Feb. 1 marked the end of an era for the NBA. After 30 years on the job, David Stern bid adieu to the league that has made him one of the most powerful men in professional sports. He handed the golden sphere of the NBA to deputy commissioner Adam Silver, leaving behind a complex but historic legacy.
Polarizing is a good way to describe Stern. Our friends in the Pacific Northwest consider him evil and maniacal for his part in allowing the Sonics to leave Seattle for the dry and dusty climate of Oklahoma City. It’s easier for Seattleites to blame Stern for the negative outcome than to face the totality of the situation, but that is their prerogative as sports fans.
In Sacramento, Stern is revered. It wasn’t always that way, but he has cemented his legacy in Sacramento lore. Be it his penchant for wearing purple ties or his unwavering support for the little guy, Stern is more likely to have a statue outside of the new downtown arena than have a negative word said about him. Without Stern’s influence and guidance, Sacramento would no longer be an NBA city.
While the personal experience of the individual may vary, there is no arguing the effectiveness of Stern as the leader of the multi-billion dollar NBA brand.
“He’s arguably, if not definitely, the greatest commissioner of all time, and he’s arguably one of the best CEOs of all time of any business,” Kings president and former NBA executive Chris Granger told Cowbell Kingdom. “What he’s done for the NBA is unparalleled.”
The year that Stern took office is the same year that Gregg Lukenbill and Joe Benvenuti purchased the Kansas City Kings for a sum of $12 million. A year later and with the blessing of Stern, the team was moved west and the Sacramento Kings era began.
Twenty-eight years later, that same team sold for a record $534 million to the Vivek Ranadivé ownership group.
Stern has done the same thing for the NBA as a whole, growing the brand on a global scale. Over the course of his tenure, the league expanded by seven teams. There are now league offices all around the world and the television deal coming in the next year may put the NBA on the same footing as the NFL and MLB.
He has made the NBA a household name and at the same time, been mindful of why the league has enjoyed such great success. It’s a star-driven league and a league of bright lights and big cities. And it’s also a league that organically grows by staying true to its small-market roots.
“He’s been a person who took the NBA and built it into a global brand,” Sacramento mayor and former NBA star Kevin Johnson told Cowbell Kingdom. “He’s been a role model, and he’s been an unbelievable supporter of small and mid-sized markets.”
It’s not easy to champion both the big guy and the little guy at the same time, but that is precisely the tight rope Stern has walked. Sure, there have been failures during his time in office, but those pale in comparison to his successes.
Simply put, Stern is leaving behind a legacy that will not be easy to match.
Stern, the mentor
From trips to New York for the Board of Governors meetings to Las Vegas Summer League, we have learned a lot about the NBA and its inner workings. The overwhelming sense that has developed is that the NBA is not some giant, impersonal bureaucracy with thousands of employees floating around; it is a tight-knit family, filled with “lifers.”
In a similar way that Stern created a global brand while preserving the small market, the inner workings of his empire has the soul of a mom and pop shop.
Maybe that’s why we were so shocked when Chris Granger left the comfortable confines of the NBA’s New York offices to take over the Kings.
“As he will tell the story, he plucked me out of obscurity from business school, so he’s been my guy for almost 15 years or so,” Granger said. “I’m going to miss his friendship more than anything else.”
This is the story of Stern repeated time and time again. He meticulously selected the people that have made his business model so successful, including Silver, his successor. Once inside the walls of the NBA, Stern took a hands-on approach to developing his team.
“What I think I learned most from him is the importance of high expectations, the importance of attention to detail (and) just really, the importance of execution,” Granger said. “It’s one thing to have a great strategy and be high-minded about something, but at the end of the day, you have to execute. You have to execute with precision and with aggression and with passion along the way. And that’s something he does every single day and has done for 30 years.”
That mentorship spilled over to more than just the people at the league offices. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds two times over the course of three years, mayor Johnson credits Stern with giving him a heavy dose of perspective.
“Over the last couple of years, obviously when we’re in this battle to keep our basketball team, he remained objective,” Johnson said. “He remained thoughtful, he remained supportive in the way that he could. He basically said, ‘What I have taught you in the NBA, if nothing else, is don’t give up as long as there is time on the clock.’”
Johnson is now the king (pardon the pun) of buzzer beaters and he will go down as the man who had the vision and will to reshape the city of Sacramento. But his accomplishments are a reality in part because of the support and mentorship of Stern.
From Stern to Silver…
The good folks in Seattle have been waiting for David Stern to walk away, but I’m not sure they’ll find Adam Silver any more forgiving than his predecessor. Silver has been waiting for this opportunity, being groomed for this position for years, not to transform the league, but to continue the work that he and Stern have already started.
“The ultimate testament to somebody being successful is, ‘Do you have the right succession plan?’” Johnson said. “He’s handing the baton off to somebody who’s learned over the years. They’ve got different styles, but Adam’s going to build on what the commissioner’s done, and it won’t take very long.”
Silver is not a Stern clone. But their values as professionals have been aligned for years. Stern may appear as a dictator, but he has always been flanked by a council of personalities. Silver is not a faceless, nameless pawn in Stern’s game. Rather, he has been the commissioner’s right hand every step of the way.
“Adam is phenomenal,” Granger said. “Adam’s been involved in every important decision in the NBA for 22 years. He is as creative as can be. He is inclusive in soliciting opinions, and the NBA is in great shape with Adam.
“I think Adam is a risk taker,” Granger continued. “I think he is inventive and willing to try different approaches on things. He’s a consensus builder. I think you’re going to see much more engagement from multiple owners from across the league on how the league is operating over time. And I think that’s going to be a great strength of the league going forward.”
It won’t be long before Stern’s reign is just a long chapter in the history of professional basketball. He will be credited with taking the league to the next level. While Seattle is no longer an NBA city, Miami, Minneapolis, Charlotte, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Memphis, Orlando and even Sacramento have Stern to thank for their NBA existence.
The league is as healthy as it has ever been despite lockouts, referee scandals and attempted relocations. Silver is being handed a turn-key business free of the major controversies that will plague his contemporaries. There is no NBA steroid era. There is no post-concussion lawsuit hanging over his head. There is growth and popularity and a bright future.
“You know, the guy in a press conference is fun to watch,” Johnson said of Stern. ”You can’t one-up him. Nobody can get (one) over on him. He thinks really quick on his feet. He’s witty. So I’m going to miss his charisma.”
As someone who has had the pleasure of sitting through a few of Stern’s press conferences, I couldn’t agree more with Johnson . I will miss David Stern. I will miss his wit and his snark. His complex “Stern speak” and his thrashing of some media members. He has created an amazing product and has done it his way.
The NBA is in great hands going forward, but Silver has some huge shoes to fill.