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Volume 20 No. 42
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Extraordinary leader put NBA, colleagues in position to succeed

My experience working for now-retired NBA Commissioner David Stern began as a sabbatical experience while I was a member of the faculty at UMass-Amherst. It culminated with a position as vice president, team marketing and business operations for the league. It was a life-changing experience for me, and the love and respect I have for this man has no limits.

As anyone who has worked for him could tell you, he was probably the most demanding boss on the planet. He demanded 100 percent focus and attention to the job — not just what the job was at that time, but also what the job would be three to five years later. He demanded accountability and ownership. I was accountable to both the NBA and each of the eight to 10 teams to which I was assigned, and I owned their issues and challenges and shared in their successes. He challenged me every day and made sure that each of us believed in the position we were advocating and could defend that position effectively. If we were making a recommendation, had we considered all of the alternatives and possible consequences? I can assure you he had, and like the trained attorney that he is, he could question you to the point where you really questioned your own position. It happened on more than one occasion. But he also truly cared for his people, and took a vested interest in their development and well-being, and was proud of their accomplishments during their time at the NBA and beyond.

David Stern leaves the NBA in the capable hands of Adam Silver, a succession planned and approved well in advance.
He is masterful when speaking to groups, and especially the media. My wife, Sharon, attended a briefing David was presenting to an audience of 100 or so people and remarked that she felt he was speaking directly to her and felt everyone in the room had that same sense. When praised by David, I felt like I had really accomplished something, and I strove every day to make him proud. However, when you had earned his displeasure, you were quick to feel the wrath and the disappointment and immediately understood the lesson you were being taught — particularly if the displeasure was communicated through a 10 p.m. Sunday night phone call. He knew everyone’s hot buttons and played each of us at times like a master composer, creating the melody that he wanted everyone to hear.

I also learned the importance he attached to giving back. I began referring to community relations programs as community investment programs because that is what they were. I will never forget what he said on the topic: “Public relations is how you think about something, but community relations can determine how you feel about something.” Basketball Without Borders, community learning centers, Read to Achieve and the WNBA are some of the measures of this great man that will live on under other commissioners and leaders because of how they made people feel — both about the NBA and about each other.

Stern was without question the greatest intuitive marketer I have ever met, rivaling the campaigning of John F. Kennedy and the consumer focus of the late Bill Veeck. There was no doubt in my or anyone else’s mind that while serving as commissioner of the NBA he was also its chief marketing officer. He was a visionary and steered the ship to realize his vision. When he became commissioner, the NBA Finals aired on tape-delay in many markets. Now, there are national NBA broadcasts in prime time several nights a week during the regular season, and there is NBA TV. He made the NBA a prime-time product and drove it to become a global brand.

Revenue production was a key component of this commissioner. Stern functioned much like an investment firm, increasing the value of the portfolios of the team owners and dramatically increasing the market-share values for the players. Corporate partners, media companies, retailers and so forth all benefited from his financial acumen and his management of the NBA and all of its assets.

I loved the fact that he was willing to listen to new ideas and concepts, even from a college professor who had never worked full time in the industry. The league’s team marketing and business operations division evolved from an idea I proposed to him about conducting visits to every team to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and to assess their business structure and performance. We also would identify best practices to help each team improve its performance, and ultimately its profitability and value. TMBO is now widely recognized as the most successful team services department in professional sports.

He endorsed the NBA Job Fair to secure more entry-level talent for teams, along with a series of topical workshops examining best practices in customer retention, sponsorship activation, ticket sales and improving the game experience. He also supported an idea I adopted from Veeck and positioned as Stern Safaris — although he didn’t like the name — to objectively link the business community in each market with that market’s team and help those businesses realize that they were part of the NBA. The WNBA, the NBA D-League, NBA China and the Global Games are all testament to ideas and ambitions that can be realized under a dynamic, visionary leader.

He is leaving the NBA in very capable hands under new Commissioner Adam Silver, who understands where the NBA is and has a clear vision where it can and should go. Like almost everything during his tenure, Stern’s succession was planned and accepted by the board of governors well in advance of when it actually happened.

Great men are few and far between, but a great leader, a crusader for social responsibility and doing what is right, and a communicator without peer in the sport industry comes once in a lifetime. That combination is going to be tough to replicate and a good reason why Stern would be my first sculpture on the Mount Rushmore of commissioners.

Thanks for the memories, David. Please keep making them along with your future globe-trotting endeavors.

Bill Sutton ( is the founding director of the sport and entertainment business management MBA at the University of South Florida, and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_ImpactU.