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He Passed a Rather Stern Test : NBA No Longer on Rebound, Thanks to Commissioner

Times Staff Writer

The offices of the National Basketball Assn. are on Fifth Avenue in New York, across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The locale was not lost on former Commissioner Larry O’Brien, who, being realistic and hopeful at the same time, sometimes joked how he would glance over from his office on the 15th floor to the spires of St. Patrick’s and say a prayer for the future of the league.

Then David Stern took over in 1984 and the headquarters moved. Actually, the offices stayed in place, but the outlook has changed dramatically. Looking at those spires today from the same 15th floor, it clearly is a view from the top, rather than a plea for help.

Much like the league itself, Stern, whose personality belies his surname, has come a long way without ever moving far. He grew up around Eighth Avenue and 24th Street in the racially mixed Chelsea district, watching the New York Knicks of the 1950s play about a mile away in Madison Square Garden, back when Thursday night doubleheaders were the norm.

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When the family moved to New Jersey during his teen years, Stern remained close by working at his father’s deli, at Eighth and 23rd, through high school, college and law school.

And now he runs the league.

“I think nostalgia is the wrong word,” he said the other day. “It’s just that every so often, I say to myself, ‘Hey, this is great.’ I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. It’s like living in a fantasy land.”

Indeed, with Stern as commissioner, the once-struggling league must feel as though it has gone to Disneyland.

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Name: David Stern.

Age: 46.

Home: Scarsdale, N.Y.

Family: Wife, a son in law school and another in college. Requests to interview them are turned down by Stern, who tries to keep his private life separate from the public focus of his position.

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Education: Graduated from Rutgers in 1963 and Columbia Law School in 1966.

Experience with NBA: Worked on first case in 1967 while at a New York law firm. Joined the league in 1978 as its first general counsel. Assumed the newly created position of executive vice president for business and legal affairs two years later, overseeing the marketing, broadcasting and public relations of the organization. Unanimously elected as the league’s fourth commissioner on Nov. 15, 1983. Took over for the retiring O’Brien on Feb. 1, 1984.

Hobbies: Skiing. “You can be a terminal novice, but now I think I’ve advanced to become a terminal intermediate,” he said. Racquetball and tennis about twice a week, when the schedule permits. Reading Robert Ludlum spy novels. Used to play recreational basketball before losing most of the cartilage in his right knee when injured during a New York Lawyers League game. “He was competent for a man with no physical ability,” said longtime friend Ed Norton.

Popularity rating: Through the roof.

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Self-described lasting mark on the NBA: Making the players and owners more like partners than adversaries.

So what of Stern’s adversaries?

Just try to find one.

No one else was even considered when he was elected commissioner. And he has won over whatever opposition there might have been among players, the powerful television industry or sponsors.

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Said Larry Fleisher, who spent 15 years as executive director of the players’ union and therefore often opposed Stern in negotiations and originally opposed Stern’s selection:

“If you’re an owner and you see someone who bought their team for $2 million just sell it for something like $80 million, which means yours will be worth a hell of a lot more in another couple years, and you see the guy who is ‘responsible’ for that, it’s kind of tough not to like him.”

The same, apparently, goes for the players and television. Salaries are at an all-time high, even with the innovative salary cap. The players, in return for agreeing to the cap, were guaranteed 53% of the league’s profits. And whereas Game 7 of the 1982 NBA final was televised on tape delay , today’s All-Star game at Houston’s Astrodome will be shown live not only in the United States, but also Italy, Greece, Spain and Brazil.

In a league that features sleekness and strength, one of the most dominating figures is this 5-foot-10 man who has led the unparalleled growth of the league entirely by finesse. And although he does his best to hand out credit to colleagues, most everyone associated with the NBA points to Stern as the reason for the success.

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His is a combination of strengths, each drawn from previous positions.

His legal background provides negotiating skills. His knowledge of the inner workings of the league comes from having had a role in most landmark decisions--the merger of four American Basketball Assn. teams into the NBA, the collective bargaining agreement, etc.--and provides him with an understanding of the mechanics of sports few can rival.

Although he is not dynamic, his warm personality is the clincher in the package.

“I think he was always well liked by the owners when he was a lawyer representing the NBA,” said Russ Granik, the league’s executive vice president. “But now he’s gone beyond the relationship with owners and is just well liked by everyone. He has to be viewed as invaluable.”

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Said Stan Kasten, president and general manager of the Atlanta Hawks: “He’s gifted at making things about personal relationships.”

Said Norton: “David has a wonderful balance of ego and humility. He thinks he can do most things, but he doesn’t proceed to accomplish them from a need to dominate.”

Even Fleisher has a hard time knocking his former adversary these days.

“He’s really not a basketball guy,” Fleisher said. “If you were to say, ‘What do you want in the next commissioner?’ it would be someone who came from within the game, not someone who came from the background of law. Someone who could understand the the personalities of the player and owner much better.

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“But he has been real good at seeing the big picture. He is a totally more mature guy than he was 10 or 12 years ago, and because of that he looks more right for the job. As a litigator, that was his drawback, that he had to look at each individual issue and fight for it instead of looking at the big picture. He brought that to the NBA, but now he’s able to look at things on a much broader sense.”

Stern, for his part, plays down his role, but not his main attributes.

“I enjoy people, so, as a result, I think my people skills are solid,” he said. “But I don’t think of myself as a people person. I think, at times, I’m a narrowly focused project person. I like the chance to focus on the issues that have to be done.”

And the future?

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“He can stay as long as he wants to,” Granik said, probably accurately.

But Stern, who just celebrated his five-year anniversary as commissioner, can’t picture himself staying in the position forever, even if there is no faction looking to push him out. He refuses to establish a time line for his departure, but does say 10 more years would be very unlikely.

“I especially enjoy the newness and the challenges the job has offered,” he said. “But I guess there comes a time when every new opportunity gets fulfilled.”

Then it will be time to move on.

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And someone else will view the spires of St. Patrick’s from another perspective.


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