David Stern could be a scary guy.
As a younger reporter covering the league, I remember rehearsing a question about the state of the Knicks over and over in my head before asking it at Stern’s annual All-Star Game news conference. If the NBA commissioner didn’t like your question, he would have no problem tearing it and you apart, which could be kind of funny when it was happening to another reporter but wasn’t so great when you were the focus of his attention.
Yes, he ripped me. I can’t remember the details. I think I blacked out.
But like every other reporter in the room, I came to appreciate the theater of Stern’s news conferences. That’s because I knew that behind Stern’s razor sharp mind and tongue was a progressive businessman who cared about his sport — and even the reporters who covered it — with a passion.
Stern, who died Wednesday at the age of 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage last month, was the most important commissioner in the history of American sports. No other commissioner comes close. Not Bowie Kuhn. Not Pete Rozelle.
I say this not only because Stern in his 30-year tenure transformed the NBA from a sleepy fringe league to a global and cultural powerhouse. I say this not because he revolutionized sports marketing by realizing the key to growth was emphasizing and marketing star players and personalities. What sets Stern apart from the other great sports commissioners of his time is he realized how he could use his sport to effect positive social change.
No one knows this more than Magic Johnson. After Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, Stern literally welcomed him back into the league with open arms. In 1992, on live TV at the All-Star Game, he hugged Johnson to demonstrate that HIV wasn’t casually contagious.
“When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand,” Johnson tweeted Wednesday. “When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.”
The NBA was the first league to have African-American owners, general managers, coaches and league officials. In 1997— more than a decade before any other major sport was talking about female officials — the NBA hired Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner as fulltime referees.
Stern elevated women’s basketball to a new level when he launched the WNBA in 1996 and put the league’s marketing muscle behind it.
“The WNBA will be forever grateful for his exemplary leadership and vision that led to the founding of our league,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said Wednesday in a statement. “His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball.”
The NBA was an inclusive league and that inclusiveness included reporters.
In 1992, Alonzo Mourning, then a rookie, tried to bully longtime NBA columnist Ailene Voisin into leaving a locker room. When she refused to leave before finishing her interview, he began cursing at her. Stern tracked her down on the phone the next day — not an easy task before cell phones — and apologized on behalf of the league. Charlotte’s general manager Dave Twardzik and Mourning also called to apologize. This was less than two years after Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson had to sue the New England Patriots after she was harassed in the locker room.
Stern may have ripped you to your face in a news conference, but if you were a female reporter, he had your back.
At the same All-Star Game where I nervously asked Stern a question, I later ran into him in a hallway outside the media area. He asked how the Knicks were treating me, and I remember telling him I had never had a problem. “If that ever changes, give me a call,” he said.
He will be missed.