George Solomon reflects on the legacy of David Stern


George Solomon reflects on the legacy of David Stern
Jan 8, 2020

Of David Stern, ESPN NBA columnist Jackie MacMullan said it best: “He challenged me to be better.”

Stern, who died Jan. 1, challenged many journalists and we were better for it. He was the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association for 30 years until his retirement in 2014. On Dec. 12, he suffered a brain hemorrhage while having lunch in New York and was taken to a hospital but never recovered.

Among the wonderful appreciations of Stern, especially by John Feinstein in The Washington Post and Marc Stein in the New York Times, it was clear Stern was quick to admonish a sportswriter whom he believed had made an error or treated him or the league unfairly. Or simply disagreed with him.

Stern read newspapers, magazines and books. He read everything. He would have shaken his head in dismay if he knew about a football coach, whom I recently asked what he read, said he ”didn’t read anything” because he didn’t have time.

Stern found time – and it served him well. He knew everything that was written and said about the NBA, which in the early 1980’s couldn’t even get its championship series on live television. Stern became NBA commissioner in 1984 and built the NBA into an international giant, with the average franchise worth $1.9 billion, its games broadcast in 40 languages in 200 countries. When Stern became commissioner, the average NBA salary was $250,000 a year. Today the average player salary in the NBA is $9 million.

He knew the value of promoting the league’s stars, with great players such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Larry Bird becoming household names. It was Stern who pushed the NBA into the 1992 Olympics (remember the “Dream Team”?) that forever changed the way the rest of the world looked at the league. It was Stern who supported Johnson in 1991, when Johnson disclosed his having H.I.V. Despite the fact many players in the league did not want to be near Johnson, Stern put him in the All-Star game.

For Stern, it was the players driving the train. He grew the league by appealing to a young audience, diversity and growing globally. Players came from Europe, South America, Africa, Asia and fans bought their team jerseys, videos and other merchandise. He expanded the league, instituted draft lotteries, made the All-Star game into a three-day festival and supported the start of the WNBA.

In labor negotiations, he could be tough, willing to support a lockout by the owners or take a strike by the players. But, in the end, he treated the players respectfully and believed the league was in partnership with the players.

For years, I was a member of a group of sports editors who would meet with Stern each year in his New York office and share our grievances that included declining media access to players, accuracy of reporting injuries and teams reluctance to disclose basic financial information, even when taxpayers were paying for their new arenas.

Stern never played defense at these sessions. He heard our complaints, taking a few notes, but quickly moved to the offense. Why weren’t we (newspapers) more balanced? How come no one traveled with WNBA teams or provided more space for WNBA stories ? Or wrote more NBA stories, in comparison to other sports including football and baseball? Still, you knew he read what was written, cared and represented his league well.


In a time of declining newspaper circulation, nationwide staff reductions and continued uncertainty at even the best of magazines, I had the privilege of being the speaker at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism commencement on Dec. 18. What do you tell graduates and parents what awaits them, once they have that diploma?

For starters, the skills that journalists have always sought to possess: reporting, writing, hard work, curiosity, street smarts and ideas will continue to be valued. What’s changing is how these skills will be put to use. Websites may eventually replace most newspapers. Television and radio stations will continue employing reporters to gather the news. Leagues and teams need reporters to generate stories for its sites, although one hopes they allow their staffers independence befitting a news outlet.

With that in mind, I asked one of the most optimistic journalists I know – USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan — what she tells young journalists about the future of the business.

“I think most students and their parents know about the bad staff, so I encourage and promote the good,” said Brennan. “We don’t want to lose great young journalists because people like us turned negative about their future. They’ll find out soon enough if they’re good and have a future in journalism. If they aren’t, it’s time for something else.”

Something else is not what more than 6,000 high school journalists had in mind at a national convention of aspiring journalists in Washington in late November. That’s optimism.

Photo credit: Photograph by Kevin Maloney, Fortune Brainstorm Tech, 2012.

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