“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
That’s when I started to really like David Stern.
It was 1980, and I was just back after a decade in the Real World, now trying to write something scrutable about the finances of pro basketball. I had been referred to David Stern, then the lawyer/financial adviser with the National Basketball Association.
After a decade in the Appalachians rather than Madison Square Garden, I remembered the N.B.A. as a haimish mom-and-pop outfit. Now, apparently, the players were making money, which meant the owners were making even more.
Stern started giving me a primer on cable television, and why NBA championships were going to be seen in prime time, by millions and millions. I must have given him my usual blank look whenever finances are discussed. (My wife knows that look well.)
Stern gave that big but lethal smile and said he would try to make it simple for me.
That first meeting set the tone for a long and respectful, if rather sporadic, relationship. Stern, who died on New Year’s Day at 77, is the best sports commissioner I ever covered – making the most impact and lasting 30 years in the job. In addition to his killer-shark business instincts, he also displayed human responses
Most sports executives treat reporters like the fools and outsiders we are, but Stern patronized me in a rather respectful way, to let me know I was worthy of a rudimentary education.
He was a business maven with the golden touch, who seemed to invent players named Bird and Magic and Michael. Amazing. He also retained at least a feel of the old funky N.B.A. The first league social function I attended – the dinner at an All-Star Game, can’t remember when or where – had its share of business types and current stars but also members of a diverse family: old office fixtures who had worked for the N.B.A. going back to the Maurice Podoloff era, plus several current female basketball players, and a lot of black faces.
Two things showed me the human side of David Stern:
---Micheal Ray Richardson had to be banned for life after testing positive once too often. I’ve seen sports leaders grow vindictive, take it personally, when their hired hands let them down, but Stern, talking to a knot of reporters, shook his head at the banishment of the charismatic but hapless star.
“This is tragedy,” he said. And I liked him even more.
---One time I wrote a column praising another sports official for taking a stand against prejudice, and on a Sunday morning I got a call at home from Stern praising the column, privately, between us.
I was not lulled into misjudging him. I was not totally surprised when Rod Thorn, a star player and long-time insider, hardly a bomb-thrower, disclosed that Stern was acerbic, demanding, around the office.
Neither did I think Stern was running a charity. When labor issues arose, he would tell reporters that he was open to any deal that would help both sides. Showing that frightening smile, he would say: “I’m easy. Easy Dave.” Oh, yeah.
The league was changing. The N.B.A. opened offices overseas, hired women – women—with language skills and contacts to do-good causes. My friends in the international press, based in New York, started to get credentials for Knicks games because the league had plans beyond the borders. One night, a couple of Italian journalists gave a KOBE 7 soccer jersey of AC Milan to the Lakers’ star, who grew up in Milan. The N.B.A. was not in Sheboygan anymore. (It used to be; you could look it up.)
Last example: A couple of decades ago, the New York Times tried to expand its horizons, with a special sports magazine. To attract influential advertisers, the Times held a little dog-and-pony show somewhere in Madison Square Garden, as I recall.
A handful of us were to give little talks to the heavy hitters. I gave a rather introverted and whiny talk about how dedicated we journalists were, as if we were humanitarian priests and nuns feeding the poor in El Salvador or something.
At the reception afterward, Easy Dave sidled over to me, and with nobody else in earshot he said, “You really don’t get it, do you? These people want to hear about the stars you meet, the games you cover, the places you go. They don’t want to hear shop talk. They want stories. Excitement. Glamor.”
As soon as I saw those teeth flashing, I knew he was right. I never had another sports executive criticize me more directly, more privately, more accurately. (Honorable mention: George Young of the football Giants and Fay Vincent of baseball.)
I could see why David Stern built the NBA into a world force. I tried to learn something from him. And now I will miss Easy Dave.
I had a wonderful time on the #NYTReadalong Feb. 7 with Sree Sreenivasan and Neil Parekh, talking about the Super Bowl and the great paper where I used to work. Thanks to all the nice people who sent messages while I was babbling. The Readalong is Sunday, 8:30-10:15 AM Eastern, and the link is available after that.
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: