Pressing Forward
Sports Illustrated India|December 2018

Nearly five years after stepping down (he did not retire) as NBA commissioner, DAVID STERN has no time for war stories. The reticent icon is busy crafting a second act that could impact the future of the game.

Chris Ballard

“ASK ME ANYTHING,” DAVID STERN SAYS.

It’s a Wednesday morning in August. We’re sitting in his new office, 33 floors above Fifth Avenue and five blocks from his old office. Outside, it’s so hot that the thermostat has been locked at 25ºC to conserve energy. In here, however, Stern—76 years old, shirt creased, white hair still parted as if by laser—is unperturbed. If anything, he appears to be in a great mood.

Ask him anything? Where to start? In 30 years as NBA commissioner, Stern led a floundering league to unprecedented growth. Since his departure LeBron moved back to Cleveland, the Warriors became The Warriors, Donald Sterling got the boot, and LeBron left Cleveland again. And this is not even touching on the larger cultura l shif ts; remember, a year ago, when Mark Cuban was seriously considering running for President?

Anything? How about what Stern has learned? What he misses? Why didn’t he trade CP3 to the Lakers? Is that really the Larry O’Brien trophy over there on the shelf? Did he just give me a printed itinerary for our day? Does he always eat peanut butter cookies for breakfast? Does this mean I can eat peanut butter cookies for breakfast?

Or how about the deeper stuff: about family and motivation, what drove him to work 14-hour days and demand his staff do the same, and what drives him to keep showing up at the office from 10 to seven? Can he turn that stuff on and off or is he on some workaholic autopilot, a virtue that doubles as a flaw, forever keeping him from really pondering the why of life?

Then again, maybe I’m overthinking this. Stern only said to ask anything. He didn’t say he’d answer. Because when has David Stern ever divulged anything he didn’t want to divulge?

HIS WAS A triumphant, carefully choreographed exit. On February 1, 2014, after a nice round anniversary, Stern handed the job to his hand-picked successor, Adam Silver. Six months later Stern was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

What Stern didn’t do, in any way, shape or form, was retire. “He hates when people say that,” says Silver. No, Stern will explain with exasperation, as if you are a third-grader who forgot his homework yet again, all he did was step down. And just so we’re clear: He did so on his terms. Because retiring is something old people do. Boring people. People unlike David Stern.

Even so, you could be forgiven for assuming that he had. In the half decade since, Stern has mostly dropped out of public view. No memoir to burnish his legacy—despite what he describes as “many, many” entreaties from literary agents. (“Too self-important,” he explains. “Just thinking about it gives me a rash!”) Stern agrees to infrequent interviews, which are usually brief or esoteric. (He was a guest on the first and only podcast of freelance writer Nunyo Demasio; he spoke to former NBA player Al Harrington for a video series on medical marijuana, which Stern supports.) Occasionally, he shares anecdotes—how he once beat Donald Trump at doubles tennis, for example—but rarely does he go into detail because, he says, “I don’t do war stories.” On the contrary, he’s made an effort to limit his exposure. Upon hearing that his Q&A at Seton Hall in April with former players association head Charlie Grantham is now on YouTube, he says, “Was that recorded? Oh s***.” The reason for this reticence, Stern says, is that, “There can be only one commissioner.”

And the 56-year-old Silver has thrived in the position. He is markedly different from his mentor: forthcoming, a bit goofy, sensitive—even vulnerable. Whereas Stern often played the role of emperor, forever beating back the barbarians at the gate (the media and players union), Silver comes across more like a friend or an ally. One of his first acts was to drop the hammer on Sterling, the racist, sexist owner of the Clippers, who was banned from the NBA for life and forced to sell his team. Silver is open to feedback, encourages his players to speak out. He is a woke commissioner for a woke age.

This is not to diminish Stern’s cultural legacy. He was ahead of the curve on many social issues. Met with Mandela. In 1992, on live TV at the All-Star Game, he hugged Magic Johnson—his favourite player ever—to demonstrate that HIV wasn’t casually contagious. He arranged for a climate-change expert to appear at the owners’ meetings way back in 2006. He pushed for African-American owners in his league at a time when the big four sports had none.

To this day Stern remains a staunch liberal, donating even if, as he puts it, “The Democratic Party has not been a successful investment.” Still, he has plenty of ideas. He hated Hillary Clinton’s “Stronger Together” and “I’m With Her” campaign slogans (too narrow, unlike, say, “Prosperity, Strength, Inclusiveness and Education,” which Stern offers). And he is horrified by his former doubles opponent. “How dare he rip the fabric of the republic asunder for narrow partisan gains,” Stern says of Trump. “It’s not fair.”

He does what he can, regularly speaking with Democratic figures he’d rather I not name. Dianne, his wife of 55 years, is on the board of Earthjustice, an organisation that provides legal aid for environmental causes. Even so, Stern feels he has more to add to the Democrats but, “They don’t ask and they don’t value [the advice].” Friends lobbied him to run for mayor of New York City. He was also mentioned as a possible ambassador. Neither job was for him, though.

His passion lies elsewhere.

YOU DON’T WANT to write about me,” Stern said back in June. I had been trying to reach him since January. “My life is boring. Stultifying.”

Plus, he didn’t want me following him to his business meetings, as I’d proposed. What would the investors think? No, that would not do. Besides, Stern was so, so busy—the engagements and advisories and consultancies and investments and, oh hell, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad for someone to witness it after all. Maybe he could even teach a reporter a thing or two. We set a date.

But then, in the interim, he talked himself out of it. On second thought, the idea struck him as “ridiculous” and “stupid.” Still, he felt guilty about backing out. “I’ll do my penance,” he said. He offered a new scenario: lunch and an interview at his office.

For a high-profile figure, Stern has managed to keep much of his life private. His father, William, was a passionate, demanding man who put his life into the family business, Stern’s Deli, on 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Stern’s was open seven days a week, and until 1 a.m. on Saturday nights. David’s mother, Anna, the ballast in the family, was the bookkeeper. David and his two sisters worked weekend shifts.

William passed away in 1980, at 62, but his work ethic imprinted. David excelled at Teaneck High (New Jersey), then at Rutgers and Columbia Law School. He began representing the NBA in court cases in ’67 while at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, worked on the ABA-NBA merger in ’76, then left to become the NBA’s first general counsel, later ascending to executive VP. The league was struggling: 16 of the 23 teams lost money in ’80-81, and an ’82 Los Angeles Times story reported that up to 75% of the players were on drugs.

By the time Stern became commissioner, in 1984, he’d long since lost the battle for work-life balance. He and Dianne had two sons, Eric and Andrew. Once, Stern had coached both their basketball teams. Now he went “all in,” as he likes to say, working as long as it took to get things right, which was often very, very long. Surrounding himself with young, ambitious people, Stern instilled a culture of near manic productivity. He’d later be described as “abrasive” (Rod Thorn) and “a yeller” (Steve Mills), but no one questioned Stern’s effectiveness. He also countered his demanding, berating nature with a heavy dose of mentorship.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM SPORTS ILLUSTRATED INDIAView All

Hockey World Cup- India Gears Up For Glory

Hosts India will have to play out of their skins to win their second Hockey Men’s World Cup title.

10 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Beating The Odds, Twice Over

Mary Kom’s decision to launch her own boxing academy was as daunting as her road to becoming a six-time world champion.

7 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Target Tokyo

Still A Month Shy Of Turning 21, Indian Athletics’ Poster Boy Neeraj Chopra Is Setting His Sights On A Medal On The Biggest Stage Of Them All: The 2020 Olympics In Tokyo.

9 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Sascha Statement

Alexander Zverev did not impress at Grand Slams this year but in a tournament that featured the eight best pros, he came up trumps.

5 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Tarmac Tormentor

By clinching the World Championship title for the fifth time, Marc Marquez has begun his ascent towards becoming a motorcycle racing legend.

6 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Racing In Nature's Lap

Arunachal Pradesh hosted the Indian National Rally Championship’s third leg on a national highway, a first in the history of rally racing.

3 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Pressing Forward

Nearly five years after stepping down (he did not retire) as NBA commissioner, DAVID STERN has no time for war stories. The reticent icon is busy crafting a second act that could impact the future of the game.

10+ mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Marin Shuttles Back ‘Home'

Pune gifted the world badminton. Now, they are ready to embrace the World Champion.

2 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Golden Memories

India’s 1975 World Cup-winning hockey team’s captain revisits his team’s path to glory in Kuala Lumpur.

4 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018

Action With A Twist

New trends have emerged at the half-way stage of season VI of the Pro Kabaddi league.

5 mins read
Sports Illustrated India
December 2018
RELATED STORIES

Three-step Process

Using a refined method gives artist Catherine Hearding the framework for her paintings

7 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

Simple Circles

John Lovett provides tips on how to use circles in perspective

4 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

The Spirit of Volunteerism at the Portrait Society of America

My home state of Tennessee is known as the “volunteer” state, which means volunteerism is in our DNA.

3 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

OF LOVE and LONGING

Portraits by Alex Venezia

5 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

Making Goals

Each composition Sue Miller paints has specific technical goals to enhance the overall vision

6 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

Colorful Effects

Evie Zimmer uses her background in representational art to paint detailed abstractions that combine color and shapes

6 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

Savannah

Of all the things that inspire me, I am mostly drawn to painting people— portraits, figures, figures in a landscape, etc.

4 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

Master Showcase

THE ART OF THE PORTRAIT

4 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

A PAINTER'S JOURNEY PART 7 The Painter as Teacher

In the final article of this seven-part series, John Hulsey concludes his visual journey through his outdoor and studio painting processes.

8 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021

Internal Strength

Anna Wypych’s paintings are united by positive feelings and encouragement

7 mins read
International Artist
December - January 2021