Return to Transcripts main page


Interview with Long-Time Commissioner of the NBA, David Stern

Aired November 8, 2013 - 05:30:00   ET



MONITA RAJPAL, ANCHOR, CNN INTERNATIONAL (voiceover): In 1984, two stars burst upon the NBA, Michael Jordan and David Stern. One was the legendary player who conquered the league, the other was the man who made sure everyone on Earth could watch him play.

DAVID STERN, COMMISSIONER, NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION: I want to be a commissioner of a successful sport. For the owners, and the players, and the fans. Whatever it takes.

RAJPAL (voiceover): In his 30 years at the helm, David Stern has turned the NBA into one of the world's most popular leagues. When he started, playoff games were not shown live, on TV, in the United States. But Stern sold the world on the NBA's entertainment value, with its high- flying action and charismatic personalities like Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson.

Today, fans can watch the NBA in 47 different languages in 215 countries. And players like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are now global icons. But success hasn't come without controversy. Including bitter labor disputes and a referee betting scandal. Despite that, Stern's legacy remains solid as one of the most important figures in the history of basketball.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we speak to NBA Commissioner, David Stern, to find out why he thinks it's time to retire and how even he is surprised by the global reach of the NBA.

RAJPAL: You were in Bhutan and -

STERN: I was in Bhutan.

RAJPAL: And there's a kid at some internet cafe is online, and what's he seeing?

STERN: He was on, looking at Kobe Bryant. I promise you, it wasn't a plant.


RAJPAL: David Stern, welcome to "Talk Asia".

STERN: Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

RAJPAL: Thank you, for giving us some of your very busy time here as we spend a few hours in Manila. And this is the first pre-season game that the NBA is playing in Manila. So it's almost fitting that we're doing this interview outside of the United States. It's kind of - I guess, the Stern trademark?

STERN: I think it's fair to say that we very much appreciate the opportunity presented by globalization. And it's particularly true with respect to sports. It's been great. This game that we're playing in Manila is only one of eight friendlies that we're playing in the pre- season. And we're going to play two regular season games, this year. So it's our most active international year.

RAJPAL: How important is it to the NBA - the idea of being outside of the United States - being part of the global community.

STERN: I think it's ultimately our destiny. This is a global sport. It's been in the Olympics since 1936. The game is played all over the world. It's not the most popular sport, by far, in many countries. But has small bases that we like to have grow. And we love to preach the values of our game.

RAJPAL: Are you also looking, then, perhaps, at talent outside of the United - you've already started to do that, obviously -


RAJPAL: -- with the likes of Yao Ming, especially here, in this part of the world. But are you looking at looking further down the line - more players from outside the U.S. dominating the sport?

STERN: It happens so naturally that we don't look for it. We do something called basketball without borders, where we - when we hold it in Asia, we bring kids - the best players - young kids from around Asia. And we subject them to a week of both training and UNICEF-inspired healthy living and community work and clinics and the like. And the purpose of the program is not to - not to recruit players, it just happens organically.

RAJPAL: And also growing is the number of franchises - the number of teams that you've got under your -

STERN: Yes, yes.

RAJPAL: You're looking at 23, now to 30.

STERN: To 30.

RAJPAL: Your market -

STERN: 12 WNBA teams -

RAJPAL: Exactly.

STERN: -- seventeen NBA development league teams, here.

RAJPAL: And the market value, collectively - some estimates have put it at - have gone up 500 percent -


RAJPAL: From the time you took over.

STERN: I would - I think that's fair. I think the - we've been very lucky, recently. Our franchise enterprise values have had a dramatic uptick in their evaluations.

RAJPAL: What, then, would you say is the skill that you have that took you to being able to accomplish all of this?

STERN: I have no idea. I really am - I was, and sort of still consider myself a hard-working lawyer. I was a litigator, so litigators have a certain feeling of confidence that they can litigate any subject matter. They can learn it. And what we did, as an organization - because it isn't me, it's a whole group that went from 24 people to 1,200 people - was to acquire knowledge. We learned about satellite, we learned about digital delivery, we learned about social media.

And we've had some luck. TV didn't, you know, didn't have cable, didn't have satellite. We moved that. In '84, I don't think ESPN existed. There was no cable. There was no satellite.

RAJPAL: And now you're looking at it from a different platform as well. Digital - your handheld devices, online -

STERN: Right.

RAJPAL: It seems as though the world is your oyster.

STERN: I think that's true for all of sports. We have, we think that the soon-to-be-installed base of cell phones and tablets -


STERN: But even the cell phones are getting larger and smarter. People used to think that those were for farmers to learn when to send their crops to market, not so that to watch NBA highlights. And actual full-length games on a global basis.

RAJPAL: See, what I read somewhere that was really interesting is that you were in Bhutan and -

STERN: I was in Bhutan.

RAJPAL: And there's a kid at some internet cafe is online, and what's he seeing?

STERN: He was on, looking at Kobe Bryant. I promise you, it wasn't a plant. And it wasn't some internet cafe. It was the only internet cafe in Timphu. The reality is that we think that kids - there is such a thing as a global -


STERN: -- teenager. And that global teenager is interested in basketball or can be made interested in basketball. All sports is content, it's commerce, and most important, it's community.


STERN: So that sports fans talk to each other all over the world. And so Manila, where we're sitting, is actually the number one city in the world for Facebook NBA. Because the fans in the Philippines are so intense.

The U.S., of course, is number one as a country -


STERN: -- but there's nothing as intense as the fans in Manila.


RAJPAL: What do you think, then, the NBA has done for race relations?

STERN: I would say that we had something to teach the country.




STERN: Ni hao.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There you go, there you go.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're in Rio, chilling.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are in Manila, Philippines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And we're looking forward to our experience, here.

STERN: We are delighted to be here. We thank you -


RAJPAL: When you came onboard as commissioner of the NBA, the idea of expansion - global expansion - perhaps wasn't - would be the easiest thing back then, in 1984.

STERN: Actually, it made it more intriguing to me. In '85, I made an errant comment to the head of the Chinese Basketball Federation, and I said we'd like to entertain him some day. Later that year, I got a telex - you'll remember, it was a quaint thing -

RAJPAL: Yes, the telex.

STERN: And it said, he'll be arriving on this date. And then, oh my God, we had to run around and raise $200,000 to host the Chinese National Team. In a time when relations with China were not robust at all -

RAJPAL: That's putting it kindly.

STERN: Yes. Every place I went, I was inspired by the fans who focused on basketball. When we went to Tbilisi, in Soviet Georgia, two things struck me. One, the fans were cheering more for the Hawks than they were for the Soviet team, because there were more Russians on the Soviet team. And that was a precursor of what was to come.


STERN: And two, the loudest cheers when to 5'6", Spud Webb.


STERN: Who had won the slam dunk contest two years earlier in Dallas, because there were pirated tapes from Turkish television, that were continually looped -


STERN: -- in Tbilisi. So it's amazing how really globalization was preceded by sports.


STERN: And sports fans talking to each other.

RAJPAL: So, when you talk about when you began your role as commissioner, what do you think was your top priority? What was on the top of your to-do list?

STERN: Getting through the day.

RAJPAL: Really?

STERN: Yes. We didn't have - we didn't have stable franchises. We had just come out of having tape-delayed championships. The sport was not in good shape, financially, and our players were not held in the highest esteem.

RAJPAL: Speaking of that, theirs is this interesting quote that I believe Charles Barkley - he is actually quoted as saying, "Back in the day, it was like we got a bunch of young, black guys making a good living and smoking pot. That was the NBA's image". That's a hard market to - that's a hard product to market.


STERN: You think so?

RAJPAL: That's what he said.

STERN: He's right.

RAJPAL: How did you, then, change that? What did you do?

STERN: You know, we're an incremental organization. You negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, which we did in '83, that talks about drug use and education and rehabilitation if someone comes forward and punishment if not. You put in a communications infrastructure that gets the right messaging out. You have a marketing department that brings in the right sponsors. And then, crazy as it sounds, you replicate that on a global basis.

And when you start getting players in from around the world, then, all of a sudden, the same way Dirk Nowitzki grew up watching Larry Bird - all the young German kids are growing up watching Dirk Nowitzki.


STERN: And French kids are watching Tony Parker. And Yao by Chinese kids. And so on. So it really began to feed on itself. And it continues to feed on itself.

RAJPAL: So is it about creating stars? Personalities? People that the wider audience could just look up to?

STERN: Honestly, I think they look up to them because of their achievements, not because, necessarily, of their personalities. If you're a basketball player and you're dreaming where you want to go, you think about the NBA. And that's a huge advantage for us, because it represents the greatest amount of talent.

And what we thought - if we could focus on the talent, and then focus on everything around it - which was our ability to attract sponsors, to attract great trading partners like Adidas, which now has 6,000 shops in China, many of which are selling NBA merchandise. And you gradually grow it and grow it across the board.

RAJPAL: Then, if we take it back to the U.S., what do you think, then, the NBA has done for race relations in the United States?

STERN: Oh, I would say that we had something to teach the country. Because, when I joined the NBA, the articles were coming out that the race would keep the NBA from ever achieving. And that's the one thing that inspired me. Because I thought that the NBA had something to teach on the subject of race.


STERN: I hearken back to Willis Reed, country boy from Louisiana, playing with Bill Bradley from Crystal City and Princeton.


STERN: And it doesn't matter where you came from. The question is, "Do you have game?" Because sports fans care about game. And I think that, you know, when fans see their local team, and they see it come together, they're learning a subliminal lesson about teamwork. Ultimate teamwork, regardless of race. And that's an important lesson.

RAJPAL: What do you think, then, about those who have said that racism still exists in the sport? If we look at what happened in 2012, with the whole Jeremy Lin story. That this was a young guy who did very well in high school, still wasn't scouted. Did very well at university and college, still wasn't drafted. If he was a young African-American kid, maybe it would have been a different story.

STERN: We live on a very fine line. And I think there are stereotypes that need to be continually broken.


STERN: As soon as Jeremy Lin achieved, there were probably some, you know, general managers saying to their scouts, "Hey, go find me some of those Asian kids that you obviously are missing". So we have a lesson to teach. Get over the stereotypes.


STERN: But, in fact, there really weren't - let's not get carried away - there aren't that many Harvard graduates playing in the NBA. So the stereotype may have been as much about the Ivy League as it was about ethnicity.



RAJPAL: What kind of impact do you think that your job has had on your family?

STERN: I might do a few things differently.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bad news. It looks like at least the first two weeks of the NBA season are going to have to be cancelled.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Specifically come down to revenue and how do you split the revenue between the owners and the players?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We remain, really, very, very far apart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not at the place where a fair deal can be reached between ourselves and the NBA.

STERN: We've planned to continue making our players the best-paid athletes in the world, because they deserve it.


RAJPAL: In your time, you've - there've been some controversial rules that have been -

STERN: Only some?

RAJPAL: Apparently. I'm trying to be kind.

STERN: Don't be kind. I couldn't handle it.

RAJPAL: There have been some controversial rules that have been put in place that some would say are questionable. Whether it's a salary cap, whether it's a dress code, or whether it's the way you handle lockouts.

Back in 2011, you were described as, and I'm quoting here, "Borderline evil. An egomaniac, hell-bent on destroying the players" that you had no regard for.


RAJPAL: How do you deal with that?

STERN: I would say, that's a person who doesn't know us, at the NBA. In fact, the best part about what I think I'm doing is -


STERN: -- my partnership with the players. We now, have a collective bargaining agreement in place that says, if there's a dollar that comes in, OK, you cut it in half -


STERN: -- you give half to the players. And another 40 some-odd cents you spend on expenses. And the eight cents or so, maybe, or seven cents, goes to the owners, if they're lucky enough to be running a profitable team. It's a very good deal for the players. And, I think, a fair deal for the owners.

RAJPAL: What do you think - we talk about some of the aspects of the business that you've been a part of - some of the aspects where you've been most proud? And then, there's also, perhaps, some of the aspects that you, perhaps, were most concerned about, do you think? Are there any?

STERN: I think that there have been times when we had to discipline players, which isn't necessarily a proud moment.


STERN: But everything I do, in sort of protection of the game, is I view as a good business practice. And someone has to do it. And, because I'm the person who has to do it, I've had to fine owners who were my friends and whose families never spoke to me again. I've had to fine players who thought that I was picking on them. Not fun, but I really do it in support of what, to me, is the greater cause, which is the growth of the NBA and the protection of the game.

RAJPAL: Did you seem to ever see yourself as a father figure to these players?

STERN: I don't know whether father figure is the right term. But I have always believed that it's our obligation to say, "OK, we stand for something, here". And when I speak to draft picks every year, with their parents, I'll say to the top draft picks, "Welcome to the NBA" - this was before the draft - "You know, we've got thousands of people who are here to make you rich and to make you famous on a global stage".

I said, "You've got to do two things. You have to be very focused on being the best basketball player you can possibly be. And you have to refrain from doing something that would not honor the people who are in this room - your families. And who have worked so hard to get you to this day".

RAJPAL: What kind of impact do you think that your job has had on your family? Your kids? Your sons? And your devotion to your job, as well?

STERN: Well, I think that, after the fact, you wonder whether spending so much time job-related is the best thing to do. I might do a few things differently -

RAJPAL: Really?

STERN: -- in terms of the amount of time. But I was that way when I was practicing law as well. I was very, very focused.


STERN: And I think, today, particularly young men, come to their professional lives with a much better focus. We now see athletes who are dropping out of tournaments, missing games, to be there at the birth of their kids. That was something that, two decades ago, would have caused people, inappropriately, I would say, to scratch their heads.

RAJPAL: Were you there at the birth of your kids?

STERN: I was. I was.


STERN: But nevertheless, when you're, you know, a compulsive worker, you don't spend as much time as you, looking back, might wanted to have.

RAJPAL: What then, do you think, it is about the game of basketball, that you love? That would keep you devoted to it for 30 years?

STERN: Well, first of all, it's a very exciting entertainment sport. And the thing that was intriguing to me, was you could learn so much from the way that sports - I was a proselytizer for the sport. It's not subject to being taped. It's got product insertion. It's digitally adept. It's all of that stuff. It's very good for globalization.

But, in addition, it has certain values to it, and I think those values are important, with respect to what it can do for kids. I mean, the great players are people who work hard, who make - are very disciplined - make a lot of sacrifices. And that's a wonderful thing, even at a different scale, to be able to impart to kids.

RAJPAL: There are those who will say that, you know, love you or not, you are still described as the best sports executive that sports have seen.

STERN: That's better than evil. But that's probably as exaggerated as the evil -

RAJPAL: Sure, sure. But then, as we go into, you know, the last few months -

STERN: Right.

RAJPAL: -- of your time as commissioner, how would you, then, describe your ride with the NBA?

STERN: I had so much fun and to be able to step down, at this point, with the sport at really its all-time high. And to have in place a successor who will have been with me for 22 years to carry on, with a cast of my colleagues who are, I think, the best organization, bar none, ever put together. Not only in sports, but in the business world, as well.


STERN: I feel great.

RAJPAL: David Stern, it's a pleasure to meet with you.

STERN: Thank you.

RAJPAL: Thank you.