Former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died Wednesday as a result of the brain hemorrhage he suffered three weeks ago, was, well, stern. He ruled with an iron fist and acerbic wit. All the while, he oversaw the exponential expansion of a league he inherited without a salary cap or a serious national TV deal. He secured those and spread the game globally, transforming the NBA into a multi-billion-dollar corporation with the help of guys named Magic, Larry, Michael, Kobe, Shaq and LeBron.
His tenure from 1984-2014 saw countless controversies, from Latrell Sprewell choking out his coach to Ron Artest fighting fans and Gilbert Arenas brandishing a gun in the locker room. He reshaped the NBA’s image many times over, often controversially, and yet he emerged as arguably the greatest commissioner sports has ever seen. Here are nine vignettes, shared over the years by Stern and those who knew him best, that capture the convictions and compassion of a man whose impact on the game is as great as any other.
The 1985 NBA draft lottery
Former Atlanta Hawks GM Stan Kasten, one of seven shot-callers with equal odds of landing prized No. 1 overall pick Patrick Ewing in the NBA inaugural draft lottery, told Sports Illustrated in 2015 that a high-ranking team executive told him months before the drawing, “He’s going to the Knicks. It’s all arranged.”
When the Knicks indeed won the lottery, conspiracy theories ranging from a frozen envelope to a creased corner supposed that Stern knew which card he was pulling from the spinning bin. That the lottery was run by Ernst and Whinney, the Knicks ownership’s own accounting firm, did not help dispel those rumors, nor did Madison Square Garden president Jack Krumpe telling the New York Daily News, “Hey, I told them how to fix it 60 days ago. You call up Ernst and Whinney and you say, ‘If we don’t get Ewing, you’re fired.’”
Stern was similarly glib in the moment, telling reporters, “If people want to say that [the lottery was fixed], fine, as long as they spell our name right. That means they’re interested in us. That’s terrific.” There were other jokes and a harder-line stance, too, with Stern asking inquiring minds why he would put the league and himself at grave legal risk. He told The New York Times Harvey Araton in 2012, “It’s crazy, ridiculous.”
The NBA and cocaine
Tasked with cleaning up a cocaine problem in the NBA, or at least cleaning up the perception that the cocaine problem was more prevalent in the NBA than anywhere else in society, Stern revamped the drug policy almost immediately upon taking office. He instilled a three-strike policy that provided leniency for players who volunteered for rehabilitation, and four-time All-Star Michael Ray Richardson was the first to three strikes, earning an indefinite ban in 1986. Stern listed drug expulsions among his most difficult tasks.
In 1997, Richardson, sober for a decade, sat beside Stern at an NBA event in Paris and thanked the commissioner for saving his life. “His eyes just lit up,” Richardson told Fox Sports Florida. “Here was the guy that had ended my career, but I did not hold any grudges. Ever since then, we’ve had a relationship.”
Magic Johnson and HIV
Over a matter of days in November 1991, Stern went from making an NBA appearance with Magic Johnson in Paris to standing beside the Los Angeles Lakers legend as he informed the world of his HIV diagnosis. The revelation came as a shock to a viewing public that figured the virus was a death sentence, and rumors about Johnson’s sexuality quickly took hold. Stern, in a sense, kept standing beside Magic through it all.
“Whatever the reason, how he got it, none of that mattered,” Stern recalled to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan in an interview soon before his retirement. “We thought he was going to die. We closed ranks with Magic.”
Added Russ Granik, Stern’s former deputy: “The attitude from the very beginning was, ‘We’ve got to do the right thing and live with the consequences.’ David recognized this had broader societal implications.”
It was Stern who supported Magic’s 1996 return, contrary to opinions shared by a number of players. Stern responded by suggesting that barring Magic would mandate league-wide HIV testing to ensure nobody else was playing with the virus. The commissioner also gathered some of the most knowledgeable doctors on the subject and dispersed them to all 30 NBA teams to answer any questions that players might have.
"The doctor sat us all down and let us clear the air," Charles Barkley, another staunch supporter of Magic’s return, told MacMullan for the Stern retrospective. "He covered everything anyone wanted to ask. He told us we couldn't get HIV from rubbing up against someone or bumping into them. We couldn't get it from their sweat or from a cut. That was important, because nobody knew anything about the disease.
"It was so smart of David to send those doctors. It took the pressure and stress out of the entire situation."
“As far as I'm concerned with Magic Johnson,” Stern told Bill Simmons for ESPN.com in 2006, “because HIV was now attached to the face of a beloved athlete, it changed the face of AIDS in this country. Remember, we said he was going to play. We didn't say that lightly, we went out and hired the best doctors and medical people we could find, we spent every night here in the office, it was not an easy situation.”
Michael Jordan and gambling
When Michael Jordan initially retired in 1993 after his first three-peat, he said, "Five years down the road, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back."
Jordan was in the midst of an investigation by the NBA into his gambling habits. The league cleared him of any wrongdoing shortly thereafter, and conspiracy theorists got to work, spinning that Stern secretly suspended Jordan until he cleaned up his act, all in an effort to avoid irreparable harm to their public image. It ran contrary to the assumption that Jordan left to mourn his father and pursue his dad’s baseball wish.
At the time, Stern dismissed the notion as “scurrilous and disgusting,” telling Araton, “If you're in the public spotlight, you have to take the heat, so that's all right. But I thought there was a media riot going on.”
Asked about the infamous “if David Stern lets me back” bit, Jordan biographer Sam Smith suggested on Andrew Jenks’ “What Really Happened” podcast that the comment had more to do with the investigation.
“To me it was a side statement to Stern like, ‘You know this is bulls---, I know this is bulls---,’ and so I took it as Michael’s way of giving the needle to Stern,” Smith told Jenks. “Where he knows Stern’s got to do this for the media and for the public, but he knows Stern knows that there’s nothing to it.”
Stern’s three-decade tenure spanned three lockouts. We could bore you with the details of each one, but they all came down to money, and Stern almost always negotiated what he wanted on behalf of the owners.
One way or another, Stern declared, “This gives us not one iota of satisfaction,” and, “The events left the owners with no other option but to do it.” The owners cried poor, the players pointed to the influx of money into the league, and tempers flared, especially Stern’s. All the while, he held his side together and splintered his opponent, so when he threatened a stalemate that would cancel a season, players eventually relented.
Jordan’s former agent, David Falk, described Stern’s lockout tactics to The Ringer in February: “Stern is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. If you go up to him and rub his nose, he’ll say, ‘OK, a--hole, let’s get in the ring and go 15.’ After six rounds, when every bone in your body is broken and you’re bleeding from every known and unknown orifice in your body and say, ‘Uncle, I’ve had enough,’ he’ll say, ‘We’ve only gone six rounds. Get your ass back in the ring. We have nine more rounds to go.’ ... Unless you are prepared to sit the entire year out, don’t f--- with David Stern. This is not a game. This is a billion-dollar business.”
The dress code
In another image-conscious decision, Stern installed a dress code before the 2005-06 season, outlawing sleeveless shirts, do-rags and chains, among other items commonly associated with hip-hop culture at the time. The policy came under fire as a restriction of player freedom at best and outright racism at worst.
“If they really want to make a problem,” Stern said then, via Sports Business Daily, “they’re going to have to make a decision about how they want to spend their adult life in terms of playing in the NBA or not.”
Allen Iverson, the league’s 2001 MVP, had long been the face of the issue, ever since an NBA photographer airbrushed Iverson’s jewelry, tattoos and undershirt from a cover photo for the league’s “Hoop” magazine.
"Hey, you can't do that. That's not right,” A.I. said then. “Who gives them the authority to remake me?"
“No one ever asked me about that,” Stern said on former Washington Post and New York Times columnist Mike Wise’s podcast this past November, “and I was crazed on the subject of Allen Iverson’s tattoos being [airbrushed]. It was inauthentic, the tattoos being so-called ‘whited out,’ so to speak. That was terrible.”
Five years later, when the dress code dropped, A.I. told reporters, “Just because you put a guy in a tuxedo, it doesn't mean he's a good guy. The dress code is not who I am and doesn’t allow me to express myself.”
Over time, Iverson somewhat softened, telling “Complex” in 2016, “It’s funny to me. But, I just felt the NBA was just picking on me. That’s all. Other guys in the league at the time dressed like me. Guys is supposed to be able to be original and dress like how they want to dress. The NBA can’t dress no grown man.”
For his part, Stern recently spun history his way in a September interview with The Undefeated, suggesting he was a martyr of sorts behind a policy that helped shape a league whose players became fashion icons.
“The [players’] union said it was a good thing to do. I did it, and then they attacked me on it. And then our players [did too],” he said. “I’m not going to embarrass you by asking what the dress code is because you wouldn’t remember that the dress code was: You could wear jeans, just wear a pair of shoes and a shirt with a collar. But our players went over the top. They started dressing, and frankly, they’ve got these great bodies and they just began to be on ‘Gentlemen’s Quarterly’ and ‘Vogue’ and all kinds of fancy places. And then they took it to the next level. They started designing their own fashion lines. I think it’s great.”
The Donaghy scandal
In June 2007, the FBI alerted Stern and the NBA’s top executives that referee Tim Donaghy had gambled on games he officiated and provided inside information to an organized crime syndicate. Within a month, the New York Post’s Murray Weiss reported news of the FBI investigation. Four days later, Stern gave a lengthy news conference, calling Donaghy “a rogue, isolated criminal” who was — to the best of the league’s knowledge — not tied to “any charges or any discussions or anything else with regard to the fixing of games.”
Neither the FBI nor a months-long independent investigation commissioned by the NBA found concrete evidence that Donaghy fixed games or conspired with other officials, including Scott Foster, the recipient of 134 calls from his friend and felonious coworker during the season under the closest review by both entities. Donaghy ultimately pled guilty to two counts of criminal conspiracy and served 15 months in prison.
Donaghy also alleged in court documents that the NBA manipulated games through other corrupt officials. This past February, FBI investigator Phil Scala told ESPN’s Scott Eden that leaked news of the investigation prevented them from “[wiring] up” Donaghy to corroborate those allegations. “If you’re going to ask me if I would do it differently now, the answer is yes,” Scala told Eden. “I would not have gone to brief Stern.”
Weiss told Eden that he did not believe his source to be NBA-affiliated, although someone “involved with Stern and the NBA in that era” warned him “that if I stumbled, Stern would do anything he could to crush me. I was told, ‘They're the kind of people who will do anything they can to protect themselves and the game.’” The NBA strongly refuted the ESPN report, issuing a statement to say, “It is replete with errors.”
The death of the SuperSonics
While Clay Bennett, Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon earned much of the blame for moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, Stern was not free from criticism, especially since McClendon publicly declared, “We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle,” while the NBA insisted that keeping the Sonics in Seattle was a priority.
It is unclear if the new ownership ever agreed, although it did encourage the city’s taxpayers to foot the bill for a new arena. To his credit, in an email that became public when Seattle sought legal action against the NBA, Stern threatened the new owners with fines for acting in bad faith. “You and I are fine,” he wrote Bennett. “I have been acting on the premise that everything you say about Aubrey and your efforts is true.”
Unfortunately, the city’s court filings also unveiled emails between Bennett, Ward and McClendon that made it clear OKC was always their primary goal. They lied to Stern, who fined McClendon a then-record $250,000. Still, Stern backed Bennett’s group against Seattle’s legal action, dismissing mayor Greg Nickels and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton’s attempts to at least keep the Sonics in town through an existing lease.
“I'm not going to talk about how many angels you can fit upon the head of a pin,” Stern told Seattle media inquiring about alternative arena options that might save the Sonics, according to The Oklahoman. “That's a perpetual subject that gets discussed and discussed and discussed, and nothing ever gets done, and hasn't been done. And now, as the vote comes up, the recriminations begin, and that's very sad. ...
“My own experience in matters like this, reading the tea leaves and the rhetoric, is that Sen. Gorton is intent upon a scorched-earth policy, and that's been pretty much bought into. I think Sen. Gorton and the mayor are determined to exact whatever pound of flesh is possible, and they will, and then the team will leave at the end of whatever period of time the court says it is required to stay for, and that will be it, period.”
As only Stern could, when asked what message this sent to other NBA cities, he said, “Congratulations.”
“It was terrible,” Stern said of the ESPN show announcing LeBron James’ move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat in 2010, per Ian Thomsen’s “The Soul of Basketball.” “It was terrible on its own. It is fair to say that we knew it was going to be terrible, and we tried very hard for it not to happen.”
The Chris Paul trade
In December 2011, New Orleans Hornets GM Dell Demps agreed to a three-team trade that would have paired Chris Paul with Kobe Bryant on the Lakers. The Hornets were to get Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. And Pau Gasol was bound for the Houston Rockets. All the details were ironed out over weeks, if not months, and news of the deal had been well publicized.
Only, Demps never ran the trade by Stern, who was acting as governor of the Hornets, because the league purchased the team from George Shinn in 2010. And Stern, on behalf of the owners, vetoed the deal.
“Since the NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets, final responsibility for significant management decisions lies with the commissioner’s office in consultation with team chairman Jac Sperling,” Stern said in a statement not long after news of the trade details became public. “All decisions are made on the basis of what is in the best interests of the Hornets. In the case of the trade proposal that was made to the Hornets for Chris Paul, we decided, free from the influence of other NBA owners, that the team was better served with Chris in a Hornets uniform than by the outcome of the terms of that trade.”
The veto also came soon after Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert emailed Stern’s office to express, “I just don’t see how we can allow this trade to happen,” according to Howard Beck, then of The New York Times. Gilbert reportedly added, “I know the vast majority of owners feel the same way that I do.”
A week later — almost three weeks after the 2011 lockout came to an end — Stern approved the trade that sent Paul to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-Farouq Aminu and a first-round pick.
“I knew we were doing the best thing for New Orleans and that was my job,” said Stern. “You have to stick with what you think was right. I must confess it wasn't a lot of fun, but I don't get paid to have fun.”
Revisiting it with SI’s Chris Ballard in 2018, Stern added, “But Dell Demps is a lousy general manager and none of those players are currently with the team anymore, and he may lose Anthony Davis.”
In response, the New Orleans Pelicans issued a statement in support of Demps, declaring, “We are very disappointed to read the inappropriate and inaccurate comments from the former NBA commissioner.”
Four months later, the Pelicans fired Demps. Another four months later, they traded Davis to the Lakers.
In April 2014, TMZ released tape recordings of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling making racist comments to his personal assistant and mistress, V. Stiviano, which ultimately led to Sterling’s lifetime banishment and his ouster from the NBA. While Stern stepped down two months earlier, Sterling’s swift exit at the hands of Stern’s replacement left questions about how Sterling survived the entirety of Stern’s tenure.
In June 1982, a year after Sterling purchased the Clippers, with controversy already swirling over his poor treatment of employees and attempts to move the franchise from San Diego to L.A., Stern — then serving as the league’s general counsel — convinced Sterling to sell the team, according to The New York Times.
Sterling turned control of the team over to lawyer Alan Rothenberg, reportedly at Stern’s request. As Rothenberg and his newly installed GM, Paul Phipps, reportedly worked to improve the franchise’s standing on the open market, increased revenue from ticket sales and a new TV contract changed the landscape.
Per Sports Illustrated, Rothenberg convinced the league not to remove Sterling by February 1983. He later described Sterling as “everything an owner should be,” declaring that “credibility in the Clippers is being restored.” Said Stern then: “We are satisfied the team is being operated in a first-class, professional way.”
By 2009, Sterling had settled three alarming lawsuits — two for alleged race-based housing discrimination, including the largest such payout ever secured by the Justice Department, and another for alleged sexual harassment — and was in the midst of being sued by ex-Clippers GM Elgin Baylor for racial discrimination.
Asked by NBA.com’s David Aldridge in August 2014 how Sterling survived his tenure, Stern referenced a lack of judicial rulings against the Clippers owner and listed the headlines that kept him on the back burner all those years: Magic Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Ron Artest, Tim Donaghy, Gilbert Arenas and the lockouts.
“We managed to keep very, very busy — like, holy Moses, what’s up today? What’s on the table?” Stern told Aldridge after his successor successfully unseated Sterling. “And so, for us, there was a lot to do.”
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