SBJ/Jan. 20-26, 2014/In Depth

Recollections about the commish

Sports executives share their thoughts and memorable moments about David Stern

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“The day after we did the deal [to buy the Philadelphia 76ers], April 19, 1996, I take the train up to New York. I
Pat Croce and Stern at the 1996 draft lottery
Photo by: NBAE / Getty Images
want to pay my respects to the king. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t try to do it overnight. It’s going to take time. You are going to have to fit pieces in. Be smart, be lucky and surround yourself with smart people who don’t mind working hard.’

“So it was about an hour talk at his desk and as we were finishing, I stood up and I picked up this small Spalding/NBA clock from his desk and I told him, ‘I am going to keep this as a memento and when you give me the NBA championship trophy, I will give this back to you.’

“In June 2001, we are in the Finals against the Lakers and he calls me and says, ‘I want my clock back.’ He remembers everything.”

Pat Croce
Former Philadelphia 76ers co-owner and president



“To show you how he can really get people engulfed in his wig of activities apart from the NBA — we’d been partners for about three years and had become really good friends. We had traveled together with our wives. He always joked about what a WASP Ebersol was. He called and asked if I would come over to the office. So I went
Photo by: Getty Images
over to the office and he was sitting there with Russ Granik.

“He said, ‘Here’s what we would like you to do. We want you to be the chairman of the fundraising for the annual Bonds for Israel drive.’

“On one hand, I thought, ‘Oh, my God. What the heck is he getting me into?’ On the other hand, I went, ‘Wow. What a compliment that he thinks that I can do this.’

“So there I was chairing and then president over the Bonds for Israel dinner in New York a couple of months later.”

Dick Ebersol
Former chairman of NBC Sports



“As the world of professional sports knows and admires, David Stern is both a visionary and a great marketing force in the industry. However, what some people may not know is that David has a tremendous depth of understanding and warmth for his good friends, which are many.

“One small example comes to mind where a few years ago I had a serious operation in London, and when I returned to New York, David called and asked how I was feeling and could we have breakfast together later that week. We scheduled a breakfast for a Thursday at 8:30 a.m. in New York, and as David was driving into New York, he was hit by a continuous rainstorm out on the Island. He literally called me three or four times to tell me that, despite the bad weather and slow traffic, he was still coming to meet me for breakfast to see how I was feeling. He arrived at 11:15 (almost three hours delayed), and we still had a fun and lively breakfast! But David was determined to visit and kibitz with me, in order to see firsthand how I was recovering from my eight-hour operation in London.”

Donald Dell
Group president, Lagardère Unlimited



“David has a great sense of humor. Every year at the draft I send him an email grading his appearance. He will respond with some wisecrack; that his suit was a little tight, that he had on a great tie, etc. One thing I admire is that there was a period when we were in litigation with WGN and he never allowed it to become personal. It was always a business disagreement that ultimately got worked out and never carried into other dealings. A lot of people who have business disagreements want to make it personal.”

Jerry Reinsdorf
Chairman, Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox



“David has this ability to either intimidate you or make you feel comfortable. Fortunately for me, he made me feel comfortable. He turned to me at one point and asked what I wanted to do with my career. I said I might want to run one of his teams one day and he looked at [former NBA league executive] Rick Welts and said, ‘Why do young people with talent always set their sights so low?’

“Rick and I just started laughing. He knew I was considering moving over to the NFL. And he said, ‘I will tell you one thing. I guarantee you are not going to spend an hour and a half talking to Paul Tagliabue.’

“He will always be the guy who took a 30-year-old and gave him the opportunity to run everything the NBA was doing in Asia. I always appreciated the opportunity.”

Tom Fox
Former executive at Gatorade, Nike and the NBA and current chief commercial officer for Arsenal FC in the English Premier League



“It was in the fall of 2011 after an all-day and all-night CBA session and reporters had been waiting all day for a comment. We came outside at midnight to a media scrum and David and I both spoke. Afterward, we were walking toward Madison Avenue on the Upper East Side to meet our cars and saw [ESPN reporter] Henry Abbott walking around the corner with a big bag of coffee and doughnuts. He had missed us. He said that he had been waiting all day for a comment and thought he had 10 minutes and was getting coffee for everyone. David said right there that we were going to re-create what we had just said after we had just been in a 12-hour session. So we stood on the corner of 61st and Madison and with a twinkle in his eye, David literally said exactly to Henry what he said earlier to the gathered media.

“David was always mindful that there is a large, extended family dependent on the NBA running well and that it wasn’t just about what he needed to do, but that it required lots of interrelated and often independent people doing their jobs — even if they didn’t always agree with him.”

Adam Silver
NBA Deputy Commissioner



“David knows how to push people’s buttons. He knows how to push different buttons with different people to motivate them. It was the way he set the tone and really I grew to admire that. You just had to have your act together. I would pull new hires aside and give them the David speech. Like you knew when Karl Malone is coming down the lane and you have to stand there and take the charge? David will come down that lane sometimes, so you always have to be ready. But if you set right, you will get the call, in either case.”

Terry Lyons
Former longtime NBA executive



“David asked me if I wanted to be on the NBA labor committee and be in on the battle. He told me that it would entail all-night meetings, but what he essentially told me was, ‘Peter, I need some new meat.’
“I said, ‘You’ve got yourself a new man.’

“David was right about needing a small-market team represented on that committee. He always understood that there had to be parity in the league.”

Peter Holt
San Antonio Spurs owner and current chairman of the NBA board of governors



“When I was working at an ad agency on the Miller beer account, we had an NBA sponsorship. I was a young media buyer, and David was always very nice to me because I was a client. I then went to Turner and was part of selling the NBA to advertisers.

“At some point early in my career, my assistant said, ‘Commissioner Stern is on the phone for you.’

“I was nervous because I had never been called by him before. I also was a little excited. I got on the phone and he gave me an earful on something — I don’t remember the topic — and I had some answers for him. I remember getting some harsh words from him and being a little bummed out about it. After I hung up, I remember thinking, ‘That was pretty cool. I just got yelled at by David Stern.’”

Mark Lazarus
Chairman, NBC Sports



Photo by: AP Images
“He would get so detailed. I was in charge of special events. We finally got to the point where we couldn’t let his frustration build up at the event so we put a phone next to his seat in the arena and it would go to my seat at the scorer’s table. It was like a Batphone. When he’d get upset he’d pick up the phone and he’d vent or tell me what was wrong at that moment or what was right. That is how he operated. He’d force you to look at everything.”

Steve Mills
Former NBA league executive and current president and general manager of the New York Knicks



“David is persistent, passionate and fearless. He is so passionate about his brand. He had my home phone number and used it to call me on weekends, not in a calm voice, but in a demanding voice when he didn’t like something, like our promos for the NBA.”

David Levy
President of Turner Broadcasting System



“Having been a thorn in his side for 30 years, with age he has mellowed a little bit. From the first time I met him, you could not help but sense his intelligence and deep understanding of every issue, from every perspective. We were on opposite ends of every issue, but I always had the greatest respect and admiration for him as a person and a commissioner. Even though we disagreed often, you always knew that everything he championed was for the betterment of the sport. What was revealing about him as a person was that no matter the net result of the issue, he always maintained that incredible sense of humor and humanity.”

Arn Tellem
Vice chairman, Wasserman Media Group



“During one point in Michael Jordan’s career, his name and likeness were already promised to Nike and not the NBA
Rick Welts shares a moment with Stern in 2003 while with the Phoenix Suns.
Photo by: NBAE / Getty Images
and it was very problematic. We had one consummate meeting to bring everyone together. Phil Knight had flown in, and David Falk and Russ Granik were there. David made an entrance and the meeting was three minutes. He stormed out of the room and left the rest of us sitting there thinking, ‘Holy cow, what are we going to do?’
“It was big theater, but it was not without its ramifications as we tried to resolve the differences with Nike. It was one of those moments. None of us could imagine doing it.

“There has never been anyone like him and there never will be anyone like him. He has this reputation of being volatile and tough, but that is more than balanced by this incredibly compassionate side to him that is known by anyone who has ever worked for him.”

Rick Welts
President, Golden State Warriors



“When we were negotiating [the 1999 CBA] I was chairing the owners’ committee and in the middle of the night I got a call from David and he said we were close to a deal. He told me I was always trying to nickel and dime him. It was 2 or 3 in the morning, but he did listen to me. He finally said that ‘you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.’ His style is to bust you in the chops, but underneath he is very caring about the league. No one has worked harder in building up a sport.”

Gordon Gund
Former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and former board of governors chairman



“David Stern was the first modern commissioner in the way we know sports leagues now. He was the first commissioner with the whole package. He didn’t just transform the NBA, he set a template as to how to function if you were running a league.”

Gary Bettman
NHL commissioner and former NBA executive



Stern presents Micky Arison with his championship ring in 2012.
Photo by: Getty Images
“The one thing you think of with David is that he is a screamer. One of the more humorous things happened during collective bargaining, where he has a keen ability to raise his voice and get very animated. The one thing that flashes is when Dwyane Wade yelled back at him and the surprise he had at a player yelling at him. He can be a very intimidating figure until you get to know him and realize that it is really part of the show.”

Micky Arison
Owner, Miami Heat



“We are all creatures of habit, and at all the board meetings David would sit at one end of the table and I sat on the other, and I thought he was extraordinary in how he conducted the business of the NBA. He was dealing with a lot of egos and personal agendas and getting people to speak with one voice. That in and of itself took great skill. I remember vividly many of the CBA negotiations where he showed great leadership with his legal acumen, his toughness, but his fairness in those negotiations.”

Jerry Colangelo
Former owner, Phoenix Suns, and current chairman, USA Basketball



“It was always very challenging working for David. He drove himself as hard or harder than anyone else. I think some of those early years in some ways were the most enjoyable because they were the most challenging. I think we all recognized that it was a neat thing to be so young and run the NBA.”

Russ Granik
Former NBA deputy commissioner



“David is far from mellow. When I first met him, I was scared to death of him. He was a little radical for me. He has this quirky way of being abrupt and whatever, but he always kept his word and delivered on what he promised, so I grew to really admire the man.”

Paul Fireman
Founder, Reebok and former NBA licensee



“The last deal I did with the NBA was Bud Light coming in as a renewal package. There wasn’t a strong sentiment
Photo by: Getty Images
from the brand to renew, yet we were big sponsors of teams and broadcasts. We didn’t want to put a lot of money into the corporate office. I went to him with the argument that we spend $30 million with you across teams and supporting broadcasts. For that and a commitment of three years, we firmed up the deal as the official beer. David understood and so we were able to put very little dollars against the official status, but put real dollars against the teams and broadcasts. We went into a conference room and did the deal right away. Sometimes leagues can get into their own channels, but he was like, ‘I see the big picture and this is what we are going to do.’ I respect that about him.”

Tony Ponturo
Former Anheuser-Busch vice president of global media and sports marketing

— Compiled by SBJ staff

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