In the wake of his passing on the first day of 2020, there have been a lot of reflections about David Stern. Many of them personal, with anecdotes about how personable and helpful he could be. Others also personal, with details about how some of the less positive aspects of his personality and approach will shape the enduring memory of him.
I never met the late NBA Commissioner. I have no memories of him from time spent in his office or a media scrum or on the phone with him. I was never given a tip that helped me write a story nor was I ever dressed-down by him in public. He was, however, the most powerful non-player in the history of my favorite sports league. He was a titan. And, love him or loathe him, David Stern will be missed and the memories of him will live forever.
Personally, I love David Stern for the same reason I loathe him: for Basketball Reasons.
Lakers fans became too familiar with that turn of phrase after Stern, acting as “owner”1Stern was acting owner because the NBA purchased the Hornets from George Shinn who was no longer financially capable of running the team and was looking to sell. In order to ensure that the Hornets would be sold to a local owner, the NBA purchased the team in order to facilitate a later sale to someone who would keep the team in New Orleans — ultimately, the Benson family who also owns the NFL’s saints. In this interim period, Stern was the de-facto owner. of the New Orleans Pelicans while also serving as Commissioner of the NBA, vetoed the would be trade between the Pels and Lakers that was set to send Chris Paul to the Lakers in exchange for Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom.
Stern’s refusal to approve the trade angered me and left me wondering what the hell happened.
Nearly a decade later, it’s truly hard to fully capture what those 24 hours were like as a fan. Leaked emails from other owners pleading with Stern to not allow the deal to go through, the fallout of actually trading away core players from a team only to have to welcome them back and try to smooth over the hurt and upset feelings of a business decision reversed,2This worked with Pau…sort of. He ultimately came back and was a productive member of the team, but the trust never seemed to get back to the point where everything seemed truly fine. It did not work with Lamar Odom, however. Odom, unable to reconcile being included in that deal, asked to be traded and ended up being dealt to the Mavericks, ultimately, over the next several years, seeing his career and life spin out of control to the point that he nearly died. going from having an All-NBA level backcourt to (months later) ultimately trying to find salvation in Ramon Sessions…the entire ordeal was just a massive kick to the stomach and something that stays with Lakers fans to this day.
Stern’s role in it all stained him in Lakers fans’ eyes forever. You can find quotes, on the record, that Stern was going to let the front office in place at that time work as it normally would. This deal — which was actually a 3-team trade that involved the Rockets — was agreed to in principle. And then Stern came in and nixed it. For Basketball Reasons. It did not help that the trade Stern ultimately did approve for Paul sent him to the Clippers for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, and Al Farouq-Aminu.3That traded worked out swimmingly for the Hornets, by the way. Their opening press conference produced pictures that looked like proof of life photos from some South American prison camp. And Gordon, the supposed centerpiece of the deal spent 173 of the 394 games of his Hornets/Pelicans career in street clothes injured. Anyways. I mean, the Clippers? Typing this all out again is making my blood pressure rise.
Basketball Reasons are also why Stern is loved by this basketball fan. He was the architect of the league I grew up watching, the league that I’ve written about for a decade, the league I absolutely love. He is embedded in the fabric of the NBA, a strand of its current DNA that cannot be separated out. This league, in its current form, does not exist without David Stern.
He helped make its stars household names, growing the league in ways that seemed unimaginable in the days when Magic Johnson was jumping Center in game 6 of the NBA Finals as a rookie on tape delay. He made All-Star weekend an event, brought us games on weekends and weeknights on local TV and cable and, later, league pass for us to watch this beautiful game played by the world’s best athletes. He made kids in Asia and Africa and Europe and South America and Australia fans who, through their own hard work, would later become the star players he would then deliver back to American viewers.
There were few people who could get things done like Stern and even fewer sports league commissioners. He is the gold standard of that class. His tactics to accomplish these things were not always pretty. The opposite, in fact. Some of the stories that are now being brought to light — the kind of stories that usually only get told in the days and weeks after someone dies — are not flattering. They paint a picture of a powerful man who would threaten, demean, insult, and argue his way into the outcome he wanted.
His story, then, probably is not too different from ones of so many others who have reached and maintained the heights he did. Those things, as much as anything else, are a part of his legacy and will live on in the people who experienced them.
In saying that, I cannot help but feel sad in these days after I saw the update on my phone that he’d succumb the brain hemorrhage he suffered in mid-December.
Stern, in his way, symbolized a part of my youth (and, honestly, full on adulthood) that was formative in what matters to me still today. I hear the NBA on NBC theme music in my head randomly. I still remember thinking the worst thoughts about Tommy Heinsohn calling Lakers/Celtics games in the 80’s — his obvious Boston homerism leaving me perplexed as to how the hell he was allowed to be one of the announcers (and still do when I watch C’s games on league pass). I remember crying when Magic told us he was HIV positive, and I remember Stern being there as distraught as I was, but strong enough to offer leadership and tools to educate us on what it meant and how to go forward.
No, Stern wasn’t the guy who sunk that baby hook in Boston and he wasn’t dueling with Dominique in the dunk contest. He didn’t draft Kobe or get Shaq to sign in Los Angeles as a free agent or send Pau Gasol to the Lakers in exchange for Kwame Brown, but he did block a trade for Basketball Reasons. And it’s for basketball reasons of a different type that I’ll miss him.
Rest easy, Commissioner Stern.