Links Classics: SLAM vs. David Stern

by July 02, 2007

by Lang Whitaker

Technically, I’m on vacation this week, but I thought maybe I’d drop a few Links posts over the next few days to keep you kids busy.

One of the things I’ve been doing during my time off is going through and cleaning up my files on my computer. And in my SLAM folder I realized I have over 400 stories in there. Those are strictly stories I wrote for the mag, not SLAMonline, and many of them lived a short life on a newsstand shelf, never to be seen again. I thought this week we could revive a few of them.

Today, let’s go back to 2003. I’d been at SLAM for three years, SLAM had been around for a decade and we’d never had an interview with David Stern in the magazine. And at the time, Stern still wasn’t doing a lot of interviews with people outside of the big, traditional outlets. This was before blogs and websites were blowing up, before Stern was guesting on podcasts and cable outlets.

So I started trying to get an interview with The Commish. It took a few months of haggling with the NBA PR department, but eventually they agreed to set up a sit-down. About a week before the interview, the PR people at the NBA emailed me and asked me to send them the questions I wanted to ask Stern. I responded by telling them I had no idea what I wanted to ask him yet. And besides, this was The David Stern Robot we were talking about here, the man who never makes a mistake. If they thought I was somehow going to trick him into revealing the secrets of the NBA, they obviously didn’t know The Commish’s ability to delicately handle the press.

The morning of the interview, Russ Bengtson and I went up to the NBA offices in midtown Manhattan and were whisked into the Commissioner’s office, a wood-paneled suite appointed like the office of any successful CEO. Never one to miss an opportunity, The Commish surprised us by having retired legend Bob Lanier there as well. Big Bob ended up just kind of observing the entire thing, at least until I tried to ask him a few questions.

In the magazine we ended up running a much shorter version of this interview, but here’s the entire transcript. My favorite part is where we’re talking about Kobe and a possible ratings bump when he returned from his legal problems. Watch how skillfully Stern avoids answering the question, even as I ask it about three times.

New York, NY

LANG: Do you read SLAM?

STERN: I do. I read SLAM and I know of it. I’m a SLAM subscriber. I keep it in a brown paper bag.

LANG: Since this will be your twentieth season as commissioner, can you pinpoint any one thing you’re most proud of?

STERN: 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. And I’m 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 that our league had in changing attitudes about HIV. I was thinking today reading an article about LeBron James and Paul Silas, who’s an old friend, I’m proud of the fact that NBA coaches get fired and hired, and people don’t mention their race. That sort of puts the NBA in the right place.

RUSS: Moreso than in any other league, I think.

STERN: Well, whatever. It is what it is, but I think we can be proud of our own players and coaches, and our general managers. It’s fun to be in a League where the overwhelming focus is on winning, so it depends on what you can do for me.

LANG: Can you pick the one thing that’s been the most challenging.

STERN: Having to ban players for life is pretty challenging and pretty sad. That’s the low point.

RUSS: What do you think the biggest challenge is facing the League right now.

STERN: Number one, getting people to understand that our 400-plus players shouldn’t be defined by their weakest moments, or rather, by the weakest moments of about 15 of them. Big Bob here led delegations to South Africa, where we worked with young African players from 21 nations and really were embraced by a wonderful woman who runs an organization called the Ichitang Trust, which deals with orphans that have been victimized in indescribable ways, and the impact we had on their lives. We brought 100 kids in from 21 nations. We visited Kuwait City and Baghdad, just to let the troops know that there were people here 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 that do so much. That’s a challenge. And I guess the other challenge is that there’s a lot of entertainment options. I don’t have to tell SLAM that it’s a crowded magazine market.

LANG: Since you mentioned the stuff in Europe, you talked a lot this summer about expansion to Europe. Is that the top option over, say, Mexico or Canada?

STERN: Well, no. North America is the easiest. Canada, we’re already there. Mexico is very interesting to us. But if you were going to go beyond borders, I think you’re looking at Europe as the most mature market in the world that might someday support our league and still be accessible by our League, travel-wise.

RUSS: Is that just the natural process of it become a more international game?

STERN: Yeah. We think it’s a natural process. It’s quite a different experience to be in Paris with Tony Parker, to be in Barcelona with Pau Gasol, to be in Mexico City with Eduardo Najera. I’m looking forward next year to being in Shanghai and Beijing with Yao Ming. You being to get a sense of how you weave yourself together with cities, who don’t view it as just some distant sport. even there they were deeply involved with us through the internet, through NBA TV, through other aspects. But now they connect to us through their favorite sons, and the WNBA through their favorite daughters, so it’s a whole other opportunity for us.

LANG: Speaking of the WNBA, do you get tired of the general attitude it gets from most of the media?

STERN: 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 going into our eighth year. As we speak, there’s a WNBA select team playing Russia. We’re making plans for not only year eight, but years nine, ten and eleven. People used to say the same things 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. And they figured they’d just 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.

LANG: Not knowing much about the financial side of things, how much money does something like the NBA lose?

STERN: You know, when you add it up, we lose money.

LANG: It doesn’t happen every year, does it?

STERN: It happens with some regularity to certain 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 continues 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.

RUSS: Is there an answer to that loss, or is it something you accept as a matter of course?

STERN: 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 it’s eighth season. 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, and now everybody wants the younger players, Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson, the young woman coming out of Duke, Alana Beard. Cities say we’ll take a team, but we want the first draft pick. So the conversation is getting increasingly like the NBA conversation — player-driven. You know, when we went down from 16 teams to 14 teams, the 14 teams thought it was a great idea, depending upon where they would be in the dispersal draft. That’s very good.

LANG: Talking about drafts, people have talked about an age limit to be drafted. I know you’ve said you’re in favor of that.

STERN: Yeah…I’m losing steam.

LANG: You think so?

STERN: Yeah…I don’t know how else to say it.

LANG: What’s slowing you down?

STERN: The flow of time and the just general view that despite what I think is a good idea, I look around and Andy Roddick is about to be ranked number one in the world, and I haven’t looked at his college credentials lately, any more than I looked at Agassi’s or Sampras’s.

LANG: Or any of the women.

STERN: Right. I remember Lindsay Davenport took a day off to get a high school diploma, which was a big deal. So…we’ll see. I think it would be a good idea. I still do.

LANG: Bob, what do you think about it, being a former player?

BOB: I agree with everything he says. (everyone laughs)

STERN: If we had our druthers, we’d tell kids to stay in school.

BOB: I think the difference now is that the money is so much different now, and the stakes are so much higher, it’s hard to say to a kid coming out of high school that has the talent to make it and to get that kind of economic value, “Don’t do it.” It’s hard to say that to him.

STERN: What we’re worried about is that because of that allure, there are going to be a lot more kids that are going to come out and fall flat on their faces, prematurely. I’ve been reading in the clips that Omar Cook might be sticking with Indiana, and for me, that’s exactly where I’ve been going with and what the Developmental League is about. It’s trying to provide a safety net for somebody who is a nice young man, very talented, but made a mistake by coming out early. And I think that’s going to happen again and again and again. And we’re not going to have a big enough safety net to deal with all those kids. And they’re not going to have a chance to develop their athletic talent. In other words, what’s happening is extraordinarily athletically talented kids are going to come out, but they’re not going to be pro basketball players, even though their friends and their agents are telling them that. And that’s going to be a problem. That’s not a very nice place for us to be.

RUSS: That seems to have been a difficult thing in the past, where someone comes out and if they don’t get drafted or don’t make a team, you’d never hear from them again. Rarely anymore does a guy like Antonio Davis go to Europe and turn into a good player and come back.

STERN: But then you read about Lenny Cooke and Omar Cook, and Leon Smith…

RUSS: Korleone Young.

STERN: You know, that’s not a great activity to be associated with.

LANG: Talking to Billy Hunter, he said the League doesn’t want kids coming out because the League wants to achieve cost certainty, because the younger the kid is the more contracts he’s getting — two big contracts instead of one big contract. They’re getting on the clock faster.

STERN: The average playing life in the NBA is five years. I assure you, if that was ever the issue, we’d negotiate around that as we negotiate around that as we negotiate around everything. That’s not even a driving issue. That’s of no consequence to us in our thinking. Although I can understand why a player or an agent might say, “Come out, because 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.

LANG: What is your job? Are you a representative of the owners?

STERN: I get to talk to a couple of rubes like you. Here we are, a couple of guys just hanging out. No, I see myself as the CEO. I’m hired by the owners, I can be fired by the owners. But a good CEO, unless the employees of the company are doing well and are happy, unless the consumers are happy, and unless the shareholders are happy, then he’s 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. Because 55 cents of every dollar goes to the players. Of the other 45 cents, about 45 cents goes to other expenses. Collectively, the owners wind up with less than I’d like them to, but that’s improving, we hope. Really, it’s a good system that causes us to have a joined interest or a community interest.

LANG: Last year the League had a series of ads with Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones. None of the players that I talked to felt those ads were representative of them at all.

STERN: 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…

LANG: Don’t forget Mariah Carey.

STERN: Mariah Carey, but I’m thinking younger…Britney Spears, LL Cool J…

BOB: 50 Cent.

STERN: We have everybody at our game, and everyone winning at the Emmys are fans of the NBA. 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. Rather, we’re constantly making sure we’re all accounted for.

LANG: Do you think the League will ever be as popular again as it was in the ’80s, or are there just too many entertainment options now and is the market too fractured?

STERN: There are different ways of defining popularity, and I think that if the world is measured, there are more people that interested in the NBA than ever before. If you just focus on the United States, I think what you’ll see is that more young women are playing basketball than ever before. So, we don’t have the blockbuster ratings that all events used to get, but if you aggregate, NBA TV, ESPN, TNT, ABC, plus the publications that reach our fans, I’m not prepared to say that we’re any less popular than we’ve ever been, although, we don’t aggregate the audiences that we used to, and that’s a function of the change in the television delivery system. When you can get 300 channels, it’s going to be very hard unless it’s a very special event. Obviously, we hope for big events. If we had the modern day equivalent of Larry and Magic or Michael, I think we would draw the audiences, but we’re getting there. And our players are getting well known.

RUSS: Moving into the real post-Michael Jordan era — you had the temporary one…

STERN: We had the “faux” post-Michael…(to Bob) That’s “f-a-u-x,” that’s not Moses’s “fo”…

BOB: Not fo-fo-fo.

STERN: Right.

RUSS: Moving into that now, do you feel that things are in good hands?

STERN: I couldn’t be more enthused about any season. In some ways because of sort of where we are. This is 2003, and we haven’t been off-shore in 2 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. And then the interest in various markets. Ten coaches have moved places. Payton and Malone are in L.A. Free agent signing have gone on in places like Minnesota and even San Antonio, which seems, if it’s possible, to be loaded, even moreso. And then you’ve got the rookies. Everyone is going to wonder “Who is this person, Carmelo Anthony?” What do you mean who is this person? Didn’t he lead Syracuse to the NCAAs? But the media has anointed LeBron. There’s a lot of other good rookies — Amare Stoudemire was not the first or second or third draft choice. And then you’ve got the continuing flow of international players, making us entirely interesting to a global audience, and making us more interesting to our fans, because they know that you only play in the NBA if you have game. These guys come to play. So 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. I think our attendance is going to be up, our ratings are going to be up, our gates are going to be up, are merchandise sales are literally going to be at an all-time high. So, we’re really excited about that.

LANG: Can we be in charge of the Slam Dunk contest next year?

STERN: You got any idea?

LANG: We have lots.

STERN: Send me a memo.

RUSS: We would have definitely told you the wheel was a bad idea.

STERN: OK. We’re trying to make it interesting. And the fact of the matter is no matter what I do and no matter when I leave I say, “This is the last year,” then we go home and we 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…

LANG: Tenuous?

STERN: Tenuous, shall we say. So we gotta come up with a better idea than that. The skills competition was pretty fun. Especially if you’re a fan, you understand what’s going on.

RUSS: The good people were in it. I think that was the key to that.

STERN: Right. That’s the real skills competition, not the Levitra ad where the guy throws the football through the tube. This is the real skills competition.

LANG: While I’m here, why didn’t Dominique Wilkins make the NBA’s Top 50 Players list?

STERN: The better question is, Why didn’t Bob Lanier make the Top 50 Players list? Or Bob McAdoo? I didn’t get a vote. I though they needed a vote, myself, but it wasn’t under my direction.

LANG: What will be your biggest challenge in the future?

STERN: Getting people to know our players well, and fighting for the space in a very crowded sports and entertainment market. Because the game takes care of itself. We have to continually seek to improve. Our buildings are built, our television contracts are set. In a traditional way, we’re…(to SLAM’s photographer, who’s been shooting random shots around the office), I’ll tell you what you should do…you should take a picture of my Mark Cuban bobblehead doll.

RUSS: What’s that they say about the stuff a person owns saying something about them?

STERN: I’m the one person that doesn’t apply to. I mean it sincerely, because I take any crap that people give me and I just pile it up. You can ask my wife. My closet’s falling apart. This office is furnished because someone came in and furnished it. But the Mark doll, that’s the only thing I went out and got.

LANG: You know, this summer Mark talked about the Kobe case and said that business-wise it would be good in the short-term for the NBA, and you called it “unseemly and misinformed.”

STERN: I didn’t say he was, I said those comments were.

LANG: Right, but don’t you think in some ways he was right?

STERN: 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.

LANG: You don’t think there’ll be a ratings bump when Kobe plays on TV?

STERN: I’m not sure. In the long run? So 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.

LANG: But do you think ratings will be up when he plays?

STERN: No. I think that ratings will be up because he’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.

LANG: How many players come up here to your office?

STERN: A lot of them. Sit right there, they sit, right where you guys are sitting. Every time they’re in, they come through and we chat.

LANG: Who’s your most frequent guest? Ron Artest?

STERN: Um…maybe Jerome. Jerome Williams…Junk…the Junk Yard Dog. He sends me the right shirts and the right CDs. He wants to keep me hip.

LANG: Do you own any throwback jerseys?

STERN: Well, if I did I wouldn’t wear them, so I wouldn’t tell you about them anyway. Unfortunately, I own jerseys but they’re not throwback jerseys — I’ve owned them for twenty years and now they’re throwbacks. I’ve got All-Star jerseys from twenty years ago so they’re throwbacks. I’ve got throwback ties. I don’t have any throwback suits. My wife dresses me.

RUSS: What’s in that back room at the Draft, you know how you announce the pick and then go back into that little room?

STERN: Oh, you guys don’t know? We’ve got a great spread to eat. Food!

BOB: How did you guys think of these questions?

STERN: Actually, what we do officially is we entertain people. They see the slip before I go out to announce, and generally we just horse around and behave like children.

RUSS: Besides Karl Malone coming onstage with the tie six inches too short. Have you ever had another moment where someone comes onstage and you’re thinking, What are they wearing?

STERN: No, because it’s such an enthusiastic group, whether they wear red suits…

RUSS AND LANG: Jalen Rose?

STERN: …or yellow suits, I enjoy it. It’s a rite of passage. I get a kick out of the kids and their families.

RUSS: Who was the first person you shook hands with?

STERN: I have no recollection…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 Sterling. I met Hakeem Olajuwon, his mom and his brother.

RUSS: From all the events and games you’ve gone to, is there one that stands out?

STERN: There have been so many great Finals games. In Boston Garden, at the Forum, even at the Palace. I don’t have a special one, because to some extend, I don’t believe in picking a date. To me, the old Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, I miss the old buildings, but I also recognize the particular charm. I think they did a great job with the Staples Center, the United Center. But to me, the old Chicago Stadium and the Boston Garden are indelibly ingrained in me, as was the old Garden, from when I was growing up. Those are just great buildings that had their own flavor.

RUSS: I think they did a great job at Conseco.

STERN: Well, that’s a basketball-only perfect building, in an era. But the economic realities don’t allow that, because once you put hockey in the building, there’s a whole different series of things to think about.

RUSS: What does the future hold for you? What do you do after being commissioner of the NBA?

STERN: 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.

LANG: Do you have a business card that says “Commissioner” on it?

STERN: I do, I do. (starts fishing for his wallet)

LANG: Who do you give your business card to?

STERN: Nobody, since my Mom died. She used to give it out in Florida to her friends. Seriously, I use it when I have business meetings. The other side is in Japanese, so I can use it for business meetings in Japan.

LANG: SO I can use this in a locker room if someone’s giving me a hard time?

STERN: Right, right, that’s a get out of trouble card.

RUSS: We promise we’ll be good with it.

STERN: That’s OK, we have a file on you guys.

RUSS: We figured there might be trap doors under the seats.

STERN: No, the trap doors aren’t working. Our security department handles that.

LANG: We thought we’d end up in a dungeon, chained up next to a skeleton wearing a JR Rider jersey.

STERN: No, we would never do it on the premises. OK, guys, get out of here.