HOW DAVID STERN SAVED THE NBA AND CONQUERED THE WORLD

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It is just past mid-day on a Friday in September 2013. And, in a wood-paneled Manhattan office even more modest than its occupant, the man who saved the NBA from itself in the 1980s and has grown it into a worldwide economic power is spending an hour defending himself against the charge that he is history’s most consequential sports executive.

Ever.

More than the sainted Pete Rozelle, who grew the NFL into supremacy.

More than Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who saved baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

More than Walter Byers, the Oz-like figure who ran the NCAA with ultimate control.

More even than Ed Snider, the Oz-like figure who was a legend though only in his own mind.

The man had been commissioner since February 1984, and retired on February 1, 2014 — an even 30 years. His accomplishments are legion, and the group of people who served him and have gone on to their own exploits includes, but is not limited to:

• Val Ackerman, the new commissioner of the Big East.

• Scott O’Neil, the new CEO of the Sixers and Devils.

• Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL.

• Rod Thorn, who ran the Nets and the Sixers, and is now back with the NBA.

• Rick Welts, who now runs the Warriors after 17 years at the NBA, rising to third in command.

The list goes on, and includes Brian McIntyre — 31 years with the league, retired in 2010 as the NBA’s communications czar, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2011 and now back as a senior communications advisor.

McIntyre serves as a consigliere, and is sitting in to make sure his boss and friend is quoted accurately and keeps his facts straight, which is unnecessary because his mind is like a steel trap.

In 30 years his friend added seven franchises; grew revenues from less than $100 million to more than $5 billion; expanded TV exposure to the point that networks pay the league almost as much as major league baseball, sweeping past the NHL like it was standing still; and NBA games are telecast in 215 countries and in 47 languages, making basketball the only true international sport; launched the WNBA and Development League, and started NBA Cares, which has donated more than $220 million to charity.

And yet when he announced his retirement plans in October 2012 he told the assembled media, presumably with a straight face:

“I’d like to think I did an adequate job.”

David Joel Stern was born in 1942 in New York City. His father owned a deli at 23rd St. and Eighth Ave., and moved the family to Teaneck, N. J., where young David attended high school before he graduated from Rutgers. He applied to several law schools, and chose Columbia, “though I am sure the University of Virginia still has my deposit.”

He graduated in the class of 1966, and is easily its highest-profile high-achiever, though typically he points out that “Michael Cardozo, New York’s corporation counsel [whatever that is], and lots of others have accomplished more than I have.”

Stern had the great, good luck to be recruited by Proskauer Rose, the respected law firm which, bearing in mind E. B. White’s admonition, had begun representing the NBA in 1963.

He started working on NBA-related issues almost immediately as outside counsel, joined the league officially in 1978 and became executive vice president in 1980.

None other than Richie Phillips, the Philly-based tough-as-nails legal rep for the NBA officials, predicted in 1981 that “David will become the  greatest commissioner in NBA history.”

So no one was surprised when then-commish Larry O’Brien named Stern to the EVP post, essentially anointing him as his successor. Even though Joe Smith, a record company exec from LA best known for his high profile courtside seat at Lakers games, claimed he had seven western owners ready to commit to him for the job.

“The NBA is in trouble,” Smith warned at a 1981 dinner in New York. “It needs someone who understands business and understands entertainment to be its next commissioner.”

Smith was right about the trouble and he was right about what the league needed at the top. But what no one outside the NBA inner circle could know was that Stern was the perfect commissioner for the time.

Desperation was the NBA’s state of play on February 1, 1984, when Stern took over. As Charles Pierce wrote recently in Grantland.com:

“… the NBA was something between a cult object and a burlesque act. Those of us who still followed the league did so with bags over our heads to hide our rueful grins …  the argument that the NBA was ‘too black’ to market itself was seriously made by serious people in an age when an organized backlash against the achievements of the civil rights movement was asserting itself, as we saw  and in. The argument that the NBA was a ‘drug league’— which was really a variation on the former contention — was seriously made by serious people in an age when the ‘war’ on drugs was gathering itself. More to the point, and partly because of these problems, the league was broke and floundering, its championship series famously being played on tape delay.

“Now, as Stern leaves after 30 years on the job, there is a natural tendency to treat him as though he were some complicated hybrid of Henry Ford, Don Draper, and Rick Rubin: the man who invented and sold an entirely new product that crossed national and cultural barriers to mainstream a new kind of sports-entertainment complex wah-dee-doo-dah.”

Stern’s first public act as commissioner was the 1984 All-Star game in Denver, which as many Sixers fans remember featured the Slam Dunk Contest starring theOS Football’s chief executive Bob Ratcliffe admits the energy company considered buying Newcastle United, before completing its takeover of Nice.Ligue 1 club Nice were bought by chemicals firm INEOS, founded by billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, for £88.77m incomparable Julius Erving reprising the dunks that virtually no one saw at the 1976 ABA All-Star game.

And even though the Suns’ Larry Nance won that competition, the atmosphere in the arena was giddy. People saw that the players were having fun, and the black/drug/broke cloud started to lift.

Stern, as even Joe Smith must conclude, is a marketing genius. And he began selling the stars in the league as if pro hoops were tennis or golf instead of a team sport. Lucky for Stern, he had the stars to sell. Not just Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose style play emphasized teamwork and the extra pass, and after the 1984 draft Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Akeem Olajuwon.

The cover of Sports Illustrated that previewed the 1984 Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics showed a determined Magic Johnson and the line, “Super Star Wars.”

Of course, Stern had his critics. “Why can’t he market the teams and not the stars?” some complained. And in 1985, when the woeful Knicks won the draft lottery and the rights to Patrick Ewing, conspiracy theorists were sure Stern had rigged the deal.

Call them Sterners.

No 30-year reign is without controversy and criticism. Think Rozelle and Al Davis. But no sports executive has accomplished more than David Joel Stern, who elevated the NBA out of that realm of burlesque into the stature of a long-running Broadway icon like “Dreamgirls” or “A Chorus Line.” With off-Broadway runs in the other 29 NBA cities.

Lots of others have written sweet send-offs to Stern, and they all hit his high notes like expansion to Florida, Carolina and Minnesota; the Magic Johnson HIV announcement and its ramifications for all of society; the 1992 Dream Team, which did wonders for the league’s image all over the world, which may be Stern’s longest-lasting accomplishment; the lockouts of 1999 and 2011 and how the league recovered; the suspension of Ron Artest after the hideous Malice in the Palace incident in 2004; the move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 and the veto of the Chris-Paul-to-the-Lakers trade that shifted power in L. A. to the Clippers.

But they all pale in comparison to the single immutable fact that David Stern saved the NBA.

Stern looks less like Henry Ford and Don Draper  and more like Clark Clifford as he sits in his office with his fingers in the Clifford tent-like position on his chest and contemplates the question:

“How bad was it for the NBA in the early 1980s?”

That required little contemplation.

“The NBA was dead and the NHL was THE sport,” he says without realizing how much has changed today.

“We were determined to get attention.”

Some background. In the 1980-81 season, 16 of the NBA’s 23 teams lost money. Total attendance was down almost a million from the year before, and teams were playing to an average of only 10,021 fans per game, about 58% of the capacity of their arenas. The worst-run franchise in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers, lost more than $4 million while selling only 28% of its seats in ’80-81. As the low point of the pre-Stern era, many in the NBA cite the 1980 championship series between the Lakers and the 76ers, during which CBS refused to broadcast the sixth and, as it turned out, final game live. It was shown, tape-delayed, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time. Others say the league’s darkest hour was an ’82 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that 75% of NBA players were on drugs.

Brian McIntyre chuckles as he anticipates the next story which he has heard often.

“In 1982, the NFL had a work stoppage,” Stern recalls, “so we went to CBS, which was our broadcast TV partner, and offered them Sunday afternoon games to fill their void. For FREE! And they turned us down.

“’We’re going with a St. John’s game — against Yugoslavia,’ the CBS guy told us. “Not even a regular season game. Yugoslavia!”

While the NBA was in bad odor with CBS, the fledgling USA network was giddy to have the product. Or any product. There were doubleheaders every Sunday and Thursday nights, and the NBA had no say in which teams that got on USA. So you basically had a lot of bad basketball being seen nationally on the league’s first cable partner.

Does the word overexposure ring a bell?

The first thing Stern did was switch the cable rights to TBS beginning with the 1984-85 season.

And then he limited the number of games on CBS, beginning with the Christmas Day doubleheader that has evolved into a great marketing tool for the league. Five or six Sunday games after Christmas made them more special. And the league and the network coordinated on which teams were shown — Sixers with Dr. J, Lakers with Magic and Celtics with Bird.

Blue-chip brands did not want to be associated with the league. “We were regarded as being somewhere between mud wrestling and tractor pulling,” Rick Welts told David Halberstam for his 1999 book “Playing for Keeps.” Stern had sent Welts, then a marketing executive for the league, to knock on doors along Madison Avenue, where he was told, Halberstam recounts, that the NBA was “too black.”

With Welts as his advance man, Stern struggled to convince major brands that America was ready to admire NBA players. At the same time he worked to present NBA players as hardworking, clean-living athletes. Although Larry O’Brien still held the title of commissioner, Stern took the lead in negotiating a new labor pact with players in 1983, the first in U.S. sports to cap salaries. A drug agreement that same year subjected players to testing and the possibility of lifetime bans for recreational drugs.

As is his wont, Stern defers credit for the anti-drug agreement with the Players Association.

“Larry Fleischer [head of the union] and Junior Bridgeman and Bob Lanier [president and vice president of the union] were adamant,” Stern says. “Just because they were NBA players that didn’t mean they were druggies. And the result was a deal that threw offenders out for life with the proviso that you could reapply.”

The imposition of the salary cap was just as important — it saved the NBA owners from themselves. The first cap in 1985 was set at $3.6 million for each team — today it is $58 million — and with it Stern crafted a revenue-sharing system that at the time seemed like wishful thinking because there wasn’t a lot of revenue to share.

How hard was it to impose such a limit and sell it to team owners, each of whom think of themselves as the greatest entrepreneur on earth?

“Lenin was right,” Stern answers. “He said, ‘The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.’ ”

Pleased with himself, Stern leans back and reprises the Clark Clifford tent pose on his chest and grins.

The interview is winding down as Stern reminisced a bit about his tenure and his thoughts turn to Philly.

Stern was commissioner for 30 years but has been dealing with the NBA since 1967 when he joined Proskauer Rose, the league legal counsel. So he has known every Philly owner dating to the original, Irv Kosloff, who along with Ike Richman bought the old Syracuse Nationals in 1963 and renamed them the 76ers.

It is strictly a coincidence, I have convinced myself, that Stern’s 30-year incumbency as commissioner perfectly mirrors the decline and fall of the Sixers — who last won the title in 1983 — as a championship contender — perhaps they will do better under new commissioner Adam Silver. The exception, of course was  2001, when the Larry Brown-coached, Allan Iverson-led overachievers lost to the Kobe and Shaq Lakers in five games.

Stern eschewed rating the Sixers owners, but had comments about each of them, starting with Pat Croce, who convinced Harold Katz to sell to him in 1996, which led to Comcast buying two-third of the team along with the Flyers.

“Pat is the consummate promoter in the best sense of the word,” Stern said. “He became the face of the franchise before the team turned the corner [toward the 2001 season]. He made the game fun to come to for the average fan.”

And Croce told Sports Business Daily an interesting story:

“I take the train up to New York. I want to pay my respects to the king. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t try to do it overnight. It’s going to take time. You are going to have to fit pieces in. Be smart, be lucky and surround yourself with smart people who don’t mind working hard.’

“So it was about an hour talk at his desk and as we were finishing, I stood up and I picked up this small Spalding/NBA clock from his desk and I told him, ‘I am going to keep this as a memento and when you give me the NBA championship trophy, I will give this back to you.’

“In June 2001, we are in the Finals against the Lakers and he calls me and says, ‘I want my clock back.’ He remembers everything.”

The commissioner unplugged on other Sixers owners:

Irv Kosloff: “He was a mensch. Seemed always uncomfortable with his celebrity.”

Harold Katz: “I have a warm spot in my heart for Harold. Before he bought the Sixers, he and I went to St. Louis because he was thinking of buying an expansion franchise.”

Ed Snider: [Perceptible pause] … he certainly put together a great hockey team there … he always gave us the benefit of his experience.”

Josh Harris: “He is a huge and committed fan and a very good businessman. Hates to lose. Loves to win. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he bought a franchise in another sport [after his Jersey Devils purchase].”

In Stern’s first year as commissioner, 1984, he presided over a draft that is considered the greatest influx of quality players in NBA history: Akeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, John Stockton and a fellow from Auburn named Charles Barkley who spent nine dazzling seasons in Philly. And every year since, when he stepped to the podium the catcalls were loud with Stern egging the catcallers on as he did last year in New Jersey.

So he has a pretty thick skin that has come in handy over the years.

Does anything make him cringe? “Everything Charles says make me cringe,” which must be often because Barkley is the star of the TNT’s highly rated “Inside the NBA.”

“I often say that not only don’t I know what he’s going to say. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say.”

Asked finally to recant his “I’d like to think I did an adequate job” comment, Stern pauses and says, “I was steering the good ship NBA and I took advantage of the great players and good luck.”

Which brings to mind Branch Rickey’s comment on his success after breaking baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson and several other black players for the Brooklyn Dodgers:

“Luck is the residue of design.”

SourceURL:file://localhost/Users/theodorebeitchman/Desktop/march%20stern.doc

No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.

 

—    E. B. White

It is just past mid-day on a September Friday in midtown Manhattan. And, in a wood-paneled office even more modest than its occupant, the man who saved the NBA from itself in the 1980s and has grown it into a worldwide economic power is spending an hour defending himself against the charge that he is history’s most consequential sports executive.

Ever.

More than the sainted Pete Rozelle, who grew the NFL into supremacy.

More than Kennesaw Mountain Landis, who saved baseball after the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

More than Walter Byers, the Oz-like figure who ran the NCAA with ultimate control.

More even than Ed Snider, the Oz-like figure who is a legend though only in his own mind.

The man has been commissioner since February 1984, and just retired on February 1 — an even 30 years. His accomplishments are legion, and the group of people who served him and have gone on to their own exploits includes, but is not limited to:

• Val Ackerman, the new commissioner of the Big East.

• Scott O’Neal, the new CEO of the Sixers and Devils.

• Gary Bettman, commissioner of the NHL.

• Rod Thorn, who ran the Nets and the Sixers, and is now back with the NBA.

• Rick Welts, who now runs the Warriors after 17 years at the NBA, rising to third in command.

The list goes on, and includes Brian McIntyre — 31 years with the league, retired in 2010 as the NBA’s communications czar, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 2011 and now back as a senior communications advisor.

McIntyre serves as a consigliere, and is sitting in to make sure his boss and friend is quoted accurately and keeps his facts straight, which is unnecessary because his mind is like a steel trap.

In 30 years his friend added seven franchises; grew revenues from less than $100 million to more than $5 billion; expanded TV exposure to the point that networks pay the league almost as much as major league baseball, sweeping past the NHL like it was standing still; and NBA games are telecast in 215 countries and in 47 languages, making basketball the only true international sport; launched the WNBA and Development League, and started NBA Cares, which has donated more than $220 million to charity.

And yet when he announced his retirement plans in October 2012 he told the assembled media, presumably with a straight face:

“I’d like to think I did an adequate job.”

David Joel Stern was born in 1942 in New York City. His father owned a deli at 23rd St. and Eighth Ave., and moved the family to Teaneck, N. J., where young David attended high school before he graduated from Rutgers. He applied to several law schools, and chose Columbia, “though I am sure the University of Virginia still has my deposit.”

He graduated in the class of 1966, and is easily its highest-profile high-achiever, though typically he points out that “Michael Cardozo, New York’s corporation counsel [whatever that is], and lots of others have accomplished more than I have.”

Stern had the great, good luck to be recruited by Proskauer Rose, the respected law firm which, bearing in mind E. B. White’s admonition, had begun representing the NBA in 1963.

He started working on NBA-related issues almost immediately as outside counsel, joined the league officially in 1978 and became executive vice president in 1980.

None other than Richie Phillips, the Philly-based tough-as-nails legal rep for the NBA officials, predicted in 1981 that “David will become the  greatest commissioner in NBA history.”

So no one was surprised when then-commish Larry O’Brien named Stern to the EVP post, essentially anointing him as his successor. Even though Joe Smith, a record company exec from LA best known for his high profile courtside seat at Lakers games, claimed he had seven western owners ready to commit to him for the job.

“The NBA is in trouble,” Smith warned at a 1981 dinner in New York. “It needs someone who understands business and understands entertainment to be its next commissioner.”

Smith was right about the trouble and he was right about what the league needed at the top. But what no one outside the NBA inner circle could know was that Stern was the perfect commissioner for the time.

Desperation was the NBA’s state of play on February 1, 1984, when Stern took over. As Charles Pierce wrote recently in Grantland.com:

“… the NBA was something between a cult object and a burlesque act. Those of us who still followed the league did so with bags over our heads to hide our rueful grins …  the argument that the NBA was ‘too black’ to market itself was seriously made by serious people in an age when an organized backlash against the achievements of the civil rights movement was asserting itsard sold.Solskjaer and assistant Mike Phelan were so annoyed by his display in the 3-1 home loss to Manchester City on Tuesday that they hauled him off at half-time.The manager has publicly protected Lingard during his year-long dip in form.But afterelf, as we saw  and in. The argument that the NBA was a ‘drug league’— which was really a variation on the former contention — was seriously made by serious people in an age when the ‘war’ on drugs was gathering itself. More to the point, and partly because of these problems, the league was broke and floundering, its championship series famously being played on tape delay.

“Now, as Stern leaves after 30 years on the job, there is a natural tendency to treat him as though he were some complicated hybrid of Henry Ford, Don Draper, and Rick Rubin: the man who invented and sold an entirely new product that crossed national and cultural barriers to mainstream a new kind of sports-entertainment complex wah-dee-doo-dah.”

Stern’s first public act as commissioner was the 1984 All-Star game in Denver, which as many Sixers fans remember featured the Slam Dunk Contest starring the incomparable Julius Erving reprising the dunks that virtually no one saw at the 1976 ABA All-Star game.

And even though the Suns’ Larry Nance won that competition, the atmosphere in the arena was giddy. People saw that the players were having fun, and the black/drug/broke cloud started to lift.

Stern, as even Joe Smith must conclude, is a marketing genius. And he began selling the stars in the league as if pro hoops were tennis or golf instead of a team sport. Lucky for Stern, he had the stars to sell. Not just Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose style play emphasized teamwork and the extra pass, and after the 1984 draft Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Akeem Olajuwon.

The cover of Sports Illustrated that previewed the 1984 Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics showed a determined Magic Johnson and the line, “Super Star Wars.”

Of course, Stern had his critics. “Why can’t he market the teams and not the stars?” some complained. And in 1985, when the woeful Knicks won the draft lottery and the rights to Patrick Ewing, conspiracy theorists were sure Stern had rigged the deal.

Call them Sterners.

No 30-year reign is without controversy and criticism. Think Rozelle and Al Davis. But no sports executive has accomplished more than David Joel Stern, who elevated the NBA out of that realm of burlesque into the stature of a long-running Broadway icon like “Dreamgirls” or “A Chorus Line.” With off-Broadway runs in the other 29 NBA cities.

Lots of others have written sweet send-offs to Stern, and they all hit his high notes like expansion to Florida, Carolina and Minnesota; the Magic Johnson HIV announcement and its ramifications for all of society; the 1992 Dream Team, which did wonders for the league’s image all over the world, which may be Stern’s longest-lasting accomplishment; the lockouts of 1999 and 2011 and how the league recovered; the suspension of Ron Artest after the hideous Malice in the Palace incident in 2004; the move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008 and the veto of the Chris-Paul-to-the-Lakers trade that shifted power in L. A. to the Clippers.

But they all pale in comparison to the single immutable fact that David Stern saved the NBA.

Stern looks less like Henry Ford and Don Draper  and more like Clark Clifford as he sits in his office with his fingers in the Clifford tent-like position on his chest and contemplates the question:

“How bad was it for the NBA in the early 1980s?”

That required little contemplation.

“The NBA was dead and the NHL was THE sport,” he says without realizing how much has changed today.

“We were determined to get attention.”

Some background. In the 1980-81 season, 16 of the NBA’s 23 teams lost money. Total attendance was down almost a million from the year before, and teams were playing to an average of only 10,021 fans per game, about 58% of the capacity of their arenas. The worst-run franchise in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers, lost more than $4 million while selling only 28% of its seats in ’80-81. As the low point of the pre-Stern era, many in the NBA citeYifang are offering Rafa Benitez FIVE TIMES his Newcastle United salary to move to China, it has been revealed.The Daily Star says Dalian Yifang’s audacious offer to Benitez is worth more than FIVE TIMES his Newcastle salary.A source close to the dea the 1980 championship series between the Lakers and the 76ers, during which CBS refused to broadcast the sixth and, as it turned out, final game live. It was shown, tape-delayed, at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time. Others say the league’s darkest hour was an ’82 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that 75% of NBA players were on drugs.

Brian McIntyre chuckles as he anticipates the next story which he has heard often.

“In 1982, the NFL had a work stoppage,” Stern recalls, “so we went to CBS, which was our broadcast TV partner, and offered them Sunday afternoon games to fill their void. For FREE! And they turned us down.

“’We’re going with a St. John’s game — against Yugoslavia,’ the CBS guy told us. “Not even a regular season game. Yugloslavia!”

While the NBA was in bad odor with CBS, the fledgling USA network was giddy to have the product. Or any product. There were doubleheaders every Sunday and Thursday nights, and the NBA had no say in which teams that got on USA. So you basically had a lot of bad basketball being scene nationally on the league’s first cable partner.

Does the word overexposure ring a bell?

The first thing Stern did was switch the cable rights to TBS beginning with the 1984-85 season.

And then he limited the number of games on CBS, beginning with the Christmas Day doubleheader that has evolved into a great marketing tool for the league. Five or six Sunday games after Christmas made them more special. And the league and the network coordinated on which teams were shown — Sixers with Dr. J, Lakers with Magic and Celtics with Bird.

Blue-chip brands did not want to be associated with the league. “We were regarded as being somewhere between mud wrestling and tractor pulling,” Rick Welts told David Halberstam for his 1999 book “Playing for Keeps.” Stern had sent Welts, then a marketing executive for the league, to knock on doors along Madison Avenue, where he was told, Halberstam recounts, that the NBA was “too black.”

With Welts as his advance man, Stern struggled to convince major brands that America was ready to admire NBA players. At the same time he worked to present NBA players as hardworking, clean-living athletes. Although Larry O’Brien still held the title of commissioner, Stern took the lead in negotiating a new labor pact with players in 1983, the first in U.S. sports to cap salaries. A drug agreement that same year subjected players to testing and the possibility of lifetime bans for recreational drugs.

As is his wont, Stern defers credit for the anti-drug agreement with the Players Association.

“Larry Fleischer [head of the union] and Junior Bridgeman and Bob Lanier [president and vice president of the union] were adament,” Stern says. “Just because they were NBA players that didn’t mean they were druggies. And the result was a deal that threw offenders out for life with the proviso that you could reapply.”

The imposition of the salary cap was just as important — it saved the NBA owners from themselves. The first cap in 1985 was set at $3.6 million for each team — today it is $58 million — and with it Stern crafted a revenue-sharing system that at the time seemed like wishful thinking because there wasn’t a lot of revenue to share.

How hard was it to impose such a limit and sell it to team owners, each of whom think of themselves as the greatest entrepreneur on earth?

“Lenin was right,” Stern answers. “He said, ‘The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them.’ ”

Pleased with himself, Stern leans back and reprises the Clark Clifford tent pose on his chest and grins.

The interview is winding down as Stern reminisced a bit about his tenure and his thoughts turn to Philly.

Stern was commissioner for 30 years but has been dealing with the NBA since 1967 when he joined Proskauer Rose, the league legal counsel. So he has known every Philly owner dating to the original, Irv Kosloff, who along with Ike Richman bought the old Syracuse Nationals in 1963 and renamed them the 76ers.

It is strictly a coincidence, I have convinced myself, that Stern’s 30-year incumbency as commissioner perfectly mirrors the decline and fall of the Sixers — who last won the title in 1983 — as a championship contender — perhaps they will do better under new commissioner Adam Silver. The exception, of course was  2001, when the Larry Brown-coached, Allan Iverson-led overachievers lost to the Kobe and Shaq Lakers in five games.

Stern eschewed rating the Sixers owners, but had comments about each of them, starting with Pat Croce, who convinced Harold Katz to sell to him in 1996, which led to Comcast buying two-third of the team along with the Flyers.

“Pat is the consummate promoter in the best sense of the word,” Stern said. “He became the face of the franchise before the team turned the corner [toward the 2001 season]. He made the game fun to come to for the average fan.”

And Croce told Sports Business Daily an interesting story: “I take the train up to New York. I want to pay my respects to the king. I remember him saying, ‘Don’t try to do it overnight. It’s going to take time. You are going to have to fit pieces in. Be smart, be lucky and surround yourself with smart people who don’t mind working hard.’

“So it was about an hour talk at his desk and as we were finishing, I stood up and I picked up this small Spalding/NBA clock from his desk and I told him, ‘I am going to keep this as a memento and when you give me the NBA championship trophy, I will give this back to you.’

“In June 2001, we are in the Finals against the Lakers and he calls me and says, ‘I want my clock back.’ He remembers everything.”

The commissioner unplugged on other Sixers owners:

Irv Kosloff: “He was a mensch. Seemed always uncomfortable with his celebrity.”

Harold Katz: “I have a warm spot in my heart for Harold. Before he bought the Sixers, he and I went to St. Louis because he was thinking of buying an expansion franchise.”

Ed Snider: [Perceptible pause] … he certainly put together a great hockey team there … he always gave us the benefit of his experience.”

Josh Harris: “He is a huge and committed fan and a very good businessman. Hates to lose. Loves to win. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he bought a franchise in another sport [after his Jersey Devils purchase].”

In Stern’s first year as commissioner, 1984, he presided over a draft that is considered the greatest influx of quality players in NBA history: Akeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, John Stockton and a fellow from Auburn named Charles Barkley who spent nine dazzling seasons in Philly. And every year since, when he stepped to the podium the catcalls were loud with Stern egging the catcallers on as he did last year in New Jersey.

So he has a pretty thick skin that has come in handy over the years.

Does anything make him cringe? “Everything Charles says make me cringe,” which must be often because Barkley is the star of the TNT’s highly rated “Inside the NBA.”

“I often say that not only don’t I know what he’s going to say. He doesn’t know what he’s going to say.”

Asked finally to recant his “I’d like to think I did an adequate job” comment, Stern pauses and says, “I was steering the good ship NBA and I took advantage of the great players and good luck.”

Which brings to mind Branch Rickey’s comment on his success after breaking baseball’s color line by signing Jackie Robinson and several other black players for the Brooklyn Dodgers:

“Luck is the residue of design.”

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