Dear David: Telling the man what he meant to me
My emotions have run the gamut since I learned of David Stern’s hospitalization last month and then his death, on Jan. 1 from a brain hemorrhage. I have laughed and cried while sharing memories and stories with my NBA family members.
My experience with Stern dates to 1998. I wrote him a letter asking him if I could spend my sabbatical from UMass, where I was a professor of sport marketing and the graduate program director, working for him. In that letter I had suggested some issues that I felt existed in the NBA and intimated that I would like to help him solve them. Upon receipt of the letter David called my home in Amherst, Mass., I wasn’t there, so he talked with my wife, Sharon, and asked her if she found me to be funny.
So when I went to his office the following week, I was uncertain as to what to expect. He greeted me by saying “Hello, Professor,” with a certain amount of curiosity and sarcasm. He asked: “Do you know what my job is?” I hemmed and hawed before he answered his own question, describing himself as an investment banker with 30 clients and being charged with increasing the value of their investments. For some reason he agreed to bring me on board.
David and I were painfully honest with each other. I tried to share the things I was learning and give him some insight about how the teams felt about the league office. That led to our initial discussions about what would later become Team Marketing and Business Operations (TMBO).
I learned lessons, too, some more lighthearted than others. At first I was unfamiliar with the dress code at the league office. Friday was business casual and my initial interpretation was a Nat Nast shirt and khakis. When I came into his office he asked me why I was dressed like that. I replied, “Because it’s Business Casual Friday.” He smirked like only he could, shook his head and said, “It’s BUSINESS casual, not BBQ casual.” When I left the NBA I wore the same shirt to my party and bought David the ugliest Hawaiian shirt I could find and gave it to him. He wore it and posed for a photo with me that I treasure.
Shortly after he had been hospitalized, and not knowing if he would ever be able to see it, I sent him the following email. I share it now exactly as it was sent — mistakes and all — to David and the angel that worked with him for so many years, Linda Tosi.
As I write this, I’m praying for your recovery and hoping that sometime you will have the opportunity to read this.
You will probably never fully realize the impact you have had on my life. Giving me — an unknown commodity — the opportunity to leave UMass and work for you on my sabbatical was a life-changer. During my time with you I learned that even though I was an academic — that my instincts and ideas were on-point — learning how to present those ideas to you was a process that still impacts to me to this day. When I began working for you — you were a WHY person — teaching me how to make a thorough and professional argument for your review and consideration. After that initial year when I had earned your respect and trust you became a WHY NOT boss — allowing me to test and try a number of practices that are still in place today.
I grew up with a father who didn’t really accomplish much in life — he was a good man, but always a dreamer who rarely followed through on anything — he talked a great game but that was really the extent of it. Thus, I have lived my life making sure that I always followed through and made my dreams a reality. Working for you was a dream — but even more than that it provided me with a father-figure and a mentor who always delivered on his dreams with much more at stake than anything I could ever have imagined. Working with you to build TMBO, creating regional and topical workshops, designing and implementing the NBA Job Fair and convincing you to initiate the Stern Safaris were all ideas that never happen without your trust and encouragement.
When I left the NBA — really it was a combination of the travel and missing the day to day working with students — I was a significantly better professor than I ever thought I could be — and that is attributable in large part to you. As you taught me accountability — I instilled that in my students as well. I also started off as a WHY professor and become a WHY NOT professor after they proved themselves. I also had a better understanding of the industry and the skills necessary for a successful career and I have placed hundreds of young men and women into the industry — including the NBA and its teams.
There were a number of other things I learned from you. You taught me “tough love” — although you could be caustic at times and sometimes very angry — I knew that beneath that facade that there was affection and love. I learned how to deliver bad news and I learned the importance of never putting your boss in a situation for which he was unprepared or surprised. On the lighter side, I learned the difference between business casual and BBQ casual when dressing on casual Fridays.
I treasure our friendship and the mentoring I receive from you — in exchange for the gourmet cookies I begin searching for every November to surprise you — and although you protest every time I show up with them — I know you enjoy them and our conversations.
In your career you have demonstrated that anything is possible — from taking a league whose playoffs and finals were on tape delay into arguably the most progressive, innovative and global league on the planet. But personally, your biggest accomplishment was helping develop a somewhat naive college professor into a widely acclaimed sport marketing expert.
I’ll always appreciate the opportunity and treasure the friendship.
Fondly and with much love,
Bill Sutton is a former NBA marketing executive and is now the dean of Elevate Academy.