Lang’s World: A farewell to David Stern, who helped flatten the world

These days, it’s not crazy to say that the world is flat. Not literally, of course, but thanks to technology and travel advances, everything is within reach. And I’ve always felt like there’s no better way to understand how the world works than to actually see the world work from up close. This is a lesson my parents and my grandparents taught me from a young age: Get out of your comfort zone and see how other people live. Understand that the world doesn’t revolve around you; figure out how you fit into the world.

Travel bonded my wife and I early on. Before we had a child, we did our best to see the world, going from Hawaii to Vienna, from Toronto to Brazil, from Kenya to Paris, from London to Los Angeles, from Prague to Belize. I have zero doubt that traveling made me a smarter, better-adjusted person. I ate things I didn’t want to eat, wore clothes I didn’t want to wear, saw things I never thought I would see, made friends I never thought I would make.

Then we had a kid, and suddenly it was not quite as easy to jump on a plane and go gallivanting around the world. But with my son turning 7 a few weeks ago, we felt like he was old enough to get out and see this world. We’ve been close friends with an Indian family for over a decade now, who we hung out with frequently when we all lived in New York City; the three sisters and their mother would constantly lobby us to come visit their home in Southern India. We knew we would get there one day, and even talked about waiting for one of the girls to get married. Which is exactly what happened last week.

Not long before we left, word broke that longtime NBA Commissioner David Stern had suffered a stroke and was in critical condition. This was sobering news for any fan of the NBA, but for those of us who covered the league from the outside or inside, or spent any time in his orbit, it cut deep. Commissioner Stern—which is what I always called him, despite him repeatedly asking me to call him David—transformed the NBA from a league that was mostly ignored in the 1970s into a true global phenomenon.

Adam Silver and David Stern
OCTOBER 26: NBA commissioner Adam Silver (L) and former NBA commissioner David Stern attend the “Kareem: Minority Of One” New York premiere at Time Warner Center on October 26, 2015 in New York City. Photo by Mike Pont/WireImage.

It wasn’t easy getting an interview with David Stern, as I learned back in 2003. To begin with, I came calling from SLAM magazine, a publication that made its bones being the NBA’s youth conscience, calling the League out over and over whenever it failed to cater to those of us obsessed with the game.

At first, the NBA basically held SLAM at arm’s length, certainly enjoying the attention and affection, but without really celebrating the association. Yet intentionally or not, SLAM was inching closer and closer to the mainstream, or maybe the mainstream was inching closer and closer to us. What started as a niche publication was now being read by everyone in and around the NBA. I was writing a daily column for SLAMonline, and within hours of each column posting was getting emails from players, coaches, broadcasters, league executives, even team owners. Before long I got to know the PR people at the NBA, and as SLAM kept growing, I started pursuing SLAM’s first ever sit-down with the Commissioner. Eventually, I submitted an official request, and after a year of trading emails and politely pushing, pushing, pushing, eventually David J. Stern agreed to an interview. With SLAM.

This was such a big deal for SLAM that I didn’t want to go alone, in case I flubbed something or forgot something in the heat of the moment. So SLAM’s editor-in-chief, Russ Bengtson, and I decided to do the interview together. We showed up at the NBA offices on Fifth Avenue wearing what were for us “nice” clothes—cargo pants and long-sleeved shirts; I think Russ even wore a sweater, which was a nice departure from the SATAN hockey jersey which Russ usually favored. After a brief wait with Stern’s secretary, the Commissioner welcomed us into his office, which featured walls lined with dark wood, the floor covered with hunter green carpets. The only thing on his desk was a Mark Cuban bobblehead, which I think he set out especially for us.

Within a few minutes of the interview starting, Stern called me and Russ “rubes” and said he kept his copies of SLAM in a brown paper bag, like an adult magazine. But he indulged us for an hour, and in many ways that interview nudged SLAM closer toward some legitimacy we had not had previously.

And as for me, I started getting included in opportunities that I had never been invited to partake in previously. When the NBA All-Star Game went to Vegas in 2007, I got invited to breakfast with Commissioner Stern on the Sunday morning of the All-Star Game. I showed up that morning—profoundly, ahem, dehydrated—and found myself in a room with the lead NBA writers from all of the biggest publications in the U.S.: the New York Times; ESPN; Sports Illustrated. There were about a dozen huge publications there. And SLAM, where five of us sat at the end of a hallway and cranked out this little magazine. I’ll never forget that morning, because it felt like we had made it.

I got the chance to interview David Stern several times over the years, and it always made me nervous, because he was not only smart, he had no problem letting you know he was smarter than you. At some point in the late ‘00s, we launched the first SLAM Podcast, which died not long after. (It was so loud in the SLAM and XXL shared offices that I had to record the intros and outros in XXL editor Elliott Wilson’s office with the door closed when he was at lunch.) In the interest of making a splash, for the first episode I booked the most SLAM guests I could: Stephon Marbury and David Stern. I recorded the interviews over the phone, and the Commish and I spoke for about twenty minutes, bantering playfully about the state of the League and SLAM’s place in the biosphere.

Where it really got interesting was when we finished the interview, and Stern, for the first time in my relationship with him, asked me if we could speak off the record. I agreed, and he quickly started grilling me about SLAM, about our business model, about the effect of the flagging economy on our magazine, about how SLAM would best navigate the changing media landscape. He wasn’t intimidating as much as he just seemed curious, and I did my best to answer everything he asked. Eventually I told him what I’ve always told people: I’ve always thought that as long as kids buy sneakers, SLAM will exist in some form or another.

Stern countered by asking me about Melanie Oudin, who had recently competed in the U.S. Open wearing a pair of sneakers that she had personally designed on the adidas website. If kids weren’t going into stores to buy sneakers, Stern asked, then how would SLAM play a part in that transaction? Well, I posited, without an outlet like SLAM, how would they know where to go to customize their shoes? And Stern said, “Ahhhh!” like I’d just enlightened him. And I felt, at least for that moment, on his level.

David Stern and Michael Jordan
CIRCA 1992: NBA Commissioner David Stern presents Michael Jordan #23 of the Chicago Bulls with the 1992 NBA MVP Award circa 1992 at Chicago Stadium in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images.

A few years later, GQ asked me to write a gigantic oral history of the Dream Team. The first call I made was to Commissioner Stern, and we had a long conversation about the NBA and globalization, and Stern made clear that the Dream Team wasn’t a one-time plunge into Europe—the NBA had been playing games in Europe and Asia for a few years heading into all of that.

 

LANG: Well, how much do you credit—I know one of your big things has been the spread of basketball across the world; how much was the Dream Team—did they play a part in that?

STERN: “I think that it was definitely a factor, because our selling proposition became, “Now that you’ve seen Charles Barkley at the Olympics, aren’t you interested in seeing him playing for the Phoenix Suns or what-have-you?” You know, “Now that you’ve seen this team or that team…” And what people also forget that is that we played the McDonald’s championship in ’88, ’89, and ’90 as well, leading up there. So we played in—you’ll get the facts, but I think we played in Madrid, Rome, and Barcelona. We opened the Olympic facility in Barcelona. Okay? In the fall of ’91; you could almost work backwards. I think we did—and then we did Munich as well. Actually, you know—oh, damn. Maybe we did Paris in ’91 and Barcelona in ’90, when the building opened. I can’t remember. I remember Gerald Wilkins hitting a falling-down out-of-bounds 3-pointer to put the game into overtime against Scavolini Pesaro. I remember Doug Moe coaching the Nuggets in Rome, and I remember Larry Bird and the Celtics in Madrid. I’ll have to get the details—but we were working the international angle, growth, and of course, coming out of the Olympics, it enhanced our ability to sell international television rights.”

 

Well, that was one thought I had: ’92 was obviously way before the internet, but also before probably a lot of people—maybe that was the first time they had actually seen a lot of these guys actually play.

“I’m sure there were audiences that got to see them on a global basis that hadn’t seen our games before. That’s true.”

 

Right. Because you probably didn’t—I don’t know, but you probably didn’t have that many distribution deals, whatever, TV deals at the time.

“Well, we actually did. I want to say we were in—I don’t remember the numbers, Lang; I think it was 80 countries. You know, we had been working that for a very long time. Now, you know—then the climb began after ’92, and now we’re in 200 countries. That was 20 years ago, so—but there’s an arc to be followed. There have been so many stories that have totally missed the point.”

 

To you, what is the point?

“Well, I think the point was that the world of basketball invited the NBA to join it and said we would grace them with our agreement to join. And we said yes. And they have profited greatly from it, as have we, and as has the overall sport of basketball. Now that we see Dirk Nowitzki and Ricky Rubio and Tony Parker and Yao Ming and Manu Ginobili, okay? And Luis Scola—I could keep going, and Serge Ibaka and Luol Deng. This was an opportunity to expose more people to our game and to enable more people to aspire to play it, and as they play it, move up in whatever way they moved up. It was a significant factor in the growth of our game.”

 

We chatted a bit more, and then Stern breezily ended the call with, “Alright, if you want me to wrap something up at the end or you’ll make up a quote for me, I’m happy to say it. It was pretty exciting.” I think he was kidding about letting me make up a quote for him, but I never could tell.

I thought of all these interactions this week, when I woke up early in the morning in Bangalore, India, and saw the news that David Stern had passed away. There were several really good reflections on Stern that ran in the days following his passing, pointing all that Stern’s legacy isn’t all roses.

But you can’t deny that David Stern grew the NBA into what it is today. He was constantly thinking about how to make the NBA bigger and better. At one point in the middle of that Dream Team conversation, he suggested I write a book about that whole story, and at the time I thought, “Well, first I have to write an article about it.” But in retrospect, that was Stern always controlling the message, always pushing the narrative.

The morning I found out about David Stern’s death, we hopped into a car and drove to a Bangalore street market, which is a trick I learned from the goat, Anthony Bourdain, when visiting a country where I’ve never been. “You see what’s for sale, you see what’s in season, you see the fundamental color palette of a cuisine,” Bourdain said. “You really get a sense of what a culture loves most dear.”

We arrived just as the market was opening. Old ladies were sorting through vivid boxes of gold and magenta flowers, little kids were chasing street dogs, men were putting out fragrant stacks of curry leaves, all as millions of scooters zoomed past on the street.

And then I turned a corner and saw a kid standing there wearing a t-shirt with SLAM’s famous Allen Iverson cover on it. Eight thousand miles and a dozen time zones from where that cover was dreamed up years before I was even at SLAM, somehow that image and that story had migrated halfway around the world. Which blew my mind in the moment, and continues to amaze me today. A few days later, the NFL Playoffs were happening in the United States and were all over my Twitter feed. They were not, however, on any of the dozens of cable channels in my hotel room in India. But you know what was? A regular season NBA game between the San Antonio Spurs, the team formerly led by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, and the Milwaukee Bucks, the team currently led by Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And I don’t think any of that happens if not for David Stern. Commissioner Stern realized the world was becoming flat, so he went and used the NBA to help flatten the world. And all of us in and around the NBA are a little bit better for it.

Rest in peace, Commissioner Stern.