later he effectively ended his reign with a red-carpet stroll down the steps and into Sleep Train Arena.
His last significant accomplishment was a gift to our city. He brought the Kings here, and with a ton of help from his friends – the mayor, the owner, the community – he kept the Kings here. He retired Saturday, officially succeeded by Adam Silver, but he won’t be forgotten.
“The commissioner created a league powerful enough to transform a city like Sacramento,” Mayor Kevin Johnson said, “and he created an enterprise that allowed a poor boy from Oak Park to realize his dreams. And for that, I’ll forever be thankful.”
In the final months and even years, Stern repeatedly and stubbornly rolled up his sleeves – cajoling, instructing, pressuring, resisting, leading, facilitating – and protected one of his enduring franchises from being poached by Anaheim, Las Vegas and, most recently, Seattle.
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But when we talk about Stern’s legacy? While it ends here, his imprint extends all over the globe. New York, Beijing, Barcelona, Russia, Argentina, China and, soon enough, India. This is not our parents’ NBA, nor our parents’ world.
During these last 30 years – and Stern was a power player during his tenure as executive vice president under Larry O’Brien – immensely important conversations about HIV took place in gyms and locker rooms; the most enduring women’s professional sports league (WNBA) was conceived and nurtured; the number of franchises increased from 23 to 30; the league morphed from irrelevance to becoming a $5.5 billion global industry; and racial inclusiveness became a mandate and then a reality.
“For women athletes and women’s sports, I don’t think there has been any bigger contributor than David Stern,” said Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA and now commissioner of the Big East Conference. “But the WNBA is just one way he has linked sports and society, whether it be regarding race, technology or globalization. David just knew the NBA had to be there.”
There have been turbulent and troubled times, and the opening days of the Stern Era were particularly difficult. Playoff games were televised on tape delay. Several franchises were financially strapped, with at least one (Utah Jazz) scheduling several home games in another city. The notion of marketing players was in its infancy, with individual sponsorships nonexistent.
Yet aided by the fortuitous presence of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, the transformation began. Stern, consistently partnering with combative National Basketball Players Association director Larry Fleisher, pressed for drug testing and a salary cap, rooted out problematic owners, improved the network television contracts and oversaw the 1989-90 influx of international stars Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Sasha Volkov, Zarko Paspalj and a young Serb named Vlade Divac.
NBA players soon became eligible for World Championships and Olympics, which led to formation of the 1992 Dream Team that featured Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Bird and Magic, who retired months earlier after being diagnosed with HIV.
When several players and some league executives expressed concerns about the possibility of contracting the disease from the Lakers star during a game, Stern contacted the leading authorities, finished his homework and engaged in an educational blitz.
“It was new to us,” said USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo, the Phoenix Suns president at the time. “When your players start asking questions and you don’t have answers, it’s very scary. But David addressed the matter and educated all of us. That’s just another example of his incredible leadership.”
For those who know Stern, his response comes as no surprise. The NBA was his cause, not just his job. Magic was his guy, not just his employee.
Stern, a former civil rights attorney who has more layers than a wedding cake, never pretended to preside over a democracy. It was his way or his way. He overpowered his adversaries, even his owners on many occasions, with intellect and innovative business acumen and a personal style that could be ruthless and blunt or charismatic and disarming. League employees and journalists experienced his charm and his wrath; if you wrote it and he didn’t like it, he called and complained.
But he also called when a parent died, explored cutting-edge health care for ailing employees or their relatives, and always seemed to enjoy conversation about daily life. Once, when he called me at home and overheard my Maltese yapping at a squirrel in the front yard, he stopped in mid-sentence.
“So what’s your dog’s name, anyway?” Stern asked, chuckling.
As Kings president Chris Granger noted, his former boss is a prober, curious and engaging by nature, and was intimately involved in all league developments. Labor negotiations. Marketing plans. Regional television deals. Dress codes. Legal issues pertaining to relocations.
Stern, 71, undoubtedly has regrets, among them two bruising work stoppages and the departure of the SuperSonics from Seattle. Not that he didn’t try. He implored Seattle billionaire Steve Ballmer to buy the franchise when Howard Schultz announced plans to sell in 2006. Instead, the Sonics were sold to Clay Bennett, given two more years, and then packed up and moved to Oklahoma City.
But the Kings? Ballmer didn’t get them, either, thanks to Johnson, principal owner Vivek Ranadive and his ownership group, a more agreeable political climate, and Stern, who for a final time dug his loafers into Sacramento soil.
“It was very clear that David had a great respect for the history and the ability of the community to support a team,” said Granger, who worked for Stern for several years at league headquarters. “Drama or no drama, that fact did not escape anyone, so I’m not sure the decision (the owners’ vote to keep the Kings here) was a surprise.”
Stern won’t completely disappear; he will be a consultant to the league on global development and other matters.
But he will be missed. The smirk, the smile, the brilliance, the social conscience, the humor. He will be missed.