NBA Rumor: David Stern Death

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“Two men who forever changed the NBA and the great game of basketball globally in ways only legends could,” Wilbon said. “So let’s take these next few moments to celebrate and show gratitude for their contributions to this game we all love,” Smith added. “They will forever be missed, but certainly never forgotten,” Wilbon said. “Thank you, David and Kobe.” Chants of “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe” then showered the arena as the clock counted down.

At the time of the initial controversy, Yao Ming, the former Rockets great and chairman of the Chinese Basketball Association, was described as “extremely hot” by Silver over the situation. But he traveled to the United States last month to attend a memorial service for David Stern, the former commissioner of the N.B.A. Silver and Yao spoke at the memorial, according to a source familiar with the discussion who was not authorized to disclose it publicly.

NBC Sports Chicago: What have you seen from the NBA community from David’s passing to Kobe’s, which is hard for anybody to wrap their mind around? Adam Silver: It’s a reminder of how strong this family is. From team owners, former team owners, players, former players, executives at the league and teams and even alumni, it feels like a family organization. During difficult times, a family comes together. I’ve been really moved this week by the outpouring of support for not just Kobe’s family but the families of the other victims of that helicopter crash. I’ve been moved by the players’ desire to memorialize Kobe and his daughter at the All-Star game and the events that are now coming together — and also by those who want to make sure that we recognize David Stern at an otherwise celebratory occasion like All-Star weekend.

NBC Sports Chicago: You cited the celebratory nature of All-Star weekend. How do you as commissioner and as a league try to strike the proper balance between that while also honoring the legacies of Stern and Bryant? Adam Silver: By remaining authentic and not trying to force anything. By putting in place the platform both for memorializing but also celebrating and letting these events play out in their own way. That’s what I’ve learned over many years here. You don’t want to try to overproduce these events. I have no doubt that there will be spontaneous moments. I think some things we are planning may fall flat or not have the desired impact. But other small moments that we would’ve never anticipated would have the consequences they do will invariably end up being the most memorable moments of the weekend.

Some came because people followed him to the ends of the earth selling the league and game he ruled for three decades as commissioner. “He belongs on this big stage; he changed the world,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, one of many speakers picked to pay homage to his former boss. “He enjoyed throwing us in the deep end of the pool, to see if we could swim,” said Rick Welts, the Warriors’ president and CEO, who cut his eye teeth in the early ’80s working in the nascent league marketing department that Stern, more or less, simply demanded be built from scratch.

“Pure caring concealed in vinegar,” jazz great Wynton Marsalis said at the memorial of the ways of Stern, who he got to know through the board of Lincoln Center. Stern, who died Jan. 1 at 77, shepherded the explosive growth of the NBA from an also-ran entity whose Finals were tape-delayed to a global colossus. He was feted Tuesday at a packed Radio City Music Hall memorial. Speakers noted he had a deserved reputation for sharp elbows, demanding ways and a “my way or the highway” attitude.

“He told me that every single detail matters from a common press release to that one frame of video in a public service announcement to the number of serving spoons at the Legends Brunch,” current NBA commissioner Adam Silver said at the memorial. Said Stern’s son, Eric, “It is an actual historical fact, one that I have researched carefully. He was one of the few people in the history of mankind who was never wrong about a single thing.”

Pat Riley, who ran afoul of Stern from time to time, reinforced with story after story after story that Stern reminded him in very specific terms and warnings that no one was bigger than the game. It helped shape Riley’s direction of the Miami Heat as team president. “He understood what culture meant and how to build one,” Riley said. “Culture is nothing more than people who have shared visions of how to move forward and what is next.”

Arn Tellem: David loved to argue, to squabble, to scream, but he was always willing to hear me out. Rather than splitting us apart, the quarreling brought us together. As sarcastic and confrontational as David often was, he was always fair and had a stubborn integrity. I’ve never known anyone more devoted to the NBA, its mission and its players. Over the last three decades, David touched thousands of players’ lives — not in a superficial way, but in an enduring one.

Arn Tellem: David was a proud liberal with a deep commitment to civil rights and social justice. I remember phoning him at the end of the 2012-13 regular season to say my client Jason Collins was about to come out in Sports Illustrated as the first openly gay man in major American team sports. David, who had fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 for using a homophobic slur during a 2011 contest, not only provided public encouragement, but continually encouraged team owners to give Jason a tryout. He was ecstatic when, after an at-times stressful 10-month wait, Jason did win a roster spot with the Brooklyn Nets and became the NBA’s first openly gay player to actually enter a game. David deserves credit for creating an environment that would be welcoming to Jason, one in which a gay athlete could receive widespread support.

“He cared about the players,” World Peace said. “He told me one time, ‘I know you’re going through some stuff. But I have 360 other players to take care of. I can’t keep worrying about you. It’s not about you.’ I told him, ‘I get it.’ That’s why I listened when he spoke.” World Peace did not always have that perspective. During World Peace’s 17-year career, Stern suspended him 14 different times for various incidents. He admittedly thought Stern sought to make an example out of him for his role in the Palace brawl

In an interview with The Athletic, Jim Quinn, one of America’s sports attorneys, who had many, sometimes combative, interactions with Stern during the course of both of their careers, credits Stern with this powerful insight: “He saw before anybody that promoting superstars was good for the game. Just the fact you can recognize superstars by their first names proves the point.” Quinn adds that Stern’s player recognition strategy “was critical to the success of the league after he became commissioner.”

Today, HIV is a treatable, chronic disease. However, by the end of 1991, the year Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed AIDS as the second leading cause of death among men 25 to 44 years of age. It was one of the five leading causes of death among women 15 to 44. “But David didn’t let fear guide him,” Rosen said. “He got as much information as he possibly could. Spoke to all of the top scientists. Elizabeth Glaser (who became a renowned AIDS activist after contracting HIV in 1981) was very instrumental in helping David. It was literally all hands on deck. His first priority was saving Earvin. His second was figuring out a way to use this to help save others.”

That moment, and all the good that came from it — such as Broadbent growing up to become an HIV/AIDS activist herself — does not happen without Stern’s compassion, courage and leadership. “He looked back at this as his proudest moment,” Welts said of Stern. “He completely changed the dialogue on HIV/AIDS. It went from no one knowing anyone with the virus to everyone knowing at least one person that they liked and or loved who was HIV-positive. I’m not sure another person could have guided that process.”

In fact, NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski wrote for Yahoo Sports in 2011 that no one really knew how much Stern was paid as commissioner, but the guesswork among his sources at the time was $20 million to $23 million a season. Stern’s primary investment vehicle recently was Micromanagement Ventures that he created in 2018 with former NBA, ESPN and Sports Illustrated executive John Kosner, who declined to talk. The firm has 15 startups in its portfolio. (Note: Stern had considered investing in The Athletic in 2016 but ultimately opted not to, leaving what Athletic co-founder Alex Mather said was a gracious voicemail declining the opportunity.)

Milton Lee, CEO of automated broadcast production technology firm Keemotion, said he treasures a Stern-autographed basketball he got in 1985 and recalls first meeting the commissioner when Lee was an intern with the 1992 U.S. Olympic “Dream Team.” They met again when Lee was a Nets executive and become closer when Stern opted to invest in Keemotion in 2016-17. “This was a passion project for him – mentoring, innovation and leading all these startup tech companies,” Lee said. “We almost felt like we were his grandkids. If the people at the NBA were the kids, they got the tough love. We got some of the tough love, but the love, too. You could sense the joy he was getting from an area he was learning a tremendous amount. His reputation of being tough love personified probably rang true for all of the companies he invested with.”

Davyeon Ross and Bruce Ianni, the co-founders of Overland Park, Kan.-based ShotTracker that uses chips in basketballs and on players to create motion-tracking data, said they spoke to Stern several times a week and appreciated his tough love. “He was an enforcer. He lived his name – he was very stern. But he also could be very compassionate. He helped us be a better version of ourselves,” Ross said. “Our hearts our broken. We’re gonna miss him. He was impactful in our business and our strategy. Some days it was hugs. Some days it was tough love.”

David Gandler, co-founder CEO of New York City-based sports streaming service fuboTV, said Stern came to him in 2016 at the behest of venture capital firm Greycroft Partners, which was using the former commissioner as an adviser on potential sports investments. “Before I could sit down, he was already grilling me. He put me through the ringer for about three hours. I thought he was going to kick me out of his office. But at the end he said, ‘This is brilliant, and I want to invest in it myself.’”

That’s when the fun began. Cuban’s first few years were a meteoric rise behind Nowitzki and constant bickering with the NBA office about officiating and untold other issues. “I was so excited about the whole thing,” he said. “I was just a big kid enjoying my new toy. “That’s what I tried to do. I’ve had a lot of fun with it, through all the battles with David Stern. David made me in so many ways. He got me in. He encouraged me to raise hell and contribute to the donut fund. “He told me last year, the last time I saw him, he said: “You know, I made you.’ I was like, You absolutely did. Nobody knew who I was until you started fining me and I started raising hell.”

The late David Stern built the NBA from struggling league to lucrative global juggernaut during a three-decade tenure as commissioner that ranks among the most impactful examples of executive leadership in the history of U.S. professional sports. Stern inherited a league in 1984 that earned roughly $100 million in annual revenue and little to show for its business beyond its on-court product. When he stepped down in 2014, the NBA was earning more than $5.5 billion per year, with a profitable international footprint, massive media rights deals, larger player contracts and several new franchises.

“He’s definitely the reason why our league is in the state it is in today,” said Bulls forward Thaddeus Young. “Adam Silver has done a great job of taking on that head seat and making sure that the game continues to go on and keeps getting better and better. But David Stern is the one who introduced everything to the league, from these contracts that we have now to the TV (rights and revenue) to dealing with both sides, the NBPA and the NBA, to forming this great fraternity that we have.

In 2005, the Knicks signed Eddy Curry to a $60 million contract, despite well-documented concerns over a potentially life-threatening heart condition. It was a serious issue for the NBA, one we covered extensively at the Times. But Stern felt we’d overdramatized it, and he called to let me know, employing a creative mix of F-bombs to make his point. “I heard David really let you have it,” one of Stern’s lieutenants told me the next day, chuckling. “He said he might have gone a little overboard.”

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.

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?”

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.

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.

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.

But in the final months of his life, Stern stood tall over every staggering thing he had accomplished. Thorn and his wife Peggy joined Stern and his wife Dianne for dinner a few weeks before the commissioner suffered his December brain hemorrhage at a Manhattan restaurant. “He seemed in such good spirits and health,” Thorn said. “He just had a great look about him. David was always so proud of the league, and of what [his successor] Adam Silver had done. Some of these guys that leave big jobs have a hard time staying away, but I think David did a good job of not trying to take away from what Adam was doing.

LeBron James eulogized David Stern for his global vision and shrewd negotiating tactics. But with Stern passing away on Wednesday at age 77, the Lakers star suggested another way to honor the late NBA Commissioner. “He definitely should have something named after him,” James said following the Lakers’ 117-107 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. “Either if it’s an award, or, I don’t know, a day? During the course of an NBA season, there’s a ‘David Stern Day.’ I don’t know. We can figure it out.”

One of the many things Stern accomplished before leaving the NBA in 2014 was getting an iconic player — Michael Jordan — into ownership control of a team. The then-Charlotte Bobcats were losing value by tens of millions when Bob Johnson sold control to Jordan in 2010. Jordan appreciated Stern’s style of leadership. “Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Jordan said Wednesday in a statement released by the Hornets. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before … “I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”

Williams recalled a meeting in 2014 when Stern talked openly about where the NBA was when he started. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Commissioner Stern running tapes from games to CBS back in the day because we were in tape delay,” Williams said. “And getting companies to buy in to the NBA because they wouldn’t even sponsor black athletes on TV. People have no idea what he did for the game and African-Americans in general.”

As her late father and former Lakers owner Jerry Buss groomed her to have a larger role with the franchise, he counseled Jeanie on how to ease that transition. At some point during those conversations, Jerry Buss offered advice that involved former NBA Commissioner David Stern. “My dad told me that if I ever needed help in the future that David would be somebody I could count on,” Jeanie Buss told USA TODAY Sports. “He always was there for me.”

“He stood up when everybody else didn’t know what to do,” Buss said of Stern. “We were all scared, concerned and uninformed because it was all happening in real time. But he didn’t flinch. He stood up and allowed Magic to come back into the league. He squashed the fears of spreading the virus through hugging and shaking hands, He really led us into an area that nobody really knew we were going. But he never blinked an eye. He stayed as a leader.”

So Jerry, how did this hit you? And how do you think you’ll look back on the part he played in building the NBA? Jerry West: He led this league through some turbulent times, and had a great idea about how the league should be in terms of players’ responsibilities to the public — his ability to work with the players (and) The Players Association was pretty remarkable when the league was not (succeeding). He had an incredible 30-year career in the NBA. I had a great relationship with him. We didn’t always agree on things. … I would call him from time to time and (share) things I saw that maybe needed to be addressed. And he was very courteous about listening to them, even if he may not believe what you were saying. But he was a great leader for a lot of years. And some of the things that you see in the NBA today, obviously, is part of his thought process, and the ability to get owners to acquiesce to what he thought was important for the growth of this league.

I’ll leave you with this, Jerry. If you had one word to describe his impact on the league, what would it be? Jerry West: Well, there’s probably — leadership, in a time of need. His unique leadership in a time of need, when this league was really undergoing a lot of stuff that wasn’t always privy to the newspaper. The drugs, the declining attendance, every bit of turmoil that this league has had was under his leadership, every bit of it. And he handled that so beautifully, I can’t tell you. He was strong-willed, and his leadership through those times got this league back up and running at the highest level that we had ever seen it.

Stern screamed and cursed and pounded boardroom tables, treating the commissioner’s seat like an emperor’s throne. It’s hard to imagine Stern at rest, but he has died at 77. The former commissioner suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and was in critical condition until his death on New Year’s Day. For most of his life, Stern kept coming and coming and coming. Privately, owners talked tough about how Stern worked for them. In his presence, many of them cowered. At once, owners, management and players were grateful to Stern for franchise valuations and salaries growing exponentially — and fearful that failing to submit to his will could result in legitimate retribution, including unfavorable referee assignments in the playoffs.

In every elevator shaft, every room, Stern was a force of nature. For all the volatility and blunt force, there was an incredibly progressive, generous and compassionate side to Stern. The NBA played a leading role in HIV and AIDS awareness. Stern refused to let the league become overrun with irrational fears in the wake of Magic Johnson’s diagnosis in 1991. Minorities and women were elevated into prominent positions in larger numbers and greater frequency than in other professional leagues. There are stories of NBA employees with family crises that credit Stern with remarkable acts of kindness and generosity. In his pre-NBA days as an attorney, Stern took on and won a massive housing discrimination case for African Americans in Northern New Jersey, and did so pro bono.

The past really is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley once wrote, and David was one of its best correspondents. In retirement, he had the biggest backlog of the history I cared about, both recent and ancient. He could regale me with tales of how New York Knicks centers continually came up short against Bill Russell, and clue me in to how recent CBA fights shaped the modern salary cap. It started when I reached out for a story, roughly two years ago. I said in my email that he could call me at any hour, not expecting a response. One day, I checked my phone and saw I had a message. An annoyed-sounding voice said, “Hi Ethan, this is David Stern, calling you, at any hour. But this is obviously not a good hour.”

Really, the stakes for a fight were never too small. In our last conversation, I used the word “solipsistic” to describe the worldview of celebrities in a social media era. He expressed doubt that I was using the word correctly. I fought back, taking his momentary silence as a victory. “Ah ha! I finally got one on you!” I triumphantly crowed. Five minutes later, I was talking about something totally different, when Stern interrupted, blurting, “THE VIEW OR THEORY THAT THE SELF IS U-ALL THAT CAN BE KNOWN TO EXIST??” “Ach,” he said with another sigh. “That’s hardly what you were saying. Hardly.” I had to meet him halfway and say another word might have been slightly better, just so we could finally move on.

The response from those in hockey was positive. They certainly didn’t close any doors on the idea and, 17 years later, Las Vegas received its expansion team. Things were entirely different down the street. “(Stern) looked at me and said, ‘Over my dead body will Las Vegas ever get a team with legalized sports betting there,’ ” Goodman recalled Wednesday. “He was a curmudgeon. He was brilliant. He was a very, very nice man. Over the years, I became the little dog nipping at his ankles about Las Vegas. Wherever he went, I went. I imposed myself on him. “I told him all the time he was wrong about Las Vegas. He was always very nice in the way he said, ‘No.’ We disagreed in the beginning but became good friends. He was a decent person. I really liked the guy.”

Larry Bird: “My family and I send our sincere condolences to David Stern’s family. There are no words that can really describe the far-reaching impact of Commissioner Stern’s brilliance, vision, fairness and hard work over so many years. When you think of all that he accomplished worldwide on behalf of thousands of players, so many fans, all of the jobs he created for team and arena employees and all of the people that benefitted from the many layers of growth in the sport and industry that David spearheaded and then passed on to others, there is no doubt Commissioner Stern lifted the NBA to new heights and he will be greatly missed by all of us.”

Stephen Curry: Will never forget the words you spoke this day! “With the 7th pick” changed my life forever. Thank you and your family for your leadership and commitment to growing the game of basketball around the World. Forever grateful. RIP Commisoner Stern!

Liz Mullen: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: “All of us at the National Football League are deeply saddened by the passing of David Stern. David was a driving force in sports for decades and helped the NBA soar to new heights around the world.” Full Statement:

Michael Jordan: “Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today. He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before. His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed. David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him – and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I offer my deepest sympathies to Dianne and his family.”
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January 25, 2021 | 10:04 pm EST Update