NBA players, owners, broadcasters, and sportswriters uniformly agree that Commissioner Emeritus David Stern left a legacy on the game of basketball that is superior to any other major sports leader.
Since I am an avid fan, I grew to know Stern as a public figure. He served as the NBA commissioner from 1984-2014.
Yet it wasn’t his length of service that was special, but the manner in which he led that separated him from the pack of other sports leaders. As a result, in his post-commissioner role he was granted the title “Commissioner Emeritus” due to his influence on the game and its’ players worldwide.
On December 12, 2019, Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage and underwent emergency surgery. He died in Manhattan on January 1, 2020, at age 77.
As a graduate of the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute (SLI), I have been “programmed” to look for leadership principles in everything. So as I watched NBA-TV on the night of Stern’s death, I was mightily impressed with the eclectic parade of people coming on the show to offer personal stories of Stern’s impact on their life.
This wasn’t the gratuitous, “He was a good guy, etc.” These were iconic figures—Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, LeBron James, Reggie Miller, Marv Albert, among many others—who provided an avalanche of specific encounters with Stern that gave evidence to his undeniable legacy on what has become the beloved worldwide game of basketball.
It was moving, inspirational, and chilling, all at the same time. In the reflections of several former players and one sportswriter, Stern was truly a genius. LeBron James put him on par with James Naismith, the creator of the game.
This is a small list of the leadership fundamentals that were strewn from one tale to another:
- Personal compassion – David Stern knew names and details about their personal lives that surprised them. He shared a genuine compassion for their welfare as well as that of their families.
- No non-sense disciplinarian – “You didn’t want to get called to his office when you were in trouble,” said both Charles Barkley and Greg Anthony. Yet players typically left with the impression that he wanted you to succeed, and was simply showing you how the event that brought you to his office in the first place was self-destructive. Consequently, players didn’t want to “let him down” with their misbehavior.
- Protecting the product and reputation on the NBA – The NBA, like most professional sports, is an interesting sociological study based upon player backgrounds, world-class talent, and egos the size of Texas. Consequently, managing those variables required heaping scoops of diplomacy, a measured amount of tough love, the ingredient of grace, along with the attribute of mercy. Player after player reverently described Stern’s use of these values in order to grow a lackluster sport coming out of the 70s into a worldwide game in the new millennium. Stern was able to convince the masses to protect the “NBA” like they would look out for their family.
- Visionary – Kevin McHale led the way exhorting the brilliance of Stern taking their sport to the world. Personally, McHale thought Stern’s vision was “crazy,” but in the end the Commissioner was proven right. Basketball truly became a worldwide sport. The NBA is filled with European players as well as competitors from so many other countries. Against all odds, Stern took the game to places no one expected, but people were willing to go along for the ride.
- Earned respect – Not only did LBJ share his opinion that Stern stands side-by-side with James Naismith as the two iconic visionaries of basketball, but sportswriter Jackie MacMullan shared a noteworthy story. She chronicled the first-person tale of a young female sportswriter who was physically intimidated and backed down by an athlete due to a controversy between the two. At the time she didn’t think Commissioner Stern had any idea who she was. Yet he called to relay his sorrow for the event. A few hours later she received a telephone call from the player in question who apologized for his actions. MacMullan became an instant fan of Stern. Furthermore, several players relayed events proving the commissioner “earned” their respect, it wasn’t something he demanded due to his power or prestige of the office.
- Brought opposing forces together – Owners and players might share the common bond of fighting for a championship, but when it comes to bargaining agreements and player rights, they are on opposing sides of the negotiation table. Stern had the ability to get adversaries to see the perspective from “the other side,” and routinely brokered deals that benefitted everyone.
- Developed a protege to replace him – Adam Silver is an American businessman, lawyer and sports executive. He joined the NBA in 1992 and has held various positions with the league, becoming chief operating officer and deputy commissioner under his predecessor and mentor David Stern in 2006. When Stern retired in 2014, Silver was named the new commissioner. Needless to say, Silver sang the praises of his mentor.
While most of us will not ascend to such a vaulted position, we are all leaders with varying circles of influence. Therefore, I hope there something you can glean from Stern’s legacy to use as a new item in your leadership “tool belt.”
As always, be safe out there!
– Jim McNeff
(Feature image: Pixabay)