Last week, I trekked to New York City to interview David Stern and write a magazine column about the experience. Since I tape-recorded the conversation, we thought we would run the transcript as a special edition of “The Curious Guy.”
There were a couple of sections edited for space, and Stern’s demeanor during the interview doesn’t come through at times — he was always in good spirits, and if there are parts where he seems sarcastic, it was always tongue-in-cheek (same for me) — but overall, you can get a pretty good sense of what he’s like. You’ll also notice that he loosens up as the interview goes along, probably because I was leaking low levels of carbon monoxide into the office from a device I had purchased at Brookstone before the meeting. Just kidding.
Here’s the transcript
Bill Simmons: You know I’ve advocated you for the presidency, right?
David Stern: I know, I know. Thank you very much.
BS: You’re not into it?
DS : [Smiling] I’m not into politics.
BS: The people that know you say you love being the commissioner, you’re always going to be the commissioner
DS: I think you judge that on a day-to-day basis. The job and the opportunities have so changed over the years that I find it continually challenging and stimulating when you recognize what the untapped potential is for sports, [like] North and South Korea talking about a single team and marching under a single flag in the Beijing Olympics, where but in sports? The other part that we’re doing — the section that deals with digital entertainment, the digital ecosystem, when you think about what’s coming in that part of the technology world, where there are going to be 3 billion cell phones by the year 2010, and even they and their successors, which will be just called handheld devices, will be video-enabled, music-enabled, voice-enabled and Internet-enabled that has enormous implications for everything we do, both as a society and with the NBA. It’s in a vacuum, changing day by day. So we’ve got the technological changes occurring, we have globalization occurring, and we have enormous needs for corporate/social responsibility, so there’s really a great opportunity to do well and do good at the same time.
BS: How would you compare that to 1983, when you were taking over?
DS: Look what’s happened since 1983. We’ve gone from three networks or maybe four I mean, the first network deal I made for cable, which I either fortunately or unfortunately made, was in 1979 (with a network that eventually became USA) for $400,000. In the intervening 20 years or so, we went from 4 million subscribers on cable to 90 million on cable and satellite we went from five networks to 500 networks. That was the most enormous growth and we rode that growth. That was a river that came running by our door — actually, it was more like an ocean.
Another thing happened: Right now, the only building in our league that isn’t new or rebuilt since 1984 is the Meadowlands, and that’s planned for replacement in a couple of years. All of the sudden, we have 30 teams playing in buildings with club seats, suites, video boards, sound systems, I mean, it is almost unfair to compare the experience. And by the way, the TV thing is significant in another way. Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain labored in relative anonymity. I just read some place that Greg Oden has already appeared in two ESPN games.
The third is Michael Jordan, but for a different reason than you might think. Michael Jordan and Nike made sports marketing a consumer product business as well, where teams put their marks on everything from apparel to furniture to hard goods
BS: But you guys had a little bit to do with that, in terms of marketing players and games? You guys were the first ones that did it, right?
DS: You know, interestingly enough, when I became commissioner, everything I knew I copied from either Major League Baseball promotions or NFL Properties. They were very generous with their time, Bowie Kuhn and Pete Rozelle the NFL had NFL Films, baseball had MLB productions and MLB Promotions, the NFL had NFL Properties, so it was sort of, “OK, we have all these people doing things in a pretty good way, what could we learn from them?” But it was the Michael Jordan/Nike phenomenon that really let people see that athletes were OK, and black athletes were OK. Defying a previous wisdom — not only that black athletes wouldn’t sell in white America, but that the NBA as a predominantly black sport could not sell in white America. And then sponsors became interested. So all these things came together at the same time.
I mean, in 1985, we invited the Chinese national team — actually, we didn’t really invite them, we just said, “Some day, we hope you’ll be here,” and we got a telex saying, “we accept your invitation” [laughs] — and I remember thinking, “Where are we gonna raise the $250,000 to cover this tour?” And while they were on the plane, Kaliber, the nonalcoholic beverage for Guinness, agreed to a deal with us that allowed us to cover the expenses. It wasn’t always that we had a blue chip [sponsor] lined up sponsors began looking at sports, or at least looking at us. So those three things, the marketing, the arena and the television were huge, because I refuse to say that Player X of today is better than Elgin, Wilt, Willis, Bill Russell, Havlicek, Harry Gallatin
BS: The Horse! That was your guy, right?
DS: Yeah, that was my guy.
DS: By the way, people screw up the timing — remember, I didn’t become commissioner until 1984. The best thing that happened to us was that in April of 1983, we made a collective bargaining agreement with the players, and we came up with the salary cap for the first time. And there was more of a notion of a partnership between the owners and players. And separately, we came up with the anti-drug plan. Back then, people really appreciated the fact that the players and the owners were addressing both the financial issues and the drugs issues. It wasn’t so much that we cleaned it up, because it wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was, it was that we addressed it. At the time, everyone said, “Oh, it’s the NBA, too much money, players making $250,000, that’s ridiculous, they’re black “
BS: The drug thing was pretty bad though. You guys had a lot of good guys wiped out. Spencer Haywood, Micheal Ray [Richardson], Bernard King, David Thompson
DS: Everyone was saying it was only us — it was in the schools, in the prisons, the hospitals, the law firms, it was an item of public and foreign policy. I mean, America was in the grip of something, we were sort of the harbinger of what what happening, that young men were engaged in using drugs. No question. And our guys, we happened to have a young age base, our demographic fit it. So as a result, we have one of the earliest employee-assistance programs on the subject. It ultimately got outvoted, but at the time, it was the first attempt to deal honestly with the problem.
BS: So, looking at the problems since you took over — the fighting and the drugs — that got settled, the games got a little too chippy in the late-’80s, you fixed that
DS: If we did one thing wrong, and we did a lot wrong, but we should have moved on the game itself, [how physical] it got, and honestly, how slow it got.
BS: You tried to do some things, some of them didn’t work, like the 3-point line was too close.
DS: Yeah, the notion there was, “Well it’s all about the coaches, and there’s nothing we can do,” and then we said that couldn’t be the answer, so
BS: And then in the early-’90s, the biggest problem was these guys coming right in and making $40 [million] or $50 million, there’s like a whole lost generation of guys where the incentive was removed for them right away.
DS: I don’t buy the incentive issue
DS: I never bought the public’s view. I think that players play, and they compete, and it’s not about incentives. More important was that it became a game — the contract negotiations, what agent could do better for his player than somebody else’s, and the economic model turned to such craziness, that you couldn’t look with a straight face at anyone who wanted to invest [in a team]. And that was an issue.
BS: Well, in my opinion, the biggest problem you have now is something like that Vince Carter thing last year, where a guy is getting paid a lot of money, doesn’t like his situation and goes on cruise control until it changes.
DS: I’m gonna say something that doesn’t deny what you’re saying. It’s been going on in sports since the beginning of time.
BS: Except in football.
DS: No, in football too. The quarterback gets benched, he says there’s not room enough for both of us here, I’d rather go somewhere else. It happens all the time. And it happened before you were born, and it will happen after both you and I are gone. That’s just the reality. With that said, you’re right. That attitude is corrosive. The idea that a player would imply or say that he wasn’t giving his all to his team is anathema to everything that a sports league stands for.
BS: So how do you fix it?
DS: That’s a good question. In a way that I’m not sure I would ever get the power, or that I have the desire to — which is just, let’s take that asset away from the team and say, “That guy’s gone.” And I’m not so sure that
BS: You have the legal power?
DS: No, you could get the power. But be careful what you wish for. Guys are human, they say stuff, they do stuff, they behave, they pout, I mean, I understand that — they’re unhappy, they’re trained to win, to excel, to be appreciated, and then, they hit a bump, and they respond in a way that they’re not even proud of. And so, I don’t believe in capital punishment in effect, so it’s a problem. We did indicate to the players that we would start this year small, but we said to the players, “We gotta address this issue, we need something to do,” and they said, “You have that power to do it.” And I said, “What power is that?” And they said, “Conduct detrimental to basketball or something,” and they said, “OK.”
BS: What was the difference between what happened with Vin Baker and the Celtics [Baker sought treatment for a drinking problem but continued to be paid by the team] and what happened with Chris Andersen and the Hornets [Andersen failed a drug test and was kicked out for two years]? Why doesn’t the CBA allow for a team to punish a guy who’s drinking and not showing up for stuff?
DS: Actually, it should allow the team to suspend that player without pay until he shows up capable of playing — in fact, the Celtics at the time, compassionate team that they are, actually sat with him, confronted him, worked with him, wanted him to play. They weren’t trying to get out of the obligation, they were looking to help the player rehabilitate and be useful to himself as well as the team. What happens with the Chris Andersens of the world is that we have a system put in; you can’t have a lot of discretion, it doesn’t work, there’s too much at stake. So we say OK, here’s the rule, take a test, if you fail it, depending on what’s in it and what it shows, you’re gone. Or, you come forward and it’s a whole different set of rules. In fact, the first time the team pays for [rehab].
BS: I know the players’ union would throw their bodies in front of this, but couldn’t you just solve the problem by emulating the NFL and having non-guaranteed contracts with big signing bonuses? You just look at the [NBA’s] trade landscape now and every team is trying to move these big contracts back and forth.
DS: I would say yes, but the NFL, in every given year, when you include bonuses and the contracts for that year, the NFL is probably 60 percent there, anyway.
BS: For that year, but not for an extended period of time, right?
DS: No, because the signing bonus picks up in some cases more than 50 percent of the contract. We tried to reach that in a different way. We shortened the contracts
BS: That was good, I liked that one.
DS: And we’ve given teams a look with rookies’ contracts — the team has the option after two years to see if they want to extend it. So we worked around the edges, it’s called “accommodation” rather than “work stoppage.” And frankly, I think what we’re gonna demonstrate through this deal is that the better players who are playing well are helped by the shorter contracts. Right now it’s five [for a new free-agent contract] and six [for someone re-signing with his own team]. It used to be six and seven maybe five and four isn’t a terrible idea.
BS: So you’re taking baby steps.
BS: In ’99 [with the lockout], you grew a beard, you dug in your heels, you were ready to cancel the season it was almost like poker. You were hoping they would fold, you knew these guys had their money spread all these different ways, right? What was the mind-set heading into the lockout?
DS: We didn’t have a business model that worked. And if we didn’t make a change then, we would never make a change. The players couldn’t afford it, but quite frankly, many of the owners couldn’t afford it. Right now we have a system that has a cap, an individual player’s cap, a rookie cap, an escrow, and a tax. And by the way, I always believed that the hard cap works for the NFL, but it doesn’t work for a league with smaller rosters. [Imagine in the ’80s, if teams were saying], when their contracts expired, “All right, who we gonna get rid of, Parish, McHale or Bird?” or, “Who we gonna get rid of, Kareem, Magic or Worthy?” It just didn’t make sense. We always wanted a softer cap that allowed teams to retain their own free agents, but we needed to come up with a system that said, “Yes, but you can only pay them a certain amount by the years of service.”
BS: I still can’t believe the agents agreed to that.
DS: You know, they’re smart, they’re smart. This was a system that was going to pay the players more it was about the system. The salary cap keeps going up, the average salary keeps going up. It’s really about distribution, to the extent that one player doesn’t take out a disproportionate amount so it remains there for the other players.
BS: The only thing you and I really disagreed on over the years, not that we knew each other
DS: Oh, I think we disagreed on more than one thing
BS: Well, this is the big one: what you did with the 19-year-old age limit. I just don’t like it, I feel like you’re the rich parents shipping the kids off to boarding school because you just don’t want to deal with them.
DS: This was not a social program, this was a business issue. There was a serious sense that this was hurting our game. Having an 18-year-old player not playing, sitting on the bench, is not good for basketball. If we could have these kids develop for another year, either (A) they’d see that they weren’t so good, and we’d see that they weren’t so good, or (B) they would get better, and when they came, they would be able to make a contribution. And that would improve the status of basketball. For us, the opportunity to make them older and to assign players to other leagues so they could get minutes was a good thing. The other thing was that draft picks are very valuable. And the opportunity to see Darko Milicic, Martell Webster, Gerald Green, Kwame Brown, you name it, any high draft pick, for one more year, will in some cases move players up in the draft and in some cases move them down. And that’s a good business issue, and ultimately leads to having better basketball players on the roster to make the basketball better. Is it potentially unfair to a player who could have come in right away? Yup. We can go both ways on it. Actually, if it winds up helping the colleges, that isn’t a terrible thing.
BS: You also might have the guy going to college, starting to date someone on campus and thinking, “Eh, maybe I’ll stay for one more year,” and all of a sudden he’s in college for two years.
DS: You know what? From a business perspective, the fact that he ends up being more experienced, picks up another move or two, gets to be known because he took his team to the NCAA — I mean, Carmelo Anthony “The High School Senior” compared to Carmelo Anthony “The College Freshman” was a huge difference, we had an NCAA champion and people were killing us for it, they were saying, “Oh, the basketball’s terrible because the players are too young, they don’t have the requisite skills, they don’t have this, they don’t have that.” Actually, some do, some don’t, a year later they’re going to be better, [plus] the opportunity to send them down, like a Gerald Green, to get minutes so the team could say, “You know what, he looked good. He got his rhythm back, he got his confidence back, he got to play a few minutes.” That was the whole idea. This last collective bargaining agreement was about basketball and about player reputation. It wasn’t about the money.
BS: What’s the next one gonna be about?
DS: I would say the next one is going to be about the same thing. We’re OK.
BS: Well, it seems like you’re going to have a lot of money coming in over the next five years
DS : [Deadpans] Why thank you.
BS: From avenues that you didn’t know you were going to have.
DS: Who knows? Could we pick up a percentage point or two so teams could be more profitable than they already are? That’s a good old-fashioned money negotiation — that’s a nice negotiation to have. Everyone knows that if you can keep on making money, everyone’s happy.
BS: You were a big Knicks fan growing up.
DS: I was a big Knicks fan.
BS: You could have gone either way breaking in [as a lawyer during the ’60s] — players’ union or the NBA route, right?
DS: Actually, I used to make that argument. You’ll laugh about this: I represented the NBA at a relatively young age, and we would be in fights with lawyers from the Players Association, and I would tell them, “Hey look guys, I understand the passion for your argument. But just remember one thing — if the NBA had knocked on your door before the Players Association did, and the Players Association had knocked on my door before the NBA, we’d be on opposite sides here. So let’s not get carried away here.”
BS: So you always saw that side because you were a fan.
DS: I understand their side. I understand.
BS: Now, how do you shut off that switch? You reach a certain point here and you can’t root for a certain team, you have to be impartial at games, just kinda sit there
DS: It is ridiculous to sit there. I have a new mantra at games. I watch the game management, I watch the referees, I watch the coaches meeting, I watch the courtside signage, I watch the security for fans and players alike. I root that the game should not be marred by a fight, should not be marred by a bad injury to a player, should not be marred by a critical incorrect call determining the outcome of a game. If you can leave with all of that, you can go home happy.
BS: As a leader, are you one of those guys who has to make every decision, or do you delegate trust to like six or seven people? Because it’s usually one of the two.
DS: I would answer that I delegate, and then I episodically micromanage.
DS: That is to say, there’s so much going on in this place that I have great confidence in the people that we have.
DS: I actually was.
BS: What was your first reaction? Pick up the phone or just stare in shock?
DS: I said, “Holy [mouths a swear word].” And then I called [assistant commissioner] Russ [Granik] and said, “Are you watching our ‘blank’ game?” He said no, I said, “Well turn our blank game on, you’re not gonna believe it.” It was Friday night, 10:45 or thereabouts [sighs]
BS: What time did you go to bed that night?
DS: I went to bed relatively early. Like 12:30, 1. The tape was at my door at 6 o’clock [the following morning].
BS: Was that the biggest thing that happened since you became commissioner? Or would you say Magic?
DS: In retrospect, [Artest] was big because it showed some fundamental flaws in fans, and the risks that are attached to a game. But it was pretty cut and dry, I think, in what we had to do. Magic was a situation in which our league was put at risk in a big way. This one [Artest] was like, how many thousands of times can you watch the same footage? In some ways, it was like the perfect storm. The hassling wasn’t broken up fast enough, the players were misbehaving, there was a player lying on the scorer’s table getting a tummy rub, there’s a fan who may or may not have belonged there tossing a beer and just happened to hit the guy, and then he goes there and wasn’t stopped by anybody.
But in some ways, what turned my stomach more was the sight of fans standing at the vomitorium feeling free to pour their libations on our players. Oh, criminal activity — a guy tossing a chair? I mean, that was inexcusable. But to me, it was a quick lapse of judgment, a wild, uncontrollable melee, and some very bad behavior by fans who thought that some force had been unleashed and they could avoid any civilized norm. Honestly, it was like, “OK, we’re gonna deal with it. You can’t do this, that’s why security is there, we’re gonna deal with the [responsible] fans, we’re gonna fine the fans we’re gonna define in a better way what behavior is going to be, we’re gonna define exactly where security should be posted, and we’re going to examine the issue of alcohol to the extent that it may have played its part.”
BS: So all that stuff was cut and dry.
DS: Yeah, as far as I was concerned.
DS: Exactly. Before Magic announced that he was HIV-positive, there was a young kid in Indiana named Ryan White who wasn’t allowed to go to school because he was HIV-positive, so this was a country that was very much attuned to a bad reaction. So long story short, as far as I’m concerned with Magic Johnson, because HIV was now attached to the face of a beloved athlete, it changed the face of AIDS in this country. Remember, we said he was going to play. We didn’t say that lightly, we went out and hired the best doctors and medical people we could find, we spent every night here in the office, it was not an easy situation. But if Magic wasn’t allowed to be play, did that mean we therefore had to test everybody, so then we would have to get rid of all the players who were HIV-positive?
BS: Was that the saddest day you’ve had on the job when you found out?
DS: Yeah, yeah. Because we didn’t know
BS: Because at the time, you’re thinking, “God, he’s got like 2-3 years left “
DS: And I had just been with him in Paris! The Lakers played in the McDonald’s championship in 1991, I think it was and we came back from Paris during the exhibition season, and the next thing I know, we had a decision to make. I was on my way to Utah to announce the All-Star Game, and people look back on it now and they forget what it was like back then, HIV was a huge thing and so we decided that I was going to L.A. and standing next to Magic because he was our Magic, and it was sort of like, “That’s it.”
BS: What was the moment in the first 10 years when you realized that the ceiling for the league was much higher than you imagined? Just in terms of the global potential and the financial potential?
DS: Actually, it’s a funny story — just before I became commissioner [in 1983], that was the year we were reduced to four regular-season games on CBS. There was a consent decree that said networks are not allowed to sell games internationally that they didn’t produce themselves — when CBS cut back to four, it meant that the international market was suddenly starved for regular-season games. So some very nice gentleman knocks on my door from Italy one day and says, “I’m here.”
And I said, “What do you want?”
And he says, “I want to buy games. I used to buy them from CBS.”
So I said, “You want to buy our games?”
So he says, “How much are they?”
I said, “How much did you pay before?”
He said, “$5,000.”
So I said, “$5,000 a game?”
He said, “Absolutely.”
So I said, “That’s our price, too!” [Laughs]
So we were suddenly in the international distribution business — and it just sort of began over a period of time to sink in.
DS: What about it?
BS: Well, they’re the signature team in the league. They were your favorite team growing up. You have to deal with Knicks fans all the time here, just on a day-to-day basis
DS: Separate issue. Everybody, I can’t go anywhere in New York without someone saying, “Commissioner, can you do us a favor?” And I say, “Don’t ask, I know what the question is.” But that’s great, it shows that people care about the Knicks. They’re an important franchise because all of our franchises are important. But our league went through its greatest period of growth when the Celtics, the Lakers, the Pistons and the Bulls were all doing great. The Knicks were doing better compared to right now, but we’ve had some down days in New York as well.
BS: So you’re not going to invoke the Ted Stepien Clause and give them draft picks [to make up for the damage]?
DS: [Trying not to laugh] No, no, absolutely not, nothing.
[Editor’s note: Stepien nearly ran the Cavs into the ground in the late-’70s and early-’80s.]
BS: How bad did somebody have to be as an owner that you had to give his team compensatory draft picks?
DS: No no no to induce someone to buy the team [from Stepien], which had been denuded by certain trades of its assets, I think we slotted them a draft pick. That was a league decision, the board voted on it.
BS: That was always the watershed moment for bad management.
DS: And we put in a rule: Every trade has to be approved. And that is still a rule.
BS: Really? So if you thought the [recent] Jalen Rose trade was ridiculous, you would have said, “No, you can’t do that”?
DS: No, no I mean, Ted was just trading away the future of the franchise
BS: For lousy guys.
DS: Well, I don’t want to say that, but for undervalue.
BS: What do you think of the new breed of owner that came in over the last few years? These guys come in, they put themselves at the forefront, they market themselves, they overspend for the teams, they’re always coming up with stuff, they’re chartering planes
DS: You need a lesson in history. What would you call Ted Turner? Was he a new breed or an old breed? Remember, we had him in 1977 — there was no one as swashbuckling and quirky and great as him. What about Jerry Buss? Our owners have always been wealthy — the thing you’re focusing on more is the new breed that becomes the face of the franchise.
BS: Well, I don’t remember that happening before recently, not even with Ted Turner.
DS: But you know what? It depends. In some cases, if you go back historically, Ben Kerner was the face of the Atlanta Hawks. Walter Brown was the face of the Celtics. But by and large, I think it’s a good thing when fans go to sleep at night thinking that there’s an owner who’s worrying about some combination of the entertainment experience and the team’s well-being.
BS: Yeah, Paul Gaston owned the Celtics for many years and I never felt like he was emotionally committed to the team, whereas I really like Wyc [Grousbeck]. I feel like he lives and dies with each game.
DS: That’s right, and that’s important. It could be the coach, the general manager, the owner, it’s always good for the fans to know that there’s someone who’s engaged, someone who cares a lot about the team.
DS : [Smiling] It’s a crime!
BS: I know it bothers you.
DS: It’s a crime!
BS: But you know I’m having fun with it.
DS: That’s OK, be my guest.
BS: The ’85 lottery, Patrick Ewing
DS: Oh, you mean the freeze-dry lottery?
BS: What was it, you carbon-freezed the Knicks’ envelope so you knew which one would get the first pick. Is that your favorite conspiracy theory?
DS: I suppose so.
BS: That was a pretty good one whoever came up with it. When you pulled the envelope out, you must have been happy that it was the Knicks, from an economic standpoint.
DS : [Fighting off a smile] I have no comment. Fifth Amendment. If our teams are happy, I’m happy.
BS: What about when you told MJ that he had to retire for 18 months because of his gambling?
DS: In my living room.
BS: I believe that one, by the way. I don’t believe the frozen envelope, but I believe the MJ one.
DS: In my living room. My wife wants to know where she was that day.
BS: I never heard the living room part.
DS: Oh, yeah! Go back to when it started. My wife says, “Where was I?”
BS: So you didn’t do that?
DS: No. I promise.
BS: But you were excited when he came back?
DS: I was surprised.
BS: Were you really?
DS: Yeah, I really was. I was on a skiing vacation in March and someone said Michael was coming back, I was like, “Get out of here.” He called me when he retired but he didn’t call me when he was coming back.
BS: When he retired, did you try to talk him out of it?
DS : [Making a face] Noooo. I may look dumb, but I’m not crazy.
BS: What would be bad about you saying, “Are you sure you want to do this? You’re in the prime of your career ” I mean, you have a relationship with him, right?
DS: Because I felt one way and one way alone when he retired: “Hey, if that’s what you want, you earned it, great! You should have the right to do whatever you want to do. Whether our business hurts our not, you’ve made your contribution.” And then he went to play baseball and I said, “Great! You want to try do that, that’s terrific, too.” And then he wanted to come back, so, “OK, why not?”
BS: The other thing you’re not happy with me about
DS: I’m happy with everything!
DS: You know what? I believe that I’m gonna watch, as you have aspirations for your daughter, that your new-age sensitive side is ultimately going to emerge, so that I have not given up on your soul yet. And the one thing I do know is that, if you see it from our perspective, you’ll at least understand it from our side. We have as a sport the best of all worlds — more young women and more men play basketball than any other team sport. And we thought that having women play and staying in as participants and having female role models would make them more likely to follow basketball. Men and women. And an interesting thing has happened since the WNBA came into effect. You would never have seen Diana Taurasi with Emeka Okafor on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You never used to see USA Today talk about letters of intent with high school girls. You never saw top-25 high school girls teams. And you never saw the diversity of college players. The basketball being played in the WNBA is much better than it was 10 years ago. John Wooden says it’s the best basketball on the planet. It’s probably the last and best shot for a successful women’s professional sports league.
BS: So you’re sticking with it?
DS: We’re celebrating our 10-year anniversary this year. And we’re opening up a team in Chicago, and we’re in negotiations for others.
BS: My only problem with the WNBA is that I feel like it’s being shoved down my throat a little bit.
DS: It’s being assisted. That’s a fair point. But it does have our name on it — the WNBA. The National Basketball Association. So it’s our product. And it’s the best women’s basketball in the world, just as the NBA is the best men’s basketball in the world. And from a business perspective, it gives us an opportunity to grow our audience for the NBA in a way that baseball, football and hockey don’t have as it gets women. And it’s also the right thing to do, but I won’t get into that, I’ll keep it as a business matter because the idea that young women like your daughter would have strong role models rather than be relegated to wearing little blue suits to play only field hockey because that’s a girl’s game and they shouldn’t sweat the way the boys do. So it’s an interesting development for our time as well.
BS: The only part I don’t understand about that is why you wouldn’t gear the teams toward cities with established women’s basketball traditions. Like why wouldn’t Tennessee have a team?
DS: We’re getting smarter. The reality was, we started it to get off the ground with NBA franchises. What we’re doing now is moving it out of the NBA model, so that now, there’s independent ownership in Washington, Connecticut and Chicago. And that’s sort of the model.
DS: Well, we scrub the college ranks and the high school, we bring people in — even a guy like Dick Bavetta worked in the CBA for 11 years, guys can’t even come to be referees until they’re in their 30s. Now we have the summer leagues, the development leagues and the WNBA all working with three-person rotations, together with the college experience as well, to watch all of our applicants with game experience. When they get in the NBA, it’s rare for a guy in his first few years to be ranked well by the coaches. Or anybody. We make sure they’re in physical shape. We make sure they’re trained. And for purposes of their development, they are the most watched and viewed metro-sized work force in America. That is to say, every call, judgments are made whether it was correct or not, whether they were in the right position, whether they’re working well in teams, and then they’re ranked not only by us and by our referee department and our basketball offices, but by the coaches and the general managers.
At a certain point, we’re dealing with human beings in nonstop action places, and the camera usually doesn’t lie and with the vision of hindsight, they were wrong. And that’s not a pleasing event, OK? All you can do is try by all of the above and then review it with them, try to lower the number of those incorrect goals, and work to the goal where you could have a pool where it wouldn’t matter who you sent out of the pool, the game was called the same. But that’s just a goal. It’s an ongoing issue. And each one of our officials wants to be perfect. So if there’s a failure, it’s a collective failure — the absence of perfection, and our absence to devise a system where there is perfection.
BS: The biggest difference since when I was a kid going to the games, and you knew [guys] like Earl Strom and Darrell Garretson, it seemed like just the way they dealt with the players was more personal, there was more leeway and stuff like that. Now it’s like they’re all coming out of a factory, they’re all in fantastic shape
DS: Here’s the problem — you’re right. Up to a point. We did go through a period where we didn’t deal with the players as well as we could have personally, and we’re moving back to that in terms of communicating. But listen to what I said before — we want to come to a place where, no matter who you send, you get the same game. So when a referee becomes a personality who’s bigger than the game, who’s gonna call it his way and have a certain level of rough justice that he administers, that’s absolutely the opposite of what you have to want if you are running a bunch of referees. So what do you say? We want you to be in great shape. We want you to look professionally and carry yourself in a certain way. We want you to deal with the players and coaches in a professional manner. We want you to be in the right place at the right time. And of course, we would like you to make the right call. And if they do that even 94 percent of the time, that means that six out of 100 calls or non-calls or missed calls are going to be there every night. [Bangs desk] And believe, we’ve had several this year where games were decided on the basis of wrong calls. [Bangs desk again] OK? And believe me, I hear it from the owners.
BS: Well, at least you got passed by football finally.
All right, here’s my biggest question of the day well, other than wondering when you’re going to grow back facial hair. I really want you to do it one more time.
DS: I used to do it every summer just for kicks depending on the length of my vacation.
BS: It brings so much joy to my life. Anyway, where do you go in the back room in the [NBA] draft? What’s back there?
BS: What does it look like?
DS: We’ll invite you back there. Because we do it in the old Garden, there’s a room downstairs where the lawyers are, where Marty Blake is, the phones are operating, they’re talking, it’s like a boiler room. There’s a guy on top getting ready for the next pick that he has to drop into the board. There’s a producer with his headset on talking to the truck. We’ve got two or three television sets on, one is at the arena, one has got the footage, one has got something else. And then there’s a bunch of couches and seats where we sit around, we bring in sponsors or moms of the players who I know
BS: So you’re doing a lot of handshaking.
DS: A lot of handshaking.
BS: So you’re not just sitting there watching TV with some butler bringing you stuff?
DS: No no no, we’re hustling, we are hustling — it’s an important day for sponsors.
BS: Does that day set the record for most hands you shake in a day?
DS: No — All-Star Week. We’re warming up on my schedule right now. Starting on Wednesday, I go from the Houston Chronicle to the Jam Session for several hours, and that’s the light day, dinner dates on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then on Thursday, gone. It’s wall-to-wall from Thursday at 8 to Sunday at 10 p.m.
BS: Planned out by the minute almost?
DS: By the 15-minute. To the point where the only question is, “Make sure that I have a fresh shirt so that, in the afternoon, I can change for the game.” Very major decision.
BS: Plus, you could get like mustard on your shirt
DS: Regularly. That’s why I don’t eat at these events, because, usually, if I were gonna eat, what I would do first is just walk into a room and just dip my tie into the mustard because, invariably, that’s what I do. So it’s like, for that period of time, I really try to say, “OK, David, let’s at least keep the tie and the shirt looking OK.”
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine, and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day, Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.