PHILADELPHIA – David Stern is no stranger to the long battle against legalized betting in American sports. In 1991, he testified in the U.S. Senate hearings that led to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.
The Supreme Court overturned that law 18 months ago, opening the door to expanded sports betting, and now the former NBA commissioner is all in.
“When I stepped away [in 2014] and Adam Silver came out in favor of sports betting, I agreed,” he told Newsday on Wednesday before appearing at the SeventySix Capital Sports Innovation Conference at Citizens Bank Park.
“The end was in sight once fantasy [sports] got started. I fail to see a difference.”
Stern believes regulated sports gambling, now active in 13 states with more to come, will be a boon for leagues.
“They’ll be able to attract new viewers, which historically you can’t, because they’re not really viewers, they’re bettors,” he said. “But they’re going to count. And it will cause others to stay longer [watching games], which is good for ratings. So, there you go.”
Stern, who was commissioner for 30 years, said he is busier than ever serving on various non-profit boards and as an investor, including in technology-related products.
One of his ventures is called “ShotTracker,” which provides real-time data that can be used by coaches to improve performance, by media outlets to tell stories and, yes, by bettors to gather potentially valuable information.
“I’m fascinated that sports betting is actually going to be here, and I’m curious about where it’s going to take us and what’s going to be important,” he said.
Stern, 77, said his personal priority and one he established at the NBA is lifelong learning, up to and including how technology can be used to improve everything from player health to betting-related numbers-crunching.
“[At the NBA] we learned about cable, we learned about satellite, we learned about the Internet, we learned about social media and it was just a continuing process,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Stern weighed in on several other matters, including:
Regarding the firestorm that Rockets GM Daryl Morey ignited last month with a tweet that supported Hong Kong protesters, angering Chinese officials while NBA teams were visiting the country, Stern said;
“I think that Adam did a very great and courageous job of shepherding the teams through that situation and maintaining the even keel that he’s known for and stepping up for American values.
“It pains me that people criticized him and the NBA, because he very forthrightly stood up for Daryl Morey and he expressed regret that those remarks offended people or pained people. But I understood what he was saying.
“The idea that people felt comfortable saying after the fact, ‘Well, the NBA is just trying to sell stuff.’ Well, yeah, and trade negotiations with China involving the U.S. involves America trying to sell stuff to China – $50 billion of pork bellies and soybeans and agricultural products.
“So should we feel guilty the NBA, as part of a very curated relationship with China, might or might not profit from television, and a couple of games, and Nike apparel sales? It’s interesting to me. Nike: no. But pork bellies: yes.”
State of the Game
What does Stern think about the current state of the NBA game?
“I love it,” he said. “The exploitation of the three-point shot, for example, is incredible to me, because it just demonstrates how skilled our players have become. The three-point line is no longer a challenge.
“In fact, we have guys that are shooting 40 percent from three feet beyond that line, and it has changed the game and will continue to change the game, I think.”
But is he OK with that stylistically? “Oh, yeah, there’s a pendulum that swings. Yes, I’m stylistically OK with it . . . If you don’t like it, change the rules. I don’t have a suggestion, but if you don’t like it, change the rules.”
Asked whether he thinks the Knicks ever will be good again, he said, “I do. I do. I tell everyone they’re only one player away, and someone yelled out to me, ‘Who?’ And I said, ‘Michael Jordan in his prime.’”
What about the Nets?
“Right now I think all they’ve done in their present roster is exchange D’Angelo Russell and Kyrie Irving. But they had done the work before to construct a very interesting roster that had gotten to the playoffs.”
Does Silver ever pick his brain for advice?
“There’s nothing left in my brain,” he said. “But we’re still good friends. We visit socially and we talk. Every couple of weeks we check in. We talk about things that only commissioners can talk about.”
During an on-stage interview after he spoke to Newsday, Stern expressed regret that he was not tougher on Phil Jackson when Jackson was coaching the Bulls in the 1990s and complained about referees.
“Phil got away with murder,” he said. “If I had it to do over again, I would suspend him.”
Stern said that during the Knicks-Bulls battles of that era, Pat Riley and Jackson at times responded to losses by asserting that the league was angling for a longer playoff series.
“I think that contributed to fans questioning the authenticity and integrity of the referees,” he said. “They didn’t mean to; they were just pushing the way coaches do.”
Mandela and Magic
Asked to name his most memorable moment as commissioner, Stern recalled two: Hugging Magic Johnson after he was named MVP of the 1992 All-Star Game – not long after he announced he was HIV positive – and meeting Nelson Mandela during a 1994 tour of South Africa.
The great games and players of his era, he said, “were fun, but these [two moments] were, for me and for the league, somewhat lifechanging.”