A classic David Stern interview, originally published in SLAM 75 (February, ’04).
With David Stern set to retire, we figured the time was right to dig into our archives and post an interview SLAM OGs Russ Bengtson and Lang Whitaker conducted with The Commish back in 2004. Enjoy!—Ed.
It was the summer of 1981, and the NBA was in trouble. Attendance was terrible, CBS was showing NBA Finals games on late-night tape delay, and 16 of the League’s 23 teams were losing money. Things started turning around two years later, when David Stern was hired as the fourth commissioner in NBA history. Stern aggressively marketed the League as equal parts sports and entertainment, Michael Jordan came along shortly thereafter, and things exploded. Twenty years later, the NBA is now the most popular sports league worldwide, with rabid fans from China to Yugoslavia to Brazil. All of that traces back to David Stern.
We caught up with Stern on a crisp fall day in his 15th floor corner office in midtown Manhattan, with no subject off limits. Even though he’s been around for two decades and SLAM has been around one, this was our first meeting. Hopefully it won’t be the last.
SLAM: First things first—do you read SLAM?
David Stern: I do. I’m a SLAM subscriber. I keep it in a brown paper bag. (Everyone laughs)
SLAM: Can you pinpoint one thing you’re most proud of over the last two decades?
DS: When we started out, this was a league that was supposed to be too black, that could never be accepted by America, blah, blah, blah. And we proved the skeptics wrong there. I’m also proud of the way the League and the players responded to Magic’s announcement that he was HIV positive, and I’m very proud of the impact our League had in changing attitudes about HIV. And I’m proud of the fact that NBA coaches get fired and hired, and people don’t mention race. That sort of puts the NBA in the right place. I think we can be proud of our players, coaches and general managers. It’s fun to be in a League where the overwhelming focus is on winning.
SLAM: So what do you think the biggest challenge facing the League is right now?
DS: Getting people to understand that our 400-plus players shouldn’t be defined by the weakest moments of about 15 of them. This summer, Bob Lanier led a delegation to South Africa, where we worked with 100 kids from 21 nations. We visited Kuwait City and Baghdad, just to let the troops know that people here were thinking about them. We had a camp in Treviso, Italy, called Basketball Without Borders, where our Eastern European players pitched in. All of our players gathered for exhibition games and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for their favorite charities. But if you ask the average fan how we spent our summer, the police blotter would define it. And it’s not fair for the 400-plus people who do so much.
SLAM: What about the WNBA? Do you get tired of the general attitude it seems to get from most of the media?
DS: Yes, yes. The media has a bad attitude, you know? (Everyone laughs) People ask me, “The WNBA lost money, right?” And I say, Yeah, but not as much as the NBA lost. Not as much as the NHL lost. Not as much as Major League Baseball is losing. We’re making plans for not only Year 8 of the WNBA, but also Years 9, 10 and 11. People used to have the same attitude about the NBA, but no one remembers. The NBA was an offshoot of the NHL. Owners of NHL teams that owned arenas decided they’d do something with this other sport where people ran around in their underwear fighting over a sphere. They figured they’d get people into the building. And here we are. I think the WNBA will one day be to the NBA as women’s tennis is to men’s tennis. A different game, but played by extraordinary athletes and very much appreciated.
SLAM: Not knowing very much about the financial side of things, how much money does the NBA lose?
DS: It happens with some regularity to some of our teams, depending upon the situation. We’re not asking for any sympathy or passing a hat, because businesses can absorb losses. Their share price sometimes continue to go up even though their cash flow is negative, and in some ways that’s what we think about the WNBA. We’re investing very modest sums, and overall we’re very happy with it.
SLAM: Is there an answer to that loss, or is that just something you have to accept as a matter of course?
DS: No—it’s an investment. You’re investing in a product. The losses are very modest. To have a league, some teams make money, some teams lose money. We now have a women’s league that’s going into its eighth season, and the general predictions were, it wouldn’t last a year. It’s here, it’s got its fans. The quality of the game…I’ll tell you what: If you saw the Final between the Shock and the Sparks, it was a very physical and fiercely contested game, which just demonstrates that the talent level is going up.
SLAM: People have talked about an age limit for the NBA Draft. I know you’ve said you’re in favor of that.
DS: Yeah, well…I’m losing steam.
SLAM: What’s slowing you down?
DS: The flow of time and the general view that despite what I think is a good idea, I look around [at tennis] and Andy Roddick is about to be ranked number one, and I haven’t looked at his college credentials lately, any more than I looked at Agassi’s or Sampras’. So…we’ll see. I still think it would be a good idea. If we had our druthers, we’d tell kids to stay in school. I’ve been reading in the clips that Omar Cook might be sticking with Indiana, and for me, that’s exactly what the Developmental League is about: trying to provide a safety net for somebody who is a nice young man, very talented, but made a mistake coming out early. What’s happening is extraordinarily athletically talented kids are going to come out, but they’re not going to be [NBA] basketball players, even though their friends and their agents are telling them that. That’s a problem.
SLAM: And it seems like rarely these days does a guy like Antonio Davis go to Europe, become a good player and come back.
DS: And then you read about Lenny Cooke and Omar Cook, Leon Smith…you know, that’s not a great activity for us to be associated with.
SLAM: The Players Association says you don’t want kids coming out because the League wants to achieve cost certainty—the younger the kid is, the more big-money contracts he’ll get. They’re getting on the clock faster.
DS: The average playing life in the NBA is five years. I assure you, if that was the issue, we would negotiate around that as we negotiate around everything. But that’s not even a driving issue. Although I can understand why a player or an agent might say, “Come out, you’ll get more contracts.” That’s fine. But think about the numbers of kids who have it whispered in their ears that they should come out who shouldn’t. That’s what we’re talking about.
SLAM: What exactly is your job? Are you a representative of the owners?
DS: I get to talk to a couple of rubes like you. Here we are, just a couple of guys hanging out…No, I see myself as the CEO. I’m hired by the owners, I can be fired by the owners. But unless the employees of the company are doing well and are happy, unless the consumers are happy, and unless the shareholders are happy, then the CEO is doing a lousy job. And in a certain way, because I’m the CEO and because we have the labor deal that we do, I work for the players, although I don’t report to them. Really, it’s a good system that causes us to have a joined or a community interest.
SLAM: Last year the League had a series of ads with Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones. None of the players we talked to felt those ads were representative of them at all.
DS: They’re not. We’ve got SLAM. That’s why I read SLAM. There’s a broad array of folks that are interested in our game. And our youngsters know that at our All-Star Weekends over the last three years—and I can’t name all the names—but everyone from Mary J. Blige to Alicia Keyes to P. Diddy, Britney Spears, LL Cool J…we have everybody at our games. It’s our job to not only nurture that fan base, but to remind a somewhat older base that the NBA is relevant to them as well. So even though our players might not remember Frank Sinatra or the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley, we have many fans who do. So we’re constantly balancing there.
SLAM: Moving into the real post-Michael Jordan era—you had the temporary one—do you feel that things are in good hands?
DS: I couldn’t be more enthused about any season. This is 2003, and we haven’t been offshore in two years. So we’re coming off of a preseason in Mexico City, Paris, Barcelona, Puerto Rico; I’m getting ready to go to Tokyo to see a game. NBA TV is being launched not just here but on a global basis. Ten coaches have moved places. Payton and Malone are in L.A. Free agent signings have gone on in places like Minnesota and even San Antonio, which seems, if it’s possible, to be loaded even more than last year. And then you’ve got the rookies. And then you’ve got the continuing flow of international players, making us entirely interesting to a global audience. This is going to be a very exciting year. When you think about trades, free agents, new coaches, rookies, international …it just seems to have coalesced this year into something bigger than it has before.
SLAM: Will you let us be in charge of the Slam Dunk Contest next year?
DS: Got any ideas? Send me a memo.
SLAM: We definitely would’ve told you that the wheel was a bad idea.
DS: We’re trying to make it interesting. And no matter what I do and no matter when I leave and I think, This is the last year, we go home and get the television ratings, and it always peaks for the Slam Dunk. So send us a memo. Also, I think the three-on-three is…tenuous, shall we say. So we have to come up with a better idea than that. The skills competition was pretty fun.
SLAM: The key was, good people were in it.
DS: Right—that was a real skills competition, not the Levitra ad where the guy throws the football through the tire.
SLAM: Over the summer, Mark Cuban talked about the Kobe case and said business-wise it would be good for the NBA. You called his comments “unseemly and misinformed.”
DS: To the extent that he was quoted as saying it was “good” for the NBA. I can tell you it’s not good for anybody.
SLAM: You don’t think there’ll be a ratings bump when Kobe plays on TV?
DS: I’m not sure. The fact that there’s a media frenzy that wants to talk about a rape case is good for the NBA in the long run? I don’t think so. I don’t buy that. I think that ratings might be up because Kobe’s playing with Karl Malone and Gary Payton and the Lakers are winning and Shaq’s lost weight and is feeling good. If not, ratings are going to be down. The marketplace is very demanding.
SLAM: Do you own any throwback jerseys?
DS: If I did I wouldn’t wear them, so I wouldn’t tell you about them anyway. I own jerseys, but they’re not throwback jerseys—I’ve owned them for 20 years and now they’re throwbacks. I’ve got throwback ties. I don’t have throwback suits. My wife dresses me.
SLAM: What’s in that back room at the Draft—you know how you announce the pick and then go back through that door?
DS: You guys don’t know? We’ve got a great spread back there. Food! Actually, what we do officially is entertain people. Generally we horse around and behave like children.
SLAM: Who was the first person you shook hands with at your first Draft?
DS: I have no…oh, you know, I remember the dinner. I think the Draft was at the Garden, and we were at an Italian restaurant with a low roof, and I was with Scotty Stirling. I met Hakeem Olajuwon, his mom and his brother.
SLAM: What does the future hold for you? What do you do after being commissioner?
DS: I was thinking of becoming a reporter for SLAM. I was thinking about that. I want to get into the basketball cognoscenti. Because to me, that’s where it’s at.
SLAM: Do you have a business card that says “Commissioner” on it?
DS: I do, I do. (Fishes around in his wallet, pulls a card out, hands it over)
SLAM: Who do you give it to?
DS: My mom used to give them out to her friends. Seriously, I use it when I have meetings. The other side is in Japanese, so I can use it for business meetings in Japan.
SLAM: We promise we’ll be good with it.
DS: That’s OK, we have a file on you guys.
SLAM: We figured there might be trap doors under the seats or something.
DS: No, the trap doors aren’t working. Our security department handles that.
SLAM: We thought we’d go through the floor and end up in a dungeon, chained up next to a skeleton wearing a JR Rider jersey.
DS: No, we would never do it on the premises. OK, you guys, get out of here.