Last month I had the chance to sit down with NBA Commissioner and Rutgers grad David Stern. With Sunday being the 25th anniversary of him becoming the NBA commish, I felt I should put up the interview. He talks Rutgers, the NBA and if he misses being a fan.
Mike Vorkunov: Why did you choose Rutgers over other schools?
David Stern: Well I really at the time, and I’m not sure that students today could relate to it, I wanted to go to a campus school. And the other ones I had looked at were in cities
MV: What were the other ones you considered?
DS: I was actually between Rutgers and the University of Pennsylvania. Those were the two. And I actually loved the Heights, and loved the river and loved the Quads and Winants Hall and the beautiful old places. And having grown up in New York City, I really wanted to do something that was a campus. Now so much of it has been filled in and constructed that it bears no resemble to September of 1959. Oh my God, which is getting to be 40 years ago.
MV: Do you remember your first days on campus?
DS: I remember my first day on campus, I do. Because I remember my dad actually took a day off from the delicatessen to drive me there. Wessels 211.
MV: That was your freshman dorm?
DS: Yeah. Is it still there?
MV: Yeah it’s part of the quads.
DS: Yup. There were rooms that were supposed to fit two people but they had three in there. And we met my freshman roommate from Hammonton, New Jersey. Who I don’t think had been much further north than Newark. I can’t say that I had been much further south than Newark. Along with my other roommate who was from Teaneck, same as I was, and we were off and running.
MV: I bet the room was a far cry from your office now.
DS: Well it was a little smaller. By those standards I’d say we could put six people in here. But it was fun and I enjoyed it very much.
MV: So how did you spend your time as an undergrad? Were you studying a lot? Go out on the town?
DS: A lot of poker. A lot of gin rummy. A lot of crazy eights. It was a fair amount of sports. We ate a lot. We goofed around a lot and we did a little studying.
MV: What are your fondest memories as an undergrad at the University?
DS: It’s hard for me to, all I can say is that I remember I was still 16 when I started.
MV: Why so young?
DS: I just had skipped a year in New York. And I’ve always been grateful to Rutgers because my fondest memories are some combination of growing up, both personally and academically. We had Henry Winkler lecturing on the rise and fall of Nazism. We had Peter Corrones lecturing on Greek and Roman civilization. I had a professor over at Douglass, Smith Palmer Bolvie, who talked about the Greek classics and the issue of whether or not we had souls. And it was just an opportunity to sample the academic world at a time when I don’t think I was mature enough to appreciate what the opportunity was. But it wasn’t greatly pressured and we had a good time. And we learned.
MV: Is there anything that you learned, whether it was from a professor or general knowledge, that you still use today?
DS: You know it’s interesting, to me, it’s hard to segment one thing because it’s a continuum but I’ve always considered myself to be who I am because of my Rutgers sort of travels. Some would say education but I would say travels and my Columbia Law School travels. I was in a fraternity. Learned some things about management. I unsuccessfully ran for something, I forget what it was, trying to capitalize on someone else’s name who was Stern who was the Vice President. I got to know professors, became a Henry Rutgers scholar. All of that, how to apply oneself. Even when I got through with the cards and everything else, in order to make it in Rutgers you’ve got to settle down and do some work. And that to me is the beginning of training of how to get the job done and focusing on the details. And Rutgers taught me that.
MV: What fraternity were you in?
DS: Sigma Alpha Mu
MV: You were on the Board of Overseers, are you still involved with the University in any way?
DS: Well I’m now emeritus on the Foundation board and I’m in regular contact with the President on issues where I might be helpful. I’m a distance removed from New Brunswick but because of my travels I’ve met with and the NBA’s international aspirations and Rutgers international aspirations, I’ve met with various deans and development departments and the President. And I guess it was last year I did an event for Rutgers here, for alums, in New York City. So I try to be helpful and connected as much as I can.
MV: Is it still the same Rutgers you went to as an undergrad or has it changed?
DS: Well I actually gave a speech there, I think two or three years ago. It’s a great, big, quite successful university with I think appropriate aspirations to be one of the top state universities in the country and I applaud those aspirations. And it’s just so big and so much larger than anything I can remember that I recognize that that’s the way of the world but it’s hard for me to adjust to, in a funny way.
MV: Do you still follow any of the athletic programs, just keep an eye on them?
DS: I do.
MV: Do you follow the basketball and the football programs?
DS: I follow the basketball and the football programs. I did a video, maybe it was a brochure, to help recruiting that said “ I went to Rutgers and it got me into the NBA.” I was trying to help the basketball department but I’m not sure I did.
MV: So what do you think of the success that the women’s basketball program, the football program have had the last few years?
DS: I’m in touch with Vivian Stringer, who I think represents Rutgers wonderfully. And I obviously follow the men’s team. And I follow the football team’s dismal start and wonderful turnaround and bowl victory. So that’s kind of neat. I’m proud of the programs.
MV: Do you go to any of the games?
DS: I don’t.
MV: Just don’t have the time?
DS: I don’t. Talk about a busman’s holiday. [ Laughs]
MV: Recently the athletic director Bob Mulcahy was dismissed from his job. Do you have any opinions on that?
DS: Not that I would care to render because the President is a friend and Bob Mulcahy is an even older friend. I’ve known him for a number of years and I think they’re both good men.
MV: Would it mean anything for the NBA to have a successful and thriving college program in the tri-state area and the New York City area with Seton Hall and Rutgers and St. John’s?
DS: Yeah. I think that all sports are good for other sports. And I think that it would be nice for NYC. You know we have players in the league from Rider…
MV: Jason Thompson
DS: Right. I grew up in New York following Seton Hall with players whose names you wouldn’t remember. St. John’s, the same way. Rutgers. NYU, back in the day. And even Columbia used to have a pretty significant program, pre-NBA players. So I think it’s great if there’s good basketball in New York City. And it used to be spectacular at the high school level, and it still is. So to see good high school level, college level and pro teams, I think they feed off one another.
MV: When you graduated Rutgers, or even Columbia or when you started working for the NBA as a general counsel, did you ever think you would be in this position?
DS: No, no. I graduated Rutgers and I went to law school. The joke then was if you didn’t like the sight of blood, you couldn’t be a doctor. And if your numbers were bad, you couldn’t be an engineer. I barely got through freshman calculus. Somebody kept me up all night to get me through it. And so if you didn’t want to go out and get a real job, you went to law school. Law school was another journey that allowed me to grow up. When I left law school I went to work for a law firm which I was happy to get the job at and didn’t really know they represented the NBA. So my travels in basketball have been serendipitous. I withdrew from the firm after 12 years to become a general counsel. And fully expected to go back to the firm after two or three years and didn’t.
MV: What was it that made you stick with the NBA and what you were doing and not go back?
DS: It was just an enormously pleasing puzzle to try to put together. I worked for Larry O’Brien when I was at the firm. And he became commissioner in 1975. He asked me to join him in 1978 and he was commissioner until 1984. And we were 23 people. We were a small business. And gradually under Larry’s leadership we branched out, we began to get bigger, we solved problems. And here was this living breathing, I thought, potentially dynamic organization that had a lot of growth and opportunity. So I stayed.
MV: In 1978 when he asked you to help him and when you first took over as commissioner, with all the problems that were plaguing the NBA at the time, you had some thoughts about the players having drug issues and the games being tape delayed. Did you ever think the NBA could become what it is now, a multi-national corporation?
DS: No, I didn’t. I wish I could say I had a plan, but I didn’t. The plan was to get through the day and take advantage of each opportunity. And protect the league and the players as best we could.
MV: So there was no outline?
DS: There was no outline, nope.
MV: Was it just kind of ad-hoc, see what comes up everyday?
DS: Well, no. I think you set a path: you want to increase attendance, you want to increase television, you want to see if there are opportunities in licensing and sponsorship, you want to make sure that your public relations - which is now called communications - was handled in an appropriate fashion. And then you watch other business developments and you see what international - it used to be called international, now it’s globalization - offers. And you surround yourself with people who are maybe even smarter and work harder than you do and then you just sort of bang off of each other. You keep on this generalized path of developing each of your strengths and then you have an opportunity to do something, you do it. Then all of a sudden you had a plan.
MV: Over these years how would you describe yourself as a commissioner? An overseer? Hand-on? CEO? Combination of all?
DS: I would say I am a hands-on CEO. Some would say I’m a micro-managing pain in the neck. And some place in the middle. If I ever wrote a book, which I won’t, I would call it “Intermittent Micro-management is Underrated.” But there is so much going on, the beauty of this place is that micro-management is impossible because we’ve got 1000 people that are doing so many different things in all of the areas I mentioned and more that what I’ve learned over the years is you’ve got to hire people and let them do their jobs. And you occasionally check in, you generally oversee, you periodically do review when they are necessary. But it’s all about the people of the NBA.
MV: What do you think has caused the NBA to grow from where it was 25 years ago to where it is now?
DS: The game. I mean that down to my socks. It’s a great game. It has global appeal. It has been an Olympic sport since 1936. In which Olympics the Chinese entered a team, thereby giving rise to the notion I think in China that they invented the game. And it’s a game that has attracted some of the most gifted athletes in the history of the United States and actually the history of the world. And it’s relatively simple to understand. It’s easily played, whether you’re bouncing the ball yourself, two-on-two, or five on five. And over the years it’s come, almost on its own momentum, to represent a kind of diverse welcoming sport that is open to all, easily attained by all, and probably as best symbolized by the 1971 Knicks. Whether you came from Princeton and Missouri like Bradley or you came from Louisiana and Grambling as in Willis Reed, “Hey you got game? Come on out.” And the fans loved it, so I think it’s a very egalitarian place for fans and players alike. The difference for the fans is some sit nosebleed and some sit courtside but their opinions are equally valid and they express them with the same ferocity.
MV: Were you always a basketball fan or has it grown on you?
DS: I’ve always been a basketball fan. I grew up in the New York area.
MV: So a Knicks fan?
DS: Knick fan. From Sweetwater Clifton to Harry Gallatin to Ray Felix to guys you never heard of. Carl Braun, Jimmy Baechtold, Kenny Sears, Ron Sobieszczyk, Richie Guerin. I lived and died with the Knicks. Mostly died.
MV: I feel the same way.
DS: But it was the same thing, St. John’s was ruling the roost with Coach Carneseca or Joe Lapchick, but was doing great. Seton Hall I think had a player by the name of Walter Dukes. NYU had the great teams with Barry Kramer. So I was a basketball fan. I think I went to one football game once, at the Polo Grounds I don’t even know why I remember, with the Giants playing. Hockey, never. Baseball, yes, I was a New York Giants fan. So I was Knicks and Giants.
MV: So when the Giants left town…
DS: They broke my heart. No, I became a Mets fan then. But I gave up on the Mets then when they got rid of Seaver, but that was many years later.
MV: So was it awe-inspiring when you started working here and here are the guys you’re rooting for and you’re a fan of and you get to meet them or you’re working with them somehow?
DS: It’s funny, it was for a while but given the press of litigation, it got to be the point when you get involved in the game itself, you get to a game and you begin to root that there won’t be an injury, that the referees won’t blow a call, that there won’t be a fight, that the signs work or won’t fall down. So basically there was so much litigation involving the union and the league that I look at some of them as depositions I took. I took five days deposing Bill Bradley, my Princeton hero. So it’s just an interesting phenomenon. I still love the game, but I recognize that it has more beauty and value on a global scale then we even contemplated but you do get distracted by counting the game and checking attendance and a variety of other business related things that make it less fun. And of course you can’t yell as a commissioner. So you have to do that in the study at home, screaming at your flat-screen adobe-surround sound, which can’t yell back so it’s terrific.
MV: Do you ever wish you had a chance to just watch a game as a fan and not care as you do as a commissioner?
DS: Well I had a chance to do that, like at the Olympics. It was great. I was rooting as an American. Even that came with some risk as of the 36 players who went the medal stand, 26 of them including players from Argentina and Spain had NBA experience. I allowed myself the luxury of being an American so as a result I rooted unabashedly for the American team. So I get those occasional opportunities in the World Championships and the Olympics.
MV: No wishes that you could just go to the Garden as a fan, get a seat and just root for the Knicks?
DS: Yeah, well over the years I’m not the Knick fan that I was. Over the years I’m totally, to the extend I root privately, it’s more for underdogs, more for teams that are doing badly, that have suffered injuries, that are getting bad breaks. I sort of view all 30 teams as my teams. Also, I do marvel at the beauty of it. When Magic and Larry were roaming the court as only they could. When Michael was doing it. When the youngsters today, the class of 2004: LeBron, Carmelo, D-Wade - I kid Chris Paul “What are you chopped liver? Why aren‘t you on the cover of Sports Illustrated?” I happen to think he’s as good as any of them and he’s a nice young man, they all are. So I get my kicks differently. I root for our players to demonstrate their expertise. I root for the growth of the game and its effectiveness and things like NBA Cares. Or focusing on diet, exercise, healthy living and the harmony that comes from the teamwork of the game. I’m sort of a displaced fan and I’m a fan of the game in a much broader way than I was.
MV: With the way you root for the game, what would be an ideal NBA season for you?
DS: An ideal NBA season is every game sold out. OK. Referees have 100 percent accuracy. No debilitating injuries, no fights. Excellent TV ratings. But most importantly, people getting an appreciation for the world’s greatest athletes playing at the highest level in an intense fashion that I don’t think is duplicated any place in the world.
MV: Over the last 25 years with the way the NBA has grown, what events do you think are the most unnoticed but the most responsible for the way that you’ve grown?
DS: Well I really do believe that the players’ connections to the fans through their charitable work, through their community involvement, through their taking the time to visit with fans, stop, sign, do whatever they do, is the most important. Because how people feel about you is as important as what they think about you. And I think our players do well. That said, there’s always going to be an incident of some kind. A player gets stopped, he doesn’t have his license. A youngster or not-so-youngster gets stopped for driving under the influence and that makes headlines. But overall I think who our players are, where they come from, and what they do for their teams and their communities is little noticed but is fundamentally responsible for many of the positive attitudes. And the other things are just a confluence of events. Our TV has grown dramatically, not the NBA alone but every sport, every outlet. And sports is so important there. Arenas have been refashioned, remodeled, rebuilt in an incredible way and I think that’s important. And globalization and sports, again, being at the intersection of the breakdown of barriers. It’s a lot of different things that have contributed to this tremendous growth.
MV: Have there been any setback or crises where when they happened you just thought “Uh, I don’t know how we’re going to deal with this or how are we going to get over this?”
DS: Sure. We were shut down for half a year in a work stoppage. We had a major referee scandal with respect to jail time for referees. We’ve had opportunities for the media to characterize our players unfairly. All of them, when we had an incident like Ron Artest and the Pacers and the Pistons in the Palace. No shortage of opportunities for us to pull up the gang plank and say “Circle the wagons” or whatever other metaphor I wanna use. But again, it’s the game. It’s been here before us and it’s going to be here after us and so we will be harshly judged if we don’t do what we have to do to take care of it.
MV: Is there a formula you use to take care of it or is just what the situation dictates?
DS: I would say it is scramble time. There are some more colorful expressions one might use but I don’t think that would be well-advised to be printed in the Daily Targum. It’s sort of when you’re skiing and you’re completely out of control and everyone is [ laughing] “OK, the rules of the jungle apply. Just do whatever you have to do to stop.” When you go into DEFCON 2 you do what you have to do. But obviously you have certain principles that you’re protecting so you’re never quite as scrambled as you might appear to be. The problem is, in fact, we appear to be well organized and we’re more scrambled than we are well organized, but there’s some combination of the two that’s the right approach.
MV: Is there any moment that stands out to you in your time with the NBA?
DS: There is a collection and I really mean it. One of the things that stands out to me is when Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive. That was different for us because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And we thought that sports infrastructure and the whole league might be at risk completely. When there’s a brawl, you begin to deal with the aftermath. When you announce new rules, you do punishment, etc. When there is a scandal with respect to refereeing, you do what you think you have to do to become more transparent, change procedures, open yourself up. When you have a lockout, you fear but you know what the risks are and you negotiate but you prepare for the worst, etc. Back in 1991 when Magic was announced as HIV positive, we didn’t have a game plan. Nothing else to go by. We were very concerned. We educated ourselves, we learned. We actually think that Magic Johnson had more to do with the change in attitude on AIDS in this country than any other person. And the fact that he was a basketball player was an important part of that and we learned and we came through it. But I think that was one that we were hugely concerned about because if our players refused to play with Magic, which they grumbled about but openly didn’t refuse, we didn’t know whether that obligated us to test all of our players. Which of course was not a legal option. And we just didn’t know what the impact was of how one could transmit the AIDS virus. It was so far beyond our pay grades that we just gathered in ourselves and hired as many experts as we could to advise us and direct us and push us and push back at us. And on a human scale, Magic is alive and doing well. In 1991, we were virtually certain that wouldn’t be the case. So we are so delighted with the outcome.
MV: Was that especially troubling because there was such a negative social stigma to it that when you have a fight or you have a lockout it can be seen in a lockout but this is so much more than that.
DS: It wasn’t because of the social stigma actually, it was because of the science and the medicine that we didn’t understand. And so as a result we felt enormously threatened by our ignorance. It was social in this following sense, the last public that I recall was a youngster in Indiana by the name of Ryan White, who was not allowed to go to school because he was HIV positive because of a transfusion because he was a hemophiliac and America really didn’t know how to respond. Magic changed the debate. A beloved face with a great smile. A world renowned professional athlete became an AIDS educator. So, yes. It could have gone the other way but it didn’t.
MV: So when he came back five years later after that, was that something you could trumpet as a victory for the league?
DS: Nah, we didn’t trumpet. We tend to breathe sighs of relief rather than toot the trumpets.
MV: What’s your typical day? Does it change daily, is it consistent?
DS: There is no such thing as a typical day. Maybe it’s that right now, when I throw you out, I’m gonna go to my direct reports meeting in the next room. Some days it’s our senior staff meeting. It’s lots of phone calls. Loads of emails. Preparing for sponsorship presentations. Worrying about licensee negotiations. Dealing with international. Getting briefed by some of my colleagues heading off to the Middle East. Getting reports about European leagues and some of the difficulties they’re having. It is talking to owners, I had three phone calls with owners today. A phone call with an owner of a European team. A phone call with our NCAA collaboration to deal with youth basketball. An internal meeting over affiliation agreements for our NBATV and our NBA Digital, in which we’re partnered with Turner down in Atlanta. I mean it’s a huge discussion with counsel about drug testing and lobbying. It’s varied as it could be. Occasionally I get to talk about the game and officiating. Met with General Johnson, our new head of officials, just to see how he’s doing because he’s relatively new.
MV: You’ve said you don’t want to break the record for longest time as a commissioner, so have you started thinking about your legacy and what you want to do in your final few years? Does it even matter to you?
DS: Nope, it doesn’t. Because my entire time here has been dealing with the issues and the opportunities and protecting the game. That’s it and we don’t worry about legacies here.
MV: By giving yourself somewhat of a deadline, does it make you want to accomplish some goals?
DS: No. Because the beauty of this sport is… Larry O’Brien wrote a book, “No Final Victories.” That’s the beauty of this sport, it will just continue to evolve. There’ll be opportunities, there will be failures. And someone else will be responsible for doing it and taking care of it and protecting it.