Stern was always ahead of the game

Posted: February 07, 2014

LAST FRIDAY, retired NBA commissioner David Stern thanked me via email for reporting on his league during his 30-year tenure. This came as a great surprise, because I don't cover his league that often, and because people in his position are rarely pleased when I do.

But David always seemed to be different in that regard, seemed to always get what many league and team executives and media directors I have encountered over my 32 years in this business have not.

Publicity, "favorable or not" in his words, usually is a means to make more money, not less.

Just ask the Kardashians.

Stern seemed to get this simple concept before his peers from those other pro leagues did. It's the seed from which his achievements sprung, whether it be player-branding or internationally expanding. Christmas Day showdowns, turning an All-Star Game into a weekend, the slam-dunk competition, co-opting the Olympics to spread the NBA brand internationally - these concepts, born in the Stern era, have since been mimicked by the other leagues.

The NHL has co-opted the Olympics now, too. Rather than interrupt its season for the Olympics, Major League Baseball created its own International "Classic," spelling its own demise as an Olympic sport.

The Winter Classic on New Year's Day is now the NHL equivalent of the NBA's Christmas Day.

The Dallas Cowboys - America's team - were an NFL accident, the nationalization of the Green Bay Packers before them even more so. The genius of the Super Bowl always will be Pete Rozelle's, but Stern's NBA of the 1980s set the template for sports marketing, a term not even in use in those days.

Yes, he fell into some great fortune via the pre-exisiting rivalry between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. And, yes, he fell into even more great fortune with the pervasive emergence of ESPN and the exponential opportunity that broadband cable television provided. But the reason "Fan-tastic" is associated with the NBA is because it was the first to market itself that way.

You've heard the back story countless times: When Stern took over in 1984, NBA revenues totaled $165 million, most of its franchises were failing or under financial duress. Its championship was aired tape-delayed. It had a perceived leaguewide drug problem.

Today, it is a billion-dollar enterprise with live games aired on four networks, its championship series perennially garnering enviable ratings. Justly criticized for marketing names over its teams, it is nonetheless a marketing truth that several of those stars are among the most recognizable in the world, to the envy of the other leagues.

Stern set the pace globally, too. Since the Dream Team's maiden voyage into the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, the NBA has truly become an internationally stocked league, and has experienced a meteoric increase in its popularity worldwide. It is a model the NHL, with players from all parts of the Northern Hemisphere, has tried to tap into, with dubious results thus far. And it is a model the NFL and Major League Baseball can still only dream about, for a day at least another 30 years away.

But back to the letter. Maybe it was sent to anyone to whom the NBA ever issued a credential, maybe it wasn't. Sure sounded sincere. He even gave me an email address, should I wish to continue a relationship I wasn't even aware of.

Maybe he remembered me from the late '80s when I did cover the league more, back when the NBA was setting a template for how to handle publicity, good and bad. Any media member, even a guy from the Virginian-Pilot - which, I know, sounds more like an airline magazine than a newspaper - was appreciated, treated with equal importance.

Maybe he remembered the time his public-relations staff bumped a guy from the Virginian-Pilot from the hockey press box in the old Boston Garden to a first-row seat along the baseline during the 1987 NBA Finals.

Apparently, a much more famous reporter from a much bigger and more influential newspaper failed to show up, so my name was next on the list, and the seat was mine. So there I was, watching Magic Johnson's junior, junior hook sail over the outstretched hands of Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, through the hoop immediately to my right.

More often than not since then, at the big events I've covered, that seat has not been reassigned. But as I said, I don't cover the NBA much. Twenty-seven years later, 27 years of covering amazing events, people and stories, I still think about how lucky I was that day.

And maybe how I should be writing the thank-you note.


Email: donnels@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon

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