A couple of months ago, when we sat down to start planning the 15th anniversary issue of SLAM, we knew we had to have David Stern involved in one way or another. Jordan, Kobe, AI and LeBron have been crucial to the development of basketball and, in turn, SLAM, over the last decade and a half. But David Stern has unquestionably been the most important figure in basketball over that period.
When I started here at SLAM, about eight years ago, we were still very much considered the black sheep of the NBA media horde. Over the last decade, though, we’ve somehow proved ourselves, to the point where I now have a vote in the NBA’s official post-season awards and we’ve developed enough mutual trust and respect with the League to where we’re now able to actually get the Commissioner of the NBA on the phone from time to time.
So a few weeks ago — actually, it was the morning after Kanye went all “I’ma let you finish…” on Taylor Swift — I got David Stern on the phone (after a few scheduling snafus) to talk about how the NBA has grown over the SLAM era. For the full story, check out SLAM 133 on newsstands now. In the meantime, here are some excerpts from our conversation…
DAVID STERN: Hey there. I’m sorry I’ve been pushing you around today.
SLAM: (Laughs.) I’m used to it. Have the NBA offices been buzzing about Kanye and the VMAs all morning? The Video Music Awards? Big topic here at the SLAM office.
DS: I was watching the final of the [US Open] women’s tennis last night. So I was not watching the VMAs.
SLAM: Oh, okay.
DS: VMA? MVA?
SLAM: No. Video Music Awards.
DS: And Kanye West said she didn’t deserve it?
SLAM: He said that Beyonce had the best video of the decade, and he said he was happy for Taylor Swift to win. The problem was that he did it during the middle of her speech; he ran up and took the microphone out of her hand and did it.
DS: Hmm. Alright. So…ask me anything.
SLAM: Well, we’re working on the 15th anniversary issue of SLAM…
SLAM: Thank you. I hope that doesn’t make you feel old.
DS: No. There are many other things that make me feel old, the least of which is SLAM.
SLAM: Good. So I just wanted to talk to you about some of the stuff that’s happened over the last 15 years in the NBA, in basketball and in SLAM’s lifetime. Fifteen years ago the main international guys in the NBA were like Kukoc, Petrovic had been here and now there’s — I’m sure you probably know the number better than I do — and now it’s all over the place.
DS: Well, I guess what I would say that…I went back and asked my guys to look — in 1994, three international players were drafted, one in the first round. Yinka Dare, drafted in the first round at number 14. Andrei Fetisov was from, it says here, Serbia Montenegro. And Zeljko Rebraca — those players were both drafted in the second round. Just to give you an idea. And by 2009, we had in the first two rounds, 15 international players — six in the first round, two in the top 10.
SLAM: Was there a conscious effort the NBA made to expand that way or look for those guys, or was it just, There’s good players, let’s get ‘em?
DS: I would say that in the last 20 years or so, the pursuit of talent has increased from being a domestic pursuit to being a global pursuit. That’s true in medicine, that’s true in engineering, that’s true in management, that’s true in manufacturing, and that’s true in sports. And, in some ways, I’ve tried to make the point that we’re not the leaders in that. Soccer, when you look at the makeup of a winning team — whether it be Manchester United or AC Milan — and you look at the transfer of players, soccer is the most global of sports at the elite, professional level. And what has happened is that, through our colleges and actually our prep schools, truth be told, the number of players who are coming in to prep schools and colleges from around the world — I don’t keep the numbers — but that’s gone up dramatically. So the college coaches are out there. In fact, I think when they see a guy who’s too young for college they recommend him to prep schools nearby or some high school. Then the athletic shoe and apparel companies are signing athletes all over the world, and have their own lists and invite international campers into the summer camps that they run. And our teams have begun employing scouts, multiple international scouts all over the world. So this was just a global search for talent that has seen a huge influx in international players, and it’s likely to continue. I remember reading about, it must have been three or four months ago, that this was going to be the slowest international draft ever. And yet we wound up with 15 players in the first two rounds. I’m gonna leave Howard Beck out of it. I laughed when I read it; I laughed the night of the draft because the teams are way ahead of everybody else, as they should be, because they are looking for players who can help them. And to connect that back, that growth has come — SLAM was born two years after the Dream Team, which elevated basketball to a very high level of relevance in the Olympic movement, and then set the stage for NBA to be televised in what are now 215 countries and 41 different languages. So you wound up with the players who were drafted this year; they were just coming of age. You know, the Dream Team was 17 years ago, and then we began televising games and the like. So I can’t tell you precisely how old Hasheem Thabeet is, but he was busy growing up and watching — whether it’s Hakeem Olajuwon, or Dikembe Mutumbo or Michael Olowakondi, you name it — and that continues to cause the game to grow and causes to expand not just our international audience, but the number of youngsters who are playing the game and admiring their stars, and the internet is actually going to drive that even more.
SLAM: I’ve talked to so many guys, from Yao to Dirk to so many of those international guys now, who tell me about when they were growing up and they would stay up all night to watch these guys play. But now, as you said, the internet kind of makes it so it’s on-demand.
DS: It is on-demand. Through NBA League Pass Broadband, you can watch without a satellite dish or even a television connection, if you can get wireless. Luc Mbah a Moute was the first player from Basketball Without Borders who went back; you know, he had been a camper there. People aren’t focusing on Africa quite as much, but when you look at Luc and Mbenga and Mutumbo, obviously, and Hasheem and Mohammed Sene and DeSagana Diop—
SLAM: Steve Nash.
DS: That’s South Africa, OK. But we give him credit for Vancouver.
SLAM: (laughs) I know.
DS: It’s interesting: there’s Africa, there’s Eastern Europe, there’s Western Europe, Latin America and Asia which complement the US, but clearly the global growth has been very robust during SLAM’s ascendancy to its current high and lofty status.
SLAM: It might sound like you’re bragging, and you might be, but hasn’t the NBA kind of been the elite of that among the American professional sports leagues?
DS: You know, if you go underneath you will see that there were a set of circumstances with which we had nothing to do that favored international growth for us. The Dream Team and the Olympics in ’92 were a step forward that we were invited to join, and we did. But basketball has been an Olympic sports since 1936, and that was a built-in sort of magnet for kids to be playing our game. And so we took advantage of things — and there were always important pockets of basketball, years and years ago. It’s interesting, it was very much Eastern European; the European Championships were usually in Yugoslavia, Russia, whatever. Two European Championships ago, it had gone from the Warsaw Pact to NATO: Italy, France, Germany and Greece, which was fascinating to me. That means Eastern and Western Europe are now basketball growth prospects. And yes, I think television helps it, but we really were able to attach ourselves to an Olympic sport that started in 1936, when the Olympics first housed basketball. China, which was closed, entered a team.
SLAM: Right, I remember that basketball had been introduced because there were Western missionaries or something like that there…
DS: Yes. I think at the turn of the century, not this one but the last one, China was playing basketball. So we really were able to plug into a network that, although maybe not supercharged, was certainly functioning and focusing on our game. And then we just were — you know the growth of television was a huge accelerant for us because all of these new networks outside of the US were looking for programming, and so even if they weren’t the most widely distributed networks, it nevertheless gave us a place to show our TV. And so, yes, we did plug into that. It is true that, I think we’ve played — I don’t even know whether it’s here; I did this for another interview — since 1987, something like over 90 games in 21 different cities outside the United States. In other words, we started playing the McDonald’s championship in Rome I think in ’89 or whatever…
SLAM: I think before that, there was one in Moscow when the Hawks went over there.
DS: That’s right. That was ’88. I was there, it was fun. Moscow, Lithuania and in Soviet Georgia, Tbilisi. You know, that was before the break-up of the Soviet Union. We actually played a regular season game in Tokyo in, I want to say ’91, between the Suns and the Utah Jazz. And so we responded to that, but we did that with FIBA. Then when we come to this season, my travel schedule includes London on October 6th, for Bulls-Jazz; Taipei on October 8th, with Pacers-Nuggets; Beijing on October 11th, the same two teams. And then we have a game in Madrid where the Jazz are going to be playing Real Madrid. And we’ve sent a D-League select team with some legends to play in the Philippines and Korea. And we just got back from Basketball Without Borders, which we did this year in South Africa and Mexico. And we have a preseason game in Monterrey, Mexico.
SLAM: Looking forward, how does all of this play into what the NBA is now?
DS: I think what we’ve learned is that being on the ground in places demonstrates a link to our fans, that we’re serious about talking to them and being there for them. That’s a big deal. And so, we’re trying to do that in the most efficient way possible, to tie in with clinics, three-on-three tournaments, exhibition games, regular season games, sending cheerleading squads, you name it. And we don’t have to do it alone. A shoe company or a drink company or a book company might send LeBron on a tour [of] Paris, Beijing or whatever. Kobe signs a trading card deal or another deal and he’s on the move. And so we work with these companies and that’s good because, first of all, it puts us in the marketplaces, and it promotes the game, which is the most important thing. We encourage the growth and success of local leagues. Anything that is good for the game is ultimately good for us. And then we come in and try to do the business behind it — more TV arrangements or better TV arrangements; we try to deal with sponsors; we have multiple internet sites in different languages, and marketing partnerships and other events. And so there are multiple ways that sports leagues monetize their business, and we need to do that. But the good news is that it becomes sort of a virtuous circle, because then we get great players who come from these places, and then when they play, there’s local interest in their home towns and countries — when Omri Casspi kicks off the season in Sacramento I think there’s gonna be a line of people watching in Israel; the good news is it’s a West Coast game and they’re eight hours ahead of us, so, in a funny kind of way, instead of getting up at three in the morning, they can get up at six in the morning. It’s just kind of interesting. And you know that when Hasheem Thabeet kicks it off, there’s gonna be a fair rise of household viewing in Africa, and that’s very exciting for us. Our fans domestically respond in a very positive way to it because it shows them international game with one question: Do you have game?
SLAM: Yeah, and the local fans get the international players on their teams, which makes the teams better and strengthens local support.
DS: The fans love them, you know. They’re loyal; they think they’re from their cities. And actually you understand that. At the US Open yesterday, the fans were rooting for Kim Clijsters against Caroline Wozniacki, and Roger Federer against anybody. So a Belgian and a Swiss were the darlings of the tennis set, and that’s true of basketball as well.
SLAM: I’m gonna make an awkward segue here, but speaking of the US Open: After seeing Melanie Oudin, does seeing a 17-year-old being the darling of the sports world right now make you rethink the age limit, any of that stuff?
DS: Actually, I think she’s not allowed to appear in more than a certain number of events.
SLAM: I think you’re right.
DS: She’s limited. No, I don’t think so.
SLAM: Looking back now, the last 15 years, do you think globalization is the most important NBA development from the last 15 years?
DS: It hasn’t always been during that time because we were still in the process of continuing our growth. If you look at us, we moved into new buildings. When the Brooklyn building gets completed, every NBA team will be in a new or completely renovated building sine 1987. Much of that took place during the lifetime of SLAM.
SLAM: Yeah. Do you mean “if” the Brooklyn building gets completed?
DS: “When” the building gets completed.
SLAM: (laughs) Ok, I was just making sure.
DS: And, number two: We went through a growth in our television. The cable was surging, and most of our teams have these very robust local and regional cable deals which have been cemented. And on a network level, we got to a place where we are now just finishing the first year of an eight year television arrangement that sees us with ABC, ESPN and TNT.
SLAM: And you kinda took a hit for that, when the League signed that deal, about how it was gonna be on cable not one of the three major networks.
DS: Right. That was before ESPN signed Monday Night Football and the Bowl Championship Series, and TNT/TBS signed Major League Baseball and the Championship Series. Yeah, we took a lot of heat for that, but it was clearly the wave. So really, with new buildings, with robust television arrangements and with this current generation of spectacular stars and youngsters, augmented in very large measure by international players and, really, the current Hall of Famers who are not so young but are great—whether it’s Shaq or Tim Duncan or Kobe, etc.—we’re doing great domestically even in difficult times. I expect we’ll be playing to 90-percent capacity with excellent television arrangements. As a result, out growth would seem to be in the digital realm and in the international realm. And that’s what we see. Of course with key magazines covering our sport…
SLAM: (laughs) Of course! Do you have any advice or good wishes for SLAM before we go?
DS: I’m a reader, believe it or not. I actually have a subscription. And I think you have to maintain your irreverence and expand your online appetite.
SLAM: We’re constantly working on both of those.
DS: Yeah, that’s where it’s at. Hey, good luck to everybody there.
SLAM: Thank you.
DS: Hopefully we’ll be together for the next 15 years.