Editor’s note: This article appears in the February 27 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
I always thought interviewing David Stern would be terrifying, like running with the bulls in Pamplona or something. I imagined him in one of those obnoxious, Tony Montana offices with breathtaking views of Manhattan. My first sight would be of Stern sitting behind a 750-pound mahogany desk, chewing out an intern for screwing up his lunch order. After the poor guy scurried out, I’d creep toward The Commish, my legs buckling as I shook his hand like a nervous draft pick. “Have a seat,” he’d say, coldly motioning to an uncomfortable wooden chair. I’d stutter through my dumb questions as he used his legendary sarcasm to slice me to shreds. Then it would be over. Two burly bodyguards would appear and escort me outside, where they’d punch me in the stomach and leave me for dead on the sidewalk.
In real life? It’s like visiting someone’s dad at work. Stern’s cheerful assistant, Linda, did everything but offer me freshly baked cookies and a glass of milk. His corner office couldn’t be much bigger than a nice Vegas hotel room: no 750-pound desk, just an oval table with six chairs. A computer is perched awkwardly on a cluttered window cabinet that faces Fifth Avenue. To the right of the doorway is a worn, leather sofa, a coffee table and four more chairs, for casual meetings. Along the windowsill that faces 51st Street stands an eclectic collection of photos (including one of a mustachioed Stern getting “sworn in”), trophies (including three Emmys) and mementos (including a giant Mark Cuban bobblehead next to a tiny Stern bobblehead, for comedic effect). One cabinet houses a wide-screen TV, a VCR and a DVD player, nothing fancy. It’s a functional
office. That’s the best way to describe it.
When Linda introduced us, The Commish was disarmingly friendly, a real-life version of Mike McD’s law professor in “Rounders.” I kept expecting him to wrap his arm around me and offer me a cream soda. We ended up discussing his job for 90 minutes, then capped it off with sandwiches in the adjoining conference room. And honestly? I could have talked to him for 10 hours. Strip the rest away and he’s a walking encyclopedia of every big picture moment in recent NBA history. For instance, when I mentioned the Ron Artest melee, he described watching it at home (remembering the exact time), his first reaction (“Holy s-!”), his first call (to assistant commissioner Russ Granik, to share incredulous curses like high schoolers watching “Laguna Beach”). He even recalls when the tape arrived the next day (6 a.m.). Dealing with that situation was easier than you’d think. There were specific reasons it happened (bad judgment, poor security, overexcited fans), clear-cut punishments and lessons learned (security needed to improve, officials needed to react sooner, fans couldn’t be underestimated). The brawl was embarrassing, but made the game better in the long run.
A more complicated situation to handle was Magic’s HIV announcement. It was more affecting personally (“This was our Magic,” Stern says sadly), more confusing (since so many were uneducated about the condition) and more divisive (so many players were concerned about competing against an HIV-positive player). Even now, Stern wonders if he handled it correctly.
Let there be no doubt: The Commish loves his league. He grew up rooting for the Knicks and Harry Gallatin (“Harry the Horse!”). When he became an attorney for the NBA, in the late 1960s, he just as easily could have gone to work for the players union; the league called first. Now he can’t root for any particular team, so as he watches games he roots for things not to happen: players getting hurt or the game being marred by a fight or poor officiating.
When he attends games, he sits impassively at midcourt, watching the presentation, or how the coaches interact with referees, or how security handles various situations. When New Yorkers approach him on the street to complain about their floundering Knicks, he doesn’t know what to say; he’s not allowed to have an opinion. Listening to his plight, I almost felt sorry for him. Then I remembered he makes more than A-Rod.
Hanging with Stern is like watching a performance from beginning to end. He talks deliberately and dramatically, measuring each word. He’s not against banging a table to make a point. He’s not afraid of words like “anathema” and “libations.” When I asked about his leadership style, Stern joked, “I delegate and then I episodically micromanage.” At one point, he casually dropped mention of my daughter into a conversation about the WNBA (he’s still committed, by the way), which made me wonder if he had one of those 300-pound FBI files on me. And his famous sarcasm lurks just around the corner, like his tongue-in-cheek reactions to some of the classic conspiracy theories, including the “rigged” Ewing lottery (“the frozen envelope!” he says) or how MJ’s baseball career was a result of Stern’s bringing MJ to his house to suspend him for gambling. “In my living room!” he adds, shaking his head. “My wife still wants to know where she was that day.”
So what’s left for Stern to accomplish? According to him, plenty. He’s invigorated by the potential of the Internet and other wireless devices (“the digital ecosystem,” in Sternspeak), as well as by the challenges of globalization and the growing need for “corporate responsibility.” Knowing how much the league has changed in 25 years, he can’t imagine the landscape in 10 more. That’s what keeps him coming to work. Naturally, he takes no credit for any of the changes, even though he was the one who cleaned up drugs and fighting, fought for a salary cap, urged networks to market players over teams and turned franchises into minicorporations.
If anything, Stern blames himself for failing to address the decline in play in the early 1990s, when Detroit and New York started a potentially fatal trend by limiting possessions and using roughhouse tactics to kill the flow of games. “We should have moved on that stuff sooner,” Stern admits. He points to the increase in scoring this season, and feels like the league is headed in the right direction. It is.
Before leaving, I couldn’t resist asking him about draft night, when he announces each pick, then disappears into that secret room at MSG. Where does he go? What the hell is back there? According to The Commish, it’s a hectic two-floor room with people scurrying around, answering phones and preparing for the next pick, as parents and players shuttle in and out to shake hands. Not exactly the sultan’s suite I envisioned, with lavish food spreads, open bars and butlers waiting on the supreme leader. Worse yet, I found out Stern tries not to eat or drink at all when he has extended public engagements. Turns out, he’s the type of guy who accidentally dips his tie into a bowl of mustard. So he has to be careful, he says. Listening to him poke fun at himself, he seemed like a regular guy.
In fact, that mustard tidbit was the last straw for me.
I’m going to have to pretend that our whole conversation never happened. It was considerably more fun to imagine him wreaking havoc behind a 750-pound desk.
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.