The NBA community rightfully and (by all accounts from those in attendance) beautifully bid farewell to David Stern Tuesday, a memorial service at New York’s Radio City Music Hall filled to its rafters with those whose personal and professional lives were so touched by the late NBA commissioner.
Stern’s was a life uncontainable by one eulogy; memories reportedly were shared by Stern’s successor Adam Silver, by NBA greats on the sidelines (Pat Riley) and the court (Magic Johnson), and by Stern’s son Eric. For all the reasons discussed in the days following Stern’s New Year’s Day death from complications of a brain hemorrhage, his was a career worth celebrating, for reviving the NBA when it was at its lowest point, for pushing the league to unprecedented international heights, for managing a central office built on inclusion and open dialogue, for leading from the front, even when that made him unpopular.
One of the comments to come out of Tuesday’s memorial struck me as particularly true, with Silver saying of his longtime boss and mentor, “David said, ‘It doesn’t matter what people think about you, but what they feel about you.’ ”
I didn’t know Stern personally or even all that well professionally, not having covered the NBA with much regularity across two-plus decades as a sports reporter. But I can tell you how David Stern made me feel anyway. He made me feel important. He made me feel seen. He made me feel excited. And he made me feel proud.
When Stern put his trust in another fellow lawyer and basketball colleague and empowered Val Ackerman to build a business plan for a new women’s professional basketball league, when he put his reputation and his gravitas behind the fledgling WNBA, he spoke to the value and importance of women’s sports in a way no major men’s professional league ever had (or still has).
And last week, when the WNBA announced a new eight-year collective bargaining agreement that includes a 53 percent increase in total cash compensation for players as well as groundbreaking benefits such as fully paid maternity leave, the sports world spoke to just how right Stern was in pushing a vision too many of his contemporaries were ready to laugh off as a novelty or vanity project.
I spoke not long ago with Ackerman (now the commissioner of the Big East) because I wanted to hear her perspective on Stern, working alongside him as she did as the first WNBA commissioner. Like her friend and colleague Silver, she remembered Stern’s abiding words. “David would always say what’s important isn’t just what people say about you but what they feel about you,” said Ackerman.
“[The WNBA] was a labor of not just dollars but of love. There was a cause element that I think continues to this day. Those of us working on it felt we were part of something bigger than sports. It was about advancement and empowerment, young girls having adult women to look up to, young boys too, fathers having an activity with their daughters.
“It was something that transcended what sports leagues are normally all about. David was a master of looking around corners. He could know and could act on things.”
And so he did, nursing an idea from infancy, making sure the right steps were being taken even as the rest of the sports world was looking elsewhere. He saw the rise of the Connecticut women’s basketball team in the early 1990s. While the men’s Dream Team was lighting up the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, he wondered what a fully supported women’s national team could do. He got some of those answers in the landmark ’96 Games in Atlanta, the ones so dominated by American women athletes.
He knew those accomplishments were happening with only the most basic infrastructure.
Ackerman remembers a story as the ’90s began, when her friend Betty Jaynes, who had founded the Women’s Basketball Coaching Association to connect colleagues across the country, was scrambling for a replacement after Adidas pulled out as sponsor of the group’s annual coaches party at the Women’s Final Four. Jaynes called Ackerman, then working in the NBA’s legal department, to ask if the league might consider stepping up. Ackerman went to deputy Russ Granik, who gave it the green light.
“That first year, 1990, in Knoxville, I remember going down there and standing at the door,” Ackerman said. “We had a small NBA sign we had gotten from our licensing department, and we had these white water bottles with the NBA logo that we handed out at the door to 700 coaches.
“After that weekend, I got 500 handwritten thank you notes, all of them from coaches who appreciated that the NBA thought enough of them and women’s basketball to support their party.
“I put them in a manila folder and I walked into David’s office and handed him the folder. He was speechless.”
Not for long.
The movement was on. When Ackerman drew up the business plan for a 12-player, 10-month international tour in the fall of 1995 that would take the players right up to the Atlanta Games, USA Basketball balked at the $3 million price tag, wondering whether the women needed to be together that long or be paid $50,000 per player, fearful as they were of the tour losing money. The NBA guaranteed any potential debt.
They never had to pay.
“He thought it was good for basketball,” Ackerman said. “He was on top of the state of the women’s game, all the social trends, and he could see which way the winds were blowing with women’s sports. Selfishly, it was a way to own basketball year round. We never look at anything other than a summer season; it was a way to complement the NBA, basketball 12 months a year.
“What it says about him is he had great range. He contributed in such a far-reaching way to not just the basketball world but the sports industry. It was under David. We all bore witness to it, to the growth of the NBA as a sports league and an entertainment property.
“He was capitalizing on the global opportunities that the Dream Team had accelerated. He could leverage that. He was talking technology when no one was talking technology. He was thinking about race and diversity long before it became common. And women, he understood how important women were to the future of basketball.”
Safely tucked away back in her home office, Ackerman still has that business plan, a tangible reminder of what can be built when the right people and the right ideas come together. For the WNBA, Stern was both right, and right on time. I know how that makes me feel: Grateful.