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The David Stern that I Knew

There has already been so much written about the legend of David Stern, but I wanted to share my view of this amazing man and a few of my personal experiences. David was not just a mentor to me, but I was continually inspired by his incredible accomplishments, vision, business instinct, and by his heart. I’m proud to be characterized by him as a “close friend”.

In the early years, David carried the NBA on his back, and he is one of the few in history to transform a small, struggling sports organization into a global juggernaut. It is well documented that when David took over the league, the NBA Finals weren’t even on live network TV in the USA. He did so many extraordinary things to grow the popularity of the league both as a media company and as a business both domestically and globally. He ruled the NBA owners, players, and employees with an iron fist, but always in a way that put the business interests of the NBA first. David was always the smartest person in the room and had such a charisma and swagger about him and he was one of those people that marvels with his depth and breadth of knowledge and his otherworldly business acumen. He reminds me of heroes of American folklore, like George Washington crossing the Delaware in command of a small overmatched army riding his horse at the front of the lines in the face of adversity and managing to pull off miraculous victories through courage, instinct, and inspiration.

While David was trained as a lawyer, he turned the NBA into the world’s most progressive sports league. At a time when sports marketing was in its infancy, David introduced new nomenclature and approaches to marketing that served as a textbook case for the rest of the world. David introduced a methodology for using marketing partnerships to grow enterprise value for the league by harnessing the power of coalition marketing to add weight and value to the NBA brand. David coined the term “marketing partnership” as opposed to the traditional term of “sponsors” to define the relationship with the NBA and those companies that were paying for the right to use the NBA marks in association with their advertising. It implied a deeper, more fully integrated and committed relationship. He was one of the first people to stand for the proposition that business must “do well by doing good” and the original architect of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s progressive, “purpose driven” approach where the NBA is not just a sport or a business, but a force to move culture in a positive way. There will never be another leader like him in sports.

I met David Stern during the period when I represented some of the most well-known players in the NBA including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kevin Johnson, and Shaquille O’Neal, among others; and one of my clients, was WNBA great Lisa Leslie. David and Adam were evangelists for gender equality and took great pride in launching the WNBA and Lisa was a big part of that. When I began representing Kareem, it was my first NBA client. It was towards the end of Kareem’s career; David took me under his wing and strategized with me how to create a more meaningful bond between Kareem and NBA fans. Kareem had always been an intellectual, but somewhat introverted and felt a bit persecuted by both the media and fans—and didn’t connect particularly well with either. David suggested that I convince Kareem in his final season to do a farewell tour so that he could experience an outpouring of affection from the NBA fans around the league. Then Kareem would see an outpouring of respect and admiration from these fans in recognition of his extraordinary talent and accomplishments. Kareem agreed to do this, and we orchestrated a farewell ceremony in every NBA city during Kareem’s final season. It was a turning point in his relationship with NBA fans and made Kareem understand how much he was appreciated even by seemingly hostile fans in opposing cities.

David cared so deeply about the well-being of NBA players and the image of those players. He took an interest in everything they did, from the way they dressed, to the kind of marketing they did for themselves, to their charitable activities. He orchestrated a myriad of player image building programs at the NBA which he ultimately combined under the umbrella of NBA Cares. In fact, David was incredibly aware and involved in protecting the image of NBA players and their relationship with fans. He would have no problem chewing agents and players out (including me) for what he felt was improper conduct or behavior or just exercising bad judgment. It was almost like getting called into the principal’s office.

I also had the opportunity to work together with David and now Commissioner Adam Silver to resolve the longest lock out in NBA history when things looked perilously bleak. Even though the relationship between the league and players/agents is slightly adversarial, we became dear friends through that process. I have never encountered anyone smarter, with greater command of all the facts, and one who knew how to exercise nearly perfect judgment in the face of crisis. I also discovered through that process that even when David had the upper hand in negotiation, he always made a deal that allowed the other party to emerge with their dignity intact.

David always told me that if he wrote a book it would be titled “Micromanagement is Underrated” and he personified that principle in the way he ran the NBA. He was a fierce workaholic who demanded nothing less from all those who worked at the NBA. It’s common knowledge that David would arrive at NBA offices on 5th avenue and 51st street in NYC about 9am every morning. He would proceed to work tirelessly the entire day and leave for home around 9pm that night. Of course, no one wanted to leave the office before David for fear that they would be perceived as a slacker so anyone at the NBA either became a “lifer” because they embraced the work-a-holic culture or they burned out and moved on.

Another interesting dynamic at the NBA was that David knew everyone’s job better than they did and everyone knew it and everyone was painfully aware that David was a perfectionist. NBA employees lived slightly in fear that David would go right to the heart of their weaknesses or insecurities—and point out the deficiency of their work product, almost as if he were prescient. Sometimes he would do it in front of me just for show. I was just amazed at his intellectual superiority. His analytical skills were razor sharp and he loved to “joust” and teach lessons usually with a twinkle in his eye, but that twinkle didn’t assuage the fears of NBA employees who would bear the brunt of his scrutiny. While he probably ruled a bit more with fear than with love, I never saw him do anything in a malicious or mean-spirited way. He just loved to teach and to well, “micro-manage”.

Even after Adam Silver took over as Commissioner of the NBA, the shadow of David Stern was still cast. In Adam’s first All-Star game in New Orleans as Commissioner, when the Game had ended and the weekend festivities had come to a close, Adam and I happened to be riding up the elevator together at the Windsor Court hotel. I notice that Adam seemed preoccupied with whether things had gone as well as possible that weekend. Adam then looked at me, and said he kept expecting his phone to ring and have David on the other end pointing out some detail that he overlooked but he realized that he was now the Commissioner and he was actually the “boss”. It just took a while to sink in that David had passed the torch to him. We both started laughing.

I remember walking into David Stern’s office in 1992 right after I began representing Shaquille O’Neal. Sitting in the corner of the room was Adam Silver, who David introduced to me as his “special assistant”. David said: “you can trust him so speak freely”. Throughout the next 10 years, David and Adam were my free “consultants”, helping me navigate Shaquille’s career as the first athlete to build a true “brand” where he fully controlled his own IP by converging sports, media, marketing, entertainment and technology. We were building a “brand” for Shaq through the engine provided by the NBA and the ancillary plan we created together. David would sit me down for a lecture when he felt we were getting off course. During this time I would often complain to David that everyone was “hacking Shaq” too much and he wasn’t getting the foul calls he deserved. David would just smile and send Adam to calm me down. On the flipside, I remember having dinner one night with David and Adam following a game when Shaq and the Lakers were on their way to winning their first championship. Someone in the restaurant yelled out Stern: “you cheater!”. David just ignored the outburst, smiled and turned to us and said: “it comes with the territory”. Criticism never really bothered him because he knew in his heart that he was doing the right thing. He always had a plan, a vision, and had a way of inspiring confidence in everyone around him that his leadership and judgment were unparalleled.

During that period, I became close friends with Adam Silver as Adam ascended the ranks of the NBA to become President of NBA Entertainment, then Deputy Commissioner and then added COO of the NBA to his title. Adam was involved in nearly every meeting I had with David and the two of them were practically inseparable for over 20 years. Whenever I had a meeting with David, I would always roll into Adam’s office first to plot my course and get his insights. Often, I would arrive with some new technology gadget – like a phone that was actually connected to the Internet. Hardly anyone had seen that before and when we showed David he was absolutely intrigued. David was always curious and always loved learning—he possessed an almost child wonder when he was introduced to something new and was excited to understand the next “big thing” and how it would be used to the NBA’s advantage. Adam and I “conspired” to get David to embrace technology and David was receptive to do so. One day Adam and I went into David’s office and told him that the NBA should be leader in technology and should create the NBA Technology Summit. David thought about it for a while and said: “go do it”! And then he gave himself the nickname “Digital Dave”.

That was the beginning of David Stern’s love affair with technology which continued the rest of his life and ushered in the NBA’s leadership position as the sports league most proficient and advanced in technology, from its infrastructure to social media. At the time I had become friendly with some of the power players in Silicon Valley and I would at times trot them into the NBA office for a meeting with the Commissioner. Adam and I would sit back and watch David put on a show, which was always entertaining. He was the last of the charismatic leaders, strutting around the office like a proud peacock showing off his analytical skills and intellectual prowess.

David created the concept of the “NBA Family” and once you were “in” you remained a member for life and he was always there for you. You got invited to everything—games and NBA functions, including NBA All Star weekend. I was lucky enough to be included and he never failed to ask how my parents or kids were doing, always with a warm smile on his face. At the Olympic Games while there for USA Basketball, David and Adam would always make time come watch the beach volleyball competition with me since I was the Commissioner of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball tour at the time. They were in the stands sitting next to me when my wife, Holly McPeak, won her Bronze Medal in Beach Volleyball at the Athens Games. David and Adam even sat in the pouring rain together with me in Beijing and watched Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May Trainor win their Gold Medal.

While everyone is quick to point out all of David’s incredible career accomplishments and what he is meant to the NBA and sports in general, there is one thing that separates David Stern from every other sports and business leader, namely, that he exited the NBA on his own terms and created a path to succession that set the NBA up for future success and made it unquestionably the best run sports league. One of the most difficult things in business or life is to give up power, especially when you are experiencing extraordinary success and at the top of your game. Remember the Lord of the Rings: it’s an internal struggle to give up absolute power when the ring is on your finger. Nothing was going wrong at the NBA and his intellect was sharp as ever when David Stern decided to create a succession plan.

I felt honored and fortunate that David felt comfortable discussing this philosophical dilemma with me as he grappled with the question of when it was time to hand over the reins of power. David concluded that no matter how incredible his accomplishments, and that his capabilities were incomparable and had in no way diminished, his time would eventually come to an end. He had the choice to orchestrate the transition himself or it would be done from the outside either by others or natural causes

David also came to the determination that Adam Silver was the only one for the job, that he had groomed him for 20 years and it was time to anoint Adam as his successor. David’s reasoning was that not only was this the perfect way to continue his legacy but more importantly set the NBA up for future success. Under Adam’s leadership, David felt that all the NBA brand pillars would be intact and safe. And even though their styles were opposite, David expressed that Adam possessed the set of skills required to maintain the NBA’s global growth and build upon its core values. In in his final act as Commissioner, David Stern performed his final and greatest service for the NBA that he had built, namely, to set the league up for future success.

As I remember David Stern, I think about someone who stood above the crowd in so many ways and made such an enormous impact upon sports, business and culture. As the Frank Sinatra song says: “I did it my way”, and that line applies so perfectly to David Stern. Not only did he do things “his way” but it invariably turned out to be the right way and David left the NBA and the world a far better place because of his enormous contributions. David Stern was the stuff that legends are made of: a larger than life figure that left this world with a legacy of admiration, respect and love.

Published on January 8, 2014

Written by Leonard Armato