David Stern discusses the dress code, player power and the game today
‘I have no regrets,’ says the former NBA commissioner. ‘I know that sounds crazy.’
NEW YORK — It’s been five years since NBA commissioner David Stern handed the baton to Adam Silver. A lot has happened in the league during that time, from former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling being banned from the league for racist statements to the Golden State Warriors winning three titles to LeBron James and other NBA stars making their voices known on social issues and calling shots as to where they want to play to women joining coaching staffs and front offices.
From the 33rd floor of a Manhattan high-rise office building near Central Park on this August day, the still-busy 76-year-old told The Undefeated that he loves the direction of the NBA and has “no regrets” about his own 30-year tenure.
“I have no regrets. I know that sounds crazy,” Stern told The Undefeated. “Other than the regrets of lockouts, I would love to have had clear sailing and unanimous agreement on collective bargaining, but I didn’t, and that’s a failure, I would say. I am so happy because when I took over the NBA, our players’ reputations were, I would say, in the basement of the pyramid of celebrity. And now they’re at the tippy-tip of the celebrity pyramid. They’re the most listened to, the most beloved, in some ways, and the most important athletes in all of sports.”
Stern recently took part in a Q&A with The Undefeated. Here are some of the former NBA commissioner’s thoughts on the NBA’s past, present and future.
What are you up to now?
I’m involved with many sports technology startups, which is a great deal of fun, and about the game, about televising the game, and about player health. That’s a very important issue for me. Imagine if we could extend the career of every player by a year. That would be great for the players, priceless for the league. And I think that technologically speaking, NBA games are going to stream, they’re going to use virtual reality, they can use artificial intelligence, they’re going to use wearable technology. It’s going to be really interesting, and so that’s the way I stay involved.
What do you think of the state of the NBA now?
It couldn’t be in better shape. The summer league is electrifying. The free-agent movement gives the NBA ownership of a huge chunk of calendar real estate. I like the international endeavors, with the academies and the announcement of the Basketball Africa League. Adam Silver is doing a great job of growing the sport on a global basis.
What do you remember about implementing the dress code in 2005?
The [players’] union said it was a good thing to do. I did it, and then they attacked me on it. And then our players [did too]. I’m not going to embarrass you by asking what the dress code is because you wouldn’t remember that the dress code was: You could wear jeans, just wear a pair of shoes and a shirt with a collar. But our players went over the top. They started dressing, and frankly, they’ve got these great bodies and they just began to be on Gentlemen’s Quarterly and Vogue and all kinds of fancy places. And then they took it to the next level. They started designing their own fashion lines. I think it’s great. I think it’s fun.
When you watch players walk in now for games with their fashion statements, do you think, “You guys gave me the worst time about this”?
‘You guys killed me on this.’ I was being made fun of on every nighttime talk show in America. They’d draped me in gold chains and all kinds of stuff. Tattoos. But it’s great. It was an opportunity for our players to shine, and I’m glad.
Did you find it offensive that some people thought your implementation of the dress code was racist?
Well, no, because race is always an issue, and that’s just the way it is. And the NBA has always been on the edge of discussions of race. At every collective bargaining negotiation, I was accused of having a plantation mentality. It depends who wanted to use it, but it didn’t surprise me, and it doesn’t offend me anymore. It just is what it is. People use what’s in their arsenal.
But the thing I take pride in is the number of millionaires that the NBA has made and developed. Not just the owners getting wealthier because of the asset appreciation, but the players getting contracts that are off the charts without regard to their race. That’s pretty exciting to me.
What do you think about the voice now? The players seem like they speak out more than perhaps 10, 15, 20 years ago.
Yeah, we always encouraged them. And we gave them instructions on how to use social media, and they just ran with it. LeBron [James] has, I think, 50 million-plus Instagram followers, or Twitter followers. It’s great. And Adam [Silver] is a leading voice in player entitlement and empowerment. And they should talk. They should speak out because they have the power to influence on social issues. I’m very pleased to see those developments.
What do you think about how LeBron James uses his platform?
I take enormous pride in watching LeBron and his school activities, his charitable activities, and his leadership activities on social issues. It’s a great thing.
It’s the five-year anniversary of Sterling’s incident and his eventual ban from the NBA by Silver. How were you involved in helping Adam make that decision?
I wasn’t involved at all. He made the decision all on his own. And he made the only decision that I think would have been the right one.
How do you look back on former Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s situation on March 12, 1996, when he was suspended a game for refusing to participate in the national anthem?
We had a rule at that time that you had to stand for the national anthem. It was a rule that I inherited. And he announced one day that he was not going to stand, and we said, ‘Please stand. You can stay in the locker room if you’d like, you can stay in the [hallway]. You don’t have to come on the court, but if you come on the court, on the bench with your team, you’re going to have to stand.’
And he decided that he wanted to make a statement, and I was commissioner, and I suspended him for one game, and then he stood. And when he stood he looked in the wrong direction. He muttered. He did other things. That’s OK. Our rule just says stand, and that’s all we were enforcing.
What did it mean to you to see the Toronto Raptors win the championship?
Very exciting. Larry Tanenbaum, their owner, who is the chairman of the board, is a great owner. He’s a great friend. He did a great job. And Toronto is a big city, and maybe one of the best cities in the league, and everyone says, well, it’s not a good city, it’s not an American city. It’s a great North American city, and I was very pleased to see it finally get a championship.
When you see Paul George and Kawhi Leonard make their decision and get together, and you see LeBron and Anthony Davis, is that good for the league? What do you think about the power that some star players have?
I don’t think that I would categorize it as LeBron and Anthony Davis. I think that Anthony Davis decided that he had been assigned to New Orleans for a given number of years and in that period of time there was not a team put around him that was capable of regularly getting into the playoffs. And he said, ‘I’m out of here.’ And he notified them. I think that it could have been done in a quieter way. I don’t agree with his agent’s public announcement, but he notified the team in one way or another and the team did very well in trading him to the Lakers. That’s all.
And that’s been something that’s happened for years. I was a fan when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted out of Milwaukee and wanted to go to the Lakers. And there was some equally robust trade that was made to accommodate him. It’s something that’s happened in our sport for years and years.
What do you think about the diversity in the NBA now?
When you say diversity, we’ve always had an extraordinary number of African American players, but I think that the sense of openness that exists in the league enables the league to now have female coaches because of the WNBA, female referees that are now moving over into the men’s game. And the NBA is really allowed to demonstrate its complete openness under commissioner Silver, which is terrific.
When you look at “The Malice in the Palace” and some of the things at that time, behind the scenes you had to do some fighting, probably deal with some racism, some racist thoughts from fans, sponsors and possibly owners. What did you deal with back then?
When I suspended Latrell Sprewell, when he attempted to strangle P.J. Carlesimo, there was stuff on talk shows about ‘this is just another case of the man telling the boy what he can do.’ And I thought that was a little bit over the line, but I understood it. And during collective bargaining, people would accuse me, as part of the rhetoric, as being or having a plantation mentality. I never was bothered by that because I knew what I was doing was the right thing for the owners and the players.
‘The Malice in the Palace,’ it just needed a strong reaction. We couldn’t allow the barrier between players and fans to be breached because that would have deprived us of having the most available game in the world, where you can literally sit at courtside and practically touch the players as they ran by. So I gave out very strong punishment, but at the same time I was visiting with [former Indiana Pacers forward] Ron Artest. I was helping him find the right medical attention for his family members. You do what you have to do and it’s always, behind the scenes, a little bit different than it appears in front of the cameras. But no regrets there. We did what we had to do to make sure the sport was going to grow.
What do you think about NBA players leaving money on the table to join teams with an environment that is more attractive to win or even be more comfortable with teammates they are friends with?
Players have grown to the extent that it is more important to win than make the last dollar. They are making very comfortable livings by every stretch of the imagination. And they want that ring. It’s the most important thing in our game now. And that is how it should be.
Being a New Yorker, what were your thoughts on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving going to the Brooklyn Nets?
It’s going to make it exciting. But there is a big if, and that is Kevin Durant’s physical condition. Dominique Wilkins came back from an Achilles injury. I have every reason and hope to think that Kevin will come back [strong]. But it will be a year. … The Nets gave up a very good player in D’Angelo Russell [to Golden State for Durant]. It’s interesting.
Are you surprised that the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers now have a real rivalry?
No. It was preordained and was always going to be. They’re going to hate each other. It’s going to be a great rivalry. And the Nets and Knicks are going to have a great rivalry too. A lot of people are counting the Knicks out, but they’re going to be better than people expect.
How often do you go to NBA games now?
I watch everything on TV. I don’t go to games often. I don’t remember the last time I went to a game. Every now and then I go. In February when it’s nice and cold out there, I have a 75-inch screen with Dolby surround sound, I opt to stay home. But I watch a lot of games.
What do you think about that Basketball Africa league? Were you surprised the NBA is doing this?
No, because we sent Amadou Gallo Fall over there to develop basketball on the African continent, and I think at every All-Star Game we always entertained federations from Africa: from Senegal, South Africa, Angola. There are serious African basketball countries and this is a natural outgrowth, to take some number of cities in Africa and make a league out of those cities. And outside the U.S., the format is a little different. It’s a little bit like soccer: You can play in two leagues at the same time. You can play in your country league and you can play in a transcontinental league. And I think that’s what’s going to happen in Africa as well.
What’s your take on notable players dropping out of the World Cup team?
FIBA made a mistake moving the World Cup into odd years. And as a result, you are asking players to play in the FIBA world championship, play in the season and then play in the Olympics. And I think that pushed a lot of players to feel that they should make a choice between back-to-back years of international competition. And that’s it. I actually love the idea that there are a bunch of young players that are playing in the World Cup. I hope they win. But I think they will, and I think it’s exciting to see the young players step out and be recognized.