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02 January 2020

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Reflecting On The Loss Of My Boss, Mentor, An Icon, David Stern

When you have the misfortune of losing someone special, telling stories about how they impacted your life is one way to pay your respects. When the person you lose is an iconic figure, like David Stern, someone who I was fortunate enough to work for & learn from, it feels appropriate to share many stories, as I reflect & realize how lucky I was to pick things up from his unique brand of leadership. Hope you too get something from these. First – the personality:

 

At 22, I attended my first NBA employee picnic. My w, then, was now deputy commish, Mark Tatum. There was a ping pong tournament, & as a newbie, I was hesitant to enter, but Mark encouraged me.

 

Semi-finals come arnd, & my opponent is David Stern (for those wondering, “DJS” as he was referred to in the office, wasn’t much of an athlete, but one of those who flexed a little hand-eye coordination muscle, at the table & was well practiced). Being the newbie, playing the iconic commish, we got a crowd arnd the table. Great theatre: a No-Name Associate playing this Titan of Industry.

 

Tight game, & I’m up 21-20, & we have a long rally. David stretches out to reach a hit off the side of the table. It was like slow-mo, as the ball came back arching high in the air; an easy slam for me.

 

I’m looking at Mark for approval – I could crush this shot. He showed no reaction. So instinct kicked in, & I slammed that ball as hard as I could, forcing David to have to walk the grass behind the table, lean down pick up the ball & bring it back in defeat.

 

David’s classic, half-smiling response as he line-drive threw the ball back at my chest: “You obviously don’t value your new job, do you kid?” 😂

 

I have countless other stories that told the personality behind the man. His leadership style:

 

One of the few ppl I’ve ever met, let alone worked for, who in the same sitting, could rip you apart & hug you, all at the same time. You never fully knew where you stood, & I think he liked it that way, bc you always had to be prepared. Looking at tributes from coworkers in the past day since he’s passed, everyone seems to have a story abt his management style – which brought the best out of you. When he presented to large rooms, even internally, you could hear a pin drop – partly bc he was such a charismatic speaker, partly bc of the way he’d at times call someone out, in front of the group, for an answer.

 

Long before I had individual meetings w David, I’d hear stories from our “Account Managers” – they were a team of 5 who would each be responsible for knowing the financials & happenings in market, of 6 NBA teams’ businesses, forwards & backwards. When they would have their group mtgs w David, in front of the NBA’s senior management staff, DJS would pick just ONE of them, & ask questions about ONE of their teams. We were told it was like a cannon of questions fired…& that one Manager would leave the office w their head spinning.

 

It appeared like the others “got off free” that day. However, bc of the way he’d focus, everyone knew going into those mtgs, they could be that “lucky” one picked. They’d have to prepare for days leading up, just IN-CASE their name was called. That’s how you make ppl know their shit…& that’s the type of impact he had on the entire organization.

 

He had a heart – rarely showed his vulnerability, but this one time:

 

I was 25 & had been assigned to put together a presentation called “The Business of Basketball.” Essentially it was a way to explain to our players how revenues were generated from things like ticket sales & sponsorships, concessions & merchandise, so that these players would understand the importance of interacting w fans, corporate partners, etc., to help grow the business – & ultimately their salaries.

 

Luck would have it, the year I take on this project, David & the owners decided it’s time to implement a dress code for the players. This was the era of casual wear as players entered arenas (not one-upsmanship w designer suits like it is today). So, I’m sent on the road to all 30 teams to deliver this presentation & explain more of the details of the dress code.

 

David wanted every single detail in a recap after each visit & I mean EVERY. He said to me – I don’t care how negative some of it is, how personal to me, I want to hear it. So I’d fly, a few cities at a time. With guys like Allen Iverson, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Stephen Jackson in the league at the time, you could imagine some of the colorful language that was used to express their feelings on the new dress code – & yes some of their comments were directed at David.

 

One time back in the office after a trip, I got called in to David’s office (he had his own board room, long table), & I’m sitting there, alone w him, intimidated as you could imagine, as he’s reading through some of the recaps (& comments). First time ever I saw him tear up ever so slightly. He asked- “Eric, do you think our players have any idea of my background? That my family ran a Deli, & for yrs growing up, I served behind a counter, often yelled at for my service not being fast enough for the patrons? That I wasn’t just handed this job after growing up w a silver spoon in my mouth?” It was the first & only time I saw even the slightest crack in his armor. He was always so put together. Always so tough even in the spotlight – & here he was, showing a little of his heart – bc he truly cared abt the players, felt that didn’t fully get where he had come from.

 

The character:

 

Every year I worked there, when we had a flagship store across from our offices on 5th Ave., the League would host a holiday party for employees. One rule at this party – it was the one time of the yr you HAD to wear your employee name plate. So we were told, it was so that we could each get to know each other better, at the party. However, a couple of us soon came to figure out, it was David’s way of being able to address everyone personally & respectfully to show he “knew” everyone. He has an incredible memory for names, based on emails he’d see each day. So, for example, my friend Matt Taylor (who we’ve since lost to cancer 😢) was the one who would send out the league’s TV ratings to the whole office. When David would see Matt at the holiday party, he’d read the name plate w/o us realizing, & make a comment like – “Don’t worry Matt, ratings are only gonna go up after holiday time.”

 

One yr, at one of the parties, a “rogue” employee decided not to wear his name badge. David passed him at the party & asked where it was, to which the employee answered – it’s in my bag, I’ll go get it. Later in the night, David crossed paths w him again, & again he wasn’t wearing the name badge. So David looked at him, & said: “Oh you, you must be no name.”

 

If only that were the end of the story. I was “fortunate” enough a few wks later to be in an elevator, w David, & this employee, ironically getting in the same car. David looks at him, says “Oh – it’s you again, no name.” I’m not revealing who it was to be fair, but until that employee left the NBA, that’s how David would always refer to him arnd the office. It was w a loving smile, & a smirk, again half ripping the guy to shreds so he’d never do it again, half hugging him w that smirk, as if to say – you’re loved, we all make mistakes. That was David.

 

He was more than an NBA commissioner. He changed the world – had a profound impact on many areas of society: how he handled Magic and the HIV & helped make the topic more mainstream, how he expanded operations globally & used a game as a connector btwn ppl & societies (often at odds), how he showed sports leagues the dynamic power for change they had in communities in ALL aspects of life. He was truly great & will be sorely missed. The world is a better place bc of him, & those of us fortunate enough to be NBA employees & alums are better ppl bc of him. RIP DJS.

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