The phone – yes, an actual house phone – rang on a Saturday morning in 1998 and it was a call you could never expect as a beat reporter covering an NBA team.
It was David Stern, phoning out of the blue. We had become business-friendly through the years, particularly in the seasons when the Rockets won their NBA titles in 1994 and ’95.
But getting a call from one of the most powerful men in sports tends to throw you for a moment when you aren’t expecting it.
It turned out that Stern was calling to brief me on the Rockets’ incoming president, George Postolos, who was on Stern’s staff at the NBA office.
He provided insight and quotes that made the story something that readers could get nowhere else.
That was the kind of commissioner Stern was. He passed away on New Year’s Day at the age of 77. He left behind an army of people who have ever been associated with the NBA, foreign basketball leagues, politicians, various sponsors and friends of the league and players, coaches and executives with the WNBA and NBA Development League.
A life well-played, it was.
Listing Stern’s accomplishments would require more cyberspace than we have time to fill. But suffice it to say that he was the leader of the global boom of the NBA, took marketing to next-level extremes, expanded the league to new markets, retooled the substance-abuse policy and made NBA Entertainment and the digital side of the business what it has become today.
As Dirk Nowitzki said via Twitter: “Sad news. We lost a legend. RIP David Stern.”
As former Maverick and two-time MVP Steve Nash said: “Thank you David Stern. You changed everything and we are eternally grateful.”
Rick Carlisle released this statement from the National Basketball Coaches Association, of which he is president: “David Stern was a trusted friend and mentor to me and countless others. David was tough and unrelenting. But those of us who knew David well respected that. We also saw a warm and compassionate side, especially in private.
“I was fortunate to sit with David in his New York office in mid-November. We talked about our families, his new business interests and the NBA. He was thoughtful, enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. He never stopped smiling.
“That is how I will remember one of the great sports leaders of our time.”
The things I will remember most about Stern are the way he talked about having lunch at a New York café with Hakeem Olajuwon just before the would-be legend was drafted by the Rockets in 1984.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Stern said 10 years later after the Rockets won the title in ’94. It was at a little Italian café on 32nd Street. And I talked with him, welcoming him to the league and talking about the future. He’s come a long, lone way.”
To which, Olajuwon agreed, saying: “He saw me coming in. And now he’s giving me all these trophies. I have to thank commissioner Stern. Looking back, I can see how the game has grown so much since I came here.”
Even before that, Stern had already left an indelible mark, particularly in the international market. In 1992, the Rockets played in Yokohama, Japan, for two regular-season opening games against Seattle. Stern was happy to indulge two writers from Houston in photos at a party for dignitaries, sponsors and the teams and their traveling parties. That’s where the photo for this story came from.
More recently, Stern was a constant sounding board/fine assessor for Mark Cuban, who wanted to improve the league’s officiating and a lot of other areas. Doing so forced Stern to create “the world’s biggest donut fund,” according to Cuban, with the fine money that Stern collected from the Mavericks’ proprietor, starting in 2000.
Stern also gave Dirk Nowitzki his MVP trophies, in 2007 for the regular season and in 2011 as MVP of the NBA finals when the Mavericks got their only championship.
One of the best assets Stern brought to the league was that he never dodged questions and he usually had a strong response to any query.
He wasn’t always on the money. He said during the ‘90s that he thought there would be an NBA team in Mexico City within 10 years.
That didn’t happen, but there is a G-League team now scheduled to start playing there next season.
More often, though, Stern made things happen. He partnered with countries around the globe to bring NBA branding to places where it never existed before, setting up NBA offices in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe.
He grew the game like no one else.
Did he have help from Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon, LeBron James, Dirk and others in the ‘80s, ‘90s and on into this millennium?
Of course. But he knew how to capitalize on the worldwide impact of those kind of players. And basketball is better for it.
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