Exceptional, ruthless

David Stern doesn't fit tidy eulogies


David Stern died. I am sad. I have read the many memories of his being kind, moral, or in love with the game. The easy praise is good today. But it misses the manner in which he was truly remarkable. 

The man was an absolute wizard. Other biographies will note he was from New Jersey. To me, he was from behind a curtain in Oz. David Blaine and David Copperfield (so many Davids!) can kiss Stern’s ass. The magic trick of the century was that a socially odd, five-nine lawyer from Teaneck rearranged every goddamned star in the basketball universe so that only Michael Jordan could rival Stern as the defining character of National Basketball Association history. 

How in the hell did he do that? With brilliance, hard work, vision, and, crucially: ruthlessness. I am sad that he died because he was a human. And he was this complicated character, who meant a lot. However, I’m also sad because his death is proving to be one more occasion to reload the NBA’s howitzers of high-velocity horsecrap. “David built a league with the core values of integrity, teamwork, respect and innovation,” reads one of the dozens of official statements following his death. Ha.

At a breakfast in Manhattan, years ago, one of Stern’s longtime close advisers and friends pointed out the business talent around Stern. People who once worked in the NBA’s league office on Fifth Avenue are now making waves in Silicon Valley, healthcare, or finance. Others were his former deputies Rick Welts and Russ Granik, each of whom was once seen as Stern’s potential successor before some kind of falling out.

The official version of this history: Stern cultivated all this talent, a coaching tree to rival Gregg Popovich’s. The truer version: The NBA attracted a who’s who of young talent because it’s famous—and the real news is that all but the most hardy loyalists left because working with Stern can be overwhelming.

Ian O’Connor’s ESPN Stern story has a simple anecdote from another close colleague, Rod Thorn: “David had this habit of asking you questions he already knew the answers to. One day I was walking down the hall, and he was walking the other way, and he asked me some innocuous question, and I was hemming and hawing about it. He just said, ‘What the hell did I hire you for? You don't know this?’” 

Something along those lines was the real theme of the breakfast, and several follow-up conversations throughout the years. Stern humiliated people. Routinely, and with relish. Often in front of groups. Stern was top class at dressing people down. (If you watched Succession you have a sense of the furious capabilities of Logan Roy, and how silly it would be to describe him as a nice guy.) Stern was super elite at manufacturing the leverage to get people to take his side. This is not the same as being good at choosing the right side. Quitting a job under Stern often only required self-regard.

The first time I ever spoke to Stern one-on-one, he had my call transferred to a low-quality 2003 speakerphone. Who knows what he was really doing on his end, but it sounded like he might have been repairing a lawn mower. For the first many seconds of our call, I attempted various hello hello hellos and heard back nothing but clanking and scraping. So, what was supposed to be a softball conversation about the impending retirement of David Robinson opened, instead, with the commissioner bellowing: “Do you have a real fucking question?”

When the situation called for diplomacy, Stern couldn’t always deliver. The NBA once really was on track to have something called NBA China, a league with stadiums all over the nation with the most basketball fans. It would have been worth many billions. But Stern evidently offended the wrong people and it all fell apart. 

Somewhere in there, Stern and his team were on a private jet to China. Much of the way, according to someone who was there, a consultant schooled Stern and his team in the etiquette of Chinese business. Things like: Present the business card with two hands. Study the card you have been given with interest. Do all of this while standing. (One website says breaking these rules is “tantamount to refusing to shake hands.”) They rehearsed, they landed, and they took a car to a conference room where … Stern, the witness says, took a seat, threw a pile of cards on the table, and bellowed that it was time to start the meeting. “He was the last of the old school,” said a long-time coworker, with a reference to executives like Lee Iacocca, whose management styles have long slipped from favor. No one suggests that China trip was the day that NBA China fell apart—there were other more important missteps—but it is indicative of a man who struggles to believe rules might confine him. 

China is actually a perfect portrait of Stern's way of doing business. Maybe he screwed up the biggest prize, but he was also decades ahead of every other league. The NBA is a big business in China—so big, in fact, that the league can barely speak on the topic of Hong Kong protests. The league may love democracy and freedom, but the league also made enough deals in Beijing that they aren’t really free to discuss freedom of speech.

Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE via Getty Images

“I. Fucking. Hate. Billionaires.” It was late. There were drinks on the table in some lounge of some hotel. We were near the end of one of those long days of the NBA Finals. What made the comment incredible was that the speaker was, at that moment, one of Stern’s longest tenured and most trusted deputies. This was someone who had been in the big meetings, and knew better than to say this kind of thing to a person with a job like mine.

It might seem like a random funny comment, uttered by a guy with regular job stress. But it was also crazy telling. There is an essential tension of the league office: While it appears to be the powerful center of the NBA universe, those Fifth Avenue offices are staffed by people who generally have to take orders from the billionaires who purchase teams. That means the league either does whatever the deep pockets demand, or is forced to mount some kind of resistance, based on leadership, standards, direction, rules, or values. I’ve always felt that in Stern’s NBA, there was a lot of conceding to what the rich people wanted. It seemed that caused private resentment among the people who actually did the work, including this person, late one night.

In the years since, we have learned a lot more about David Stern’s people. There’s a photo of Stern using his charm in holding up a custom “Putin” jersey, alongside Donald Sterling of all people.

Stern’s wizarding skills were never more powerful than this press conference, on July 24, 2007. That summer, there were grave conversations from plugged in people about, potentially, the end of the NBA. Then Stern stood at a lectern before a blue curtain in Manhattan and hypnotized us into believing the Donaghy scandal—possibly the worst moment of Stern’s tenure—was under control all along. He used the phrase “rogue, isolated, criminal.” That July day, Stern laid out how goddamned stable the NBA was, how perfectly they had always managed everything. In a live broadcast, he delivered a tonic to cure the panic threatening the league.

But a lot of it was audacious fiction. Now we know that the NBA had done a terrible job. This is my favorite account. Donaghy was a flagrant and serial offender of practically all rules, starting in school. It’s hard to imagine he’d pass any kind of employment screening. Donaghy was making insane numbers of phone calls to another referee. The league’s lawyers later found that every referee engaged in gambling, typically on horse racing or golf—which sounds innocent enough, but can still get a referee in debt to the wrong people. Every part of the operation, the coverup, and the NBA’s investigation was sloppy as hell. 

By the end of Donaghy’s scandal, the betting was so heavy on his games that half the gambling world figured it out; reportedly, in many cases, bettors who weren’t even on the inside were able to bet along with the conspirators. And yet the NBA was clueless. The FBI was involved, there was talk of fixed games, allegations other referees might be involved, and really just an incredible stench of mismanagement. I’ve never met anyone who knows a lot about sports gambling who believes the NBA did anything particularly well in the Donaghy case. 

What they did amazingly well, was make the scandal go away. While I can’t celebrate Stern for being particularly good, the competence of that press conference was staggering. He put on a good show.

To NBA fans, the draft lottery is a prime source of conspiracy theories. In part to combat that, the TV broadcast features a moment that’s unintentionally funny: the NBA has its head of security—chest puffed out—on the set. He’s introduced as the man who’ll keep an eye on the envelopes that contain the logos that will determine which team gets which pick. One year, I watched from inside the TV studio and had a different view. During the commercial break, the head of security wandered off to yuk it up with coworkers, while the envelopes sat there alone—they were completely unguarded props.

The show of security is bigger than the security. 

In the 2011 lockout, Stern almost won a hard salary cap. It would make life easier, cheaper, and more profitable for the billionaires. It would also be bad for players. But Stern’s story was increasing competitive balance was good for fans. As in, the hard salary cap would make it easier for bad teams to get good. The problem is, economists have studied this and found no evidence to support it. (Eventually the league’s own economist conceded this to me.) This whole line of argument functions largely to trick Joe Sports Fan into siding with billionaires against players. In a press conference during the lockout I asked a question that began “economists say,” and ended up annoying Stern. He dismissed it in vague language, and then the press conference was called quickly to a close. We all rode elevators down to the lobby of what was then called the New York Palace Hotel. 

As I reached the door to the street, the words, “Economists say … FUCK YOU!!” boomed from behind me. I turned, looked back, and who else could it have been? Stern crossed the lobby slowly, smiling through a venomous tirade. (Ethan Strauss is right, Stern loved battling.) I forget all of his exact words, but he said something along the lines of, what was wrong with me to believe these outsiders who have their agendas. They didn’t have the real data, only the NBA did. He basically said science be damned. (And no, the NBA wouldn’t share their data. Many times they used this approach to dismiss real criticism.) 

Then, his whole mood changed like a tantruming child presented ice cream. “Walk me back to the office,” he said. Now we were best friends. It wasn’t far to 645 Fifth Avenue, but it also wasn’t easy. Stern was only months older than my dad, who was running marathons then. But my lasting memory of this day was how much older Stern seemed. More delicate than I had imagined. Here and there, on our short walk, he touched my arm to stabilize himself as he penguin-toddled the curbs of Madison Avenue. And all walk long, he delivered me one insider morsel after another: Union head Billy Hunter wanted to meet again ASAP. The key issues were this or that. He thought they could get a deal soon, but if they didn’t it would be because of this that owner, and so on. 

He had some real game, working over a journalist. He eviscerated me for work that bothered his billionaires. And he presented his personal attention and insight—journalistic gold—as a potential outcome if I remained in his good graces. Lots of carrot, lots of stick. It feels like a mixed message, but really it’s all one message, to do what he wants.

Stern lavished time on his work, and knew everything. He read TrueHoop, appeared on TrueHoop TV, made himself available. (In his post-commissioner career as a venture capitalist he made noises about investing in this latest iteration of TrueHoop; I always took it as one more effort to influence the message. He also sent word that some of this newsletter’s tougher reporting, much disputed at the league office, was dead on.) Once I sat in a conference room at NBA headquarters, interviewing then-deputy commissioner Adam Silver when—surprise!—Stern busted in announcing “I heard we had an esteemed guest!” Stern took a seat; derailed everything we were talking about; ripped me all kinds of ways; complained bitterly about this story, which was bad for NBA owners (but had nothing to do with me); fired at least a dozen comments I took as journalism’s equivalent of brushback pitches; and somehow—was it charm? Godfathering?—made me feel a little lucky by the time I was riding down in the elevator to Fifth Avenue. 

That same year, 2011, Stern told a room full of journalists that he knew where the bodies were buried because he helped bury them. Was it hilarious? A threat? Both? Nobody knew then, nobody knows now. But to me it was certainly designed, like many Stern comments, to intimidate. 

It was all both marvelous and terrible. Before long, I got a phone call from a lawyer who spent a career working with and for NBA team investors, including many on the board of governors. He said this was precisely their experience of Stern. He was a never-ending blur of harsh curses and lavish charm, with all signals pushing toward whatever agenda he sought at the time. He collected strings and he pulled them. And for all of the dirty work he did on behalf of owners, he also stuck it to his bosses when he had to: Ending that 2011 lockout required the support of 17 NBA governors. There were never 17 who liked the deal, but Stern got 17 votes. Sources say many of them came straight from Stern’s Lyndon Johnson skillset of using all of his leverage to whip votes. (Interestingly, the reprehensible Donald Sterling, they say, voted with Stern on everything.) When people say we owe Stern for the state of the league, it’s true.

Women are an essential topic of Stern’s tenure—one of his accomplishments was creating the WNBA, which comes up a lot in his obituaries. But also, while things have changed, the league has long felt like a place that’s very good at making creeps feel safe, and so-so at doing the same for women. Jerry Buss kept disgusting binders full of the much-younger women he dated and became perhaps the most influential of all NBA governors under Stern’s watch. Harvey Weinstein was close to James Dolan, who is still the Knicks’ governor. Jeffrey Epstein traveled in the same circles as several NBA governors. Donald Sterling would later emerge as shockingly reprehensible on topics of women and race, but only got in trouble with the league once Stern retired. Stern personally and vociferously defended the league’s bringing on Mikhail Prokhorov. That oligarch had really only ever been in the news at that point for traveling to France with a collection of much younger women that nobody disputes were present to party with Prokhorov and his rich male friends. What’s still in dispute is whether or not French investigators overstepped bounds in making arrests based on concerns about sex trafficking. But he was fine in Stern’s NBA; they tried to keep them off camera, but Prokhorov showed up at Nets games with similar hoards of young women in tow; it seemed weird to Nets employees.

It’s not hard to make a case that Stern was one of the planet’s all-time defenders and empowerers of creeps. And yet, Dawn Staley is for sure one of the globe’s great badass, empowered, next-generation, no-bullshit women, and she tweets:

How could Stern earn praise like that? One read is he stood for something. He used his bully pulpit to force just enough of his billionaires to invest, at a long-term loss, in the WNBA. Maybe because of some deep core conviction and decency, maybe because he leveraged his way into some moral high ground. I can’t help but notice that those who know Stern best are praising him for a lot, but they are not calling him a leader on issues of gender or race.

Things were just as tricky on race. When Stern took over the league in 1984, the American public had never really embraced anything so black-dominated as basketball. On his retirement tour, he said openly that his key accomplishment was getting America to embrace the sport across racial lines. 

Stern did a lot to improve the business, which sometimes looked like appeasing racists. His NBA airbrushed tattoos off Allen Iverson’s body on the cover of the league’s official magazine. I personally witnessed a league executive pleading with Kevin Garnett to remove his earring before appearing in an ESPN commercial. After the Malice in the Palace (which looked, on video, something like a race riot) the league didn’t do anything obvious to make players safer from the audience. But they did hire at least one Republican political consultant. The fallout included, amazingly, a dress code for players. Clothing blatantly had nothing to do with causing the violence; it seemed to be a play to appease fans with the racist idea that young black men, dressed as they see fit, might be problematic or scary.

It’s a sociological dumpster fire. And also, a deal that Stern cut. I’ll say this: He lived in reality. A lot of America is racist. Was somebody else better at getting white audiences to embrace black athletes? Is a dress code really so terrible?

It’s all a very slippery slope, with no heroes. I read a lot into it when players say vague things like “it’s a business,” when discussing the league. To me they are saying that it’s transactional, right to its very core. 

Through the years, a lot of people have told me terrible, caustic, rough things that Stern has done or said. It’s something of an NBA parlor game. Did you hear the latest? But even his harshest critics maintain affection for him. One source really admired that all the money Stern made never went to his head. He stayed living in the same house, kept his marriage strong, was an involved father. He donated to good causes. Sometimes you could feel that guy. 

At one point during the lockout, I ended up in an upstairs hallway of the Waldorf Astoria hotel, talking to Silver and Stern. An older woman appeared in floor-length fur, a figure from the 1940s, missing only a cigarette holder. She interrupted Stern, demanding to know if we boys could please direct her to the Starlight Room. I thought he might rip her head off. 

But instead, he instantly transformed into a boy doing a kindness for some aunt. In the most comfortable way imaginable, he leaned in, smiled, and I can’t remember if he walked her to the end of the hallway or not, but he certainly made sure she knew exactly how to get to the Starlight Room. She was delighted.

Next week on TrueHoop: David Thorpe proposes big trades.