Outgoing NBA commissioner David Stern transformed the league into a powerhouse
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Keyon Dooling knows how to run an offense and keep teammates happy, but seeing NBA commissioner David Stern steer a multibillion-dollar enterprise and balance all its components was inspiring and life-changing for the now-retired point guard.
Dooling, the former first vice president of the players' union, tried getting the players the best deal in bargaining sessions in 2011. He also studied Stern the way he would a playbook, watched him as closely as he would game video.
Those meetings were an education for Dooling.
"He's the most unique individual I've ever been around," Dooling said. "I've seen him in so many different layers and personalities -- whether he has to be in tough mode or visionary mode or lawyer mode or he cares mode. I'm very fortunate I got to serve on the union. I'm a better man because I got to be around him and hear him speak and talk and interact with people."
Stern's 30-year run as probably the greatest commissioner in professional sports will end Saturday. Deputy commissioner Adam Silver will replace the 71-year-old Stern.
"I really respect that he knew my name," said Dooling, who played on seven teams in 13 years. "I was never a marquee player. I was never a starter. Every time I had an encounter with him, I felt like nothing else in the world mattered. To be a great businessman and visionary, you have to be a one-minute manager. He can get into that moment with anybody and nothing else matters."
A Rutgers University and Columbia Law School graduate, Stern joined the NBA as general counsel in 1978. He leaves an indelible and incomparable legacy and lived up to his surname as a commissioner. Players, coaches, networks and everyone involved with the NBA benefited.
Stern is largely responsible for the NBA becoming as big, global and profitable as it is.
"He has transformed the NBA in ways nobody could imagine," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a former NBA senior vice president who worked with Stern for 12 years. "He was a pioneer in the transformation of sports leagues into businesses."
Nothing but growth
Since Stern replaced Lawrence O'Brien in 1984, the NBA went from 23 teams to 30, league revenue skyrocketed from $165 million to a projected $5.5 billion for 2013, the television deal soared from $28.5 million to $937 million annually, and the average salary for players jumped from $270,000 to roughly $5.5 million.
Two countries aired games in 1984. It's now in 215 countries and territories and 47 languages, and preseason and regular-season games are played outside of North America.
"He took over a league that had regional interest, made it into a national league and then made that into a global league -- that's a pretty good day's work," Pacers basketball consultant and former Knicks president Donnie Walsh said.
In the early 1980s, NBA Finals games aired on tape delay. The league wasn't that popular, was considered too urban and didn't register with Madison Avenue. Drug use was rampant. Stern helped change everything.
He implemented professional sports' first antidrug agreement, collective-bargaining agreement and salary cap, and started cleaning up the league's image. Finals games now are aired in prime time. All-Star Weekend has become an event. The game is always on.
Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan contributed mightily to the NBA's popularity, but Stern's fingerprints are everywhere.
"I don't see many, if any, who could have driven the league to where it is, even with the great players who came through," NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said. "David took it higher than anybody else could have."
USA Basketball chairman and managing director Jerry Colangelo, who spent 43 years with the Phoenix Suns as coach, executive and owner, was hand-picked by Stern to lead a committee to change the rules to speed up the game and feature more scoring. He credits Stern for the NBA's growth and improving the product overall.
"David hands off to Adam a league that's prospering, solid and has an incredible future," Colangelo said. "He should be very proud of what he's accomplished."
Stern's news conferences also became events. He usually had something pointed and significant to say, messages to convey. He could be sarcastic, condescending and funny.
Last week, Silver said that when something arises, "his first instincts" will be to call Stern for advice.
"It's going to be busy, a busy signal," said Stern, who has tried deflecting attention during his farewell.
"I've been knocking myself out for 30 years," he said. "We've had some good successes. We've had some difficulties. But I think that if you just look to what the modern NBA has become, my greatest accomplishment was in hiring the now 1,200 people that have taken this league to where it is and under Adam's leadership are going to take it to where it's going, which is higher yet."
Protector and negotiator
Stern navigated the NBA through some rough waters: the Malice at the Palace in 2004, Tim Donaghy's betting scandal in 2007 and lockouts in 1995, 1998-99 and 2011.
He recently denounced Dennis Rodman's game featuring other former players for controversial North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's birthday, saying the NBA had no involvement.
Stern has been the league's caretaker and protector of the brand.
He instituted a player dress code and helped create NBA Cares, which has raised more than $225 million for charity, and global development and community outreach program Basketball Without Borders.
"Something that was as important to him as anything was what the NBA could accomplish that didn't relate directly to basketball," former deputy commissioner and COO Russ Granik said. "What impact the NBA could have in the community, in international relations and a whole host of different areas that were beneficial to causes greater than just basketball."
Granik spent 30 years in the NBA, starting as a staff attorney in 1976. Now vice chairman of Galatioto Sports Partners, an investment bank dealing with sports teams, Granik remembers feeling uneasy when he and the hard-driving Stern negotiated their first television renewal deal with CBS.
"We were $5- or $6 million apart on a four-year television deal and I was like, 'David, let's take this and get it done,' " Granik said. "He was adamant, 'No, no, no. I'm hanging in there for that last bit.' I was pretty nervous we would lose the whole deal when we didn't really have a lot of options. In the end, we got that little bit. That was David as a negotiator.
"David always had an ability to sort of sense where the sports business as a whole was heading."
Thorn said Stern always could "sway the room. He listens, but at the end of the day, he has to make decisions. He can convince those that are part of that decision-making process or whoever he has to make a decision for that his opinion is the prevailing one."
Walsh remembers dealing with Stern after the Pacers-Pistons brawl in which Indiana players went into the stands and fought fans. Three Pacers were suspended a total of 118 games.
"We had no shot," Walsh said, laughing. "It didn't appear like we had any shot at all in that negotiation. I never faulted David because I felt he was doing what he had to do for the league."
Of course, not everyone always agreed with Stern.
He and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have had healthy debates and disagreements. Stern has fined Cuban nearly $2 million, including $100,000 last week for confronting referees after a game.
You knew Cuban would force Stern to fine him one last time.
"David loves being right and he loves being out front," Cuban said. "Those qualities have pushed him to stay ahead of business and technology curves which have enabled the NBA to grow, evolve and prosper."
Cuban also praised Stern for doing "an amazing job. The growth and success of the league speaks for itself."
Stern's indelible legacy
Thirty years ago, the NBA occupied about half of the 15th floor of its Fifth Avenue building. Now the NBA has seven floors and offices in 15 countries.
Stern tried to create equal opportunity by bringing in the first African-American owners in professional sports, starting the WNBA and hiring the first two women referees. He's also given NBA players the platform to be successful after their careers end.
Dooling feels indebted to Stern for that. Dooling describes himself as "a guy who came from nothing," and he's financially secure. Now a certified life coach, Dooling brings some of what he gleaned from Stern to his new career.
"When you have the duty of NBA commissioner, economically you impact the world, socially," Dooling said. "He has to do what's best for the television, for the players, for the coaches, for his employees. He masters every category, every pocket. No matter the category or pocket, he analyzes it. He masters and he executes it.
"Anybody who can manage billionaires and multimillionaires in that way -- are you kidding me? He should write eight books."