David Stern’s last day on the job is Saturday. On Feb. 1 he will retire as commissioner of the National Basketball Association after exactly 30 years at the helm and turn it over to someone else, heaven help them.
I wonder if he’ll now have time to go skiing again.
Whenever I see the commissioner on TV, at the draft, settling contract disputes, handing out MVP awards, whatever it is, I think of the first time I met him. It was February of 1984 just after he’d taken over as NBA commissioner. He was in Utah with his family for a ski vacation in Park City. I lived in Park City and someone from the Jazz office called and asked if I’d be interested in skiing with him.
We met on the Payday Lift, took a few runs and had lunch. One of the lasting images I have of that day was when Stern, who skied really well considering he was a New York lawyer who got out maybe once or twice a winter, caught an edge, went airborne, crashed, and after about 50 yards skidded to a stop on his backside.
His sons and I skied over to him, he looked up from his prone position and, referencing the then commissioner of baseball, said: “I’ll bet Bowie Kuhn doesn’t ski.”
Turned out that quick wit, that droll delivery, that ability to inflect a little tongue-in-cheek humor to quickly disarm any unnecessary drama, was a harbinger of how he’d run the NBA.
He was in charge even when it didn’t look like it.
“He mastered the art of making the owners think they worked for him,” is how Dave Checketts succinctly sums it up.
And did he. Where would the NBA be without him? He started in 1984 with a league that had 23 franchises, seven of them, the Jazz included, teetering on the financial brink. Among them, they generated $128 million in total revenue.
He leaves a league with 30 franchises that will generate $5.5 billion this year in total revenue.
The average franchise price tag in 1984 was $15 million. Today it’s $400 million.
The average player salary in 1984 was $250,000. Today it’s $5 million.
Yearly broadcast rights brought in $22 million in 1984. Today they bring in $930 million.
He did it by treating the league as a business rather than a game, using his force of persuasion to cement such things as drug testing, revenue sharing, the salary cap, relentless pursuit of TV exposure, globalization, even a dress code, that over the past three decades have become NBA signatures.
“Most commissioners are a referee. They just kind of keep the owners from each other and from the players,” says Checketts. “But David Stern was a true chief executive.”
Checketts, the Bountiful native and former owner of Real Salt Lake, is the Utahn who knows Stern best. They met in New York City in the early 1980s when Checketts, fresh out of college and working as an investment consultant, was investigating whether some clients of his should buy the Boston Celtics.
Checketts, so the story goes, started the meeting by listing all the negatives of the NBA, a league where too many players were not only in the headlines for using drugs, but worse than that, the kind of drugs that were the opposite of performance-enhancing. Then Stern took over, lecturing the young man in his office on the league’s bright future and that the only negative was NOT to buy the Celtics.
It was one of those meetings where both men left impressed with the other, as evidenced by the fact that shortly after that, Stern recommended that Sam Battistone, the cash-strapped owner of the Utah Jazz, hire the 28-year-old Checketts as general manager, which Battistone did in 1983.
“David always had a soft spot for the Jazz,” remembers Checketts. “He was a great help to me. He mentored me after I got to the Jazz, he sent me league resources to try and help me turn it into a first-class franchise, he did everything he could.”
And when a $6.5 million loan the Jazz owed First Security Bank was due, the commissioner flew to Salt Lake himself and accompanied Checketts to the bank to lobby for more time to pay it off.
Checketts: “David came out to personally see Spencer Eccles at First Security and tell him what the league would mean in the future and where it was headed. If they’d pulled the loan, the Jazz would have been no more. But I think Spence was really buoyed by David’s words and that’s why he stuck with us and they didn’t call in the loan.”
David Stern not only helped save the NBA, he helped save the Jazz.
“I give him a tremendous amount of credit,” says Checketts, who briefly worked for Stern and the NBA after leaving a much healthier Larry H. Miller-owned Jazz franchise in 1989. “He was always looking out for us. Always looking to help.”
That included my ski day.
“I can’t remember the specifics,” says Checketts, “but my guess is that he called the Jazz to tell us he was coming to Utah to ski and asked if there was a writer he could talk to while he was here to help raise the profile of the franchise and generate publicity for the league. That’s just the way he operated.”
I’ll bet Bowie Kuhn never did that.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org