The Back Porch

Thoughts On A Friend

By: Sheila Johnson

As 2019 was in the process of crossing over and becoming 2020, the sports world lost one of its true giants. Longtime NBA commissioner David Stern passed away on New Year’s Day, the result of a brain hemorrhage he’d suffered a few weeks prior.

But, as a professional sports owner, I didn’t just lose a commissioner in David.  In a very real way, I lost a dear, sweet friend. 

Granted, Mr. Stern didn’t start out that way. But make no mistake, and without even a sliver of equivocation, he ended up that way.

He proved, at least to me, to be a man like few others in this world.  He was deeply principled.  He passionately supported women and our causes, and not just with his words, but his actions. And he had this inherent respect for people of all colors and creeds.

Years ago, when I first bought into the Washington Wizards and Mystics ownership group, David didn’t just send me a letter or pick up the phone.  He immediately got on a plane, flew to the District, and welcomed me personally.

He would then often call me out of the blue to get my thoughts on various issues over the years; something I knew he was doing to other owners as a matter of pulse-taking, free-flowing discourse and, of course, consensus-building.

When, at long last, the Mystics finally broke through this past summer and won our very first WNBA championship, David couldn’t have been happier for me and my organization, from upper management on down.  And I’ll never forget the fact that the very first text I received that night as the game was winding down was not from a friend, or even a family member.  It was from David Stern telling me how proud he was of our organization.

And when he retired, and some of us threw him a going away party at the NBA offices in New York, I will never forget how, even as he was addressing a roomful of well-wishers, he excused himself, saying he had something he wanted to do.  He then walked toward the opposite side of the conference table and, with a big smile on his face, held his arms out. I stood up and he gave me a big bear hug to end all bear hugs, while thanking me for everything I’d done for him and the league.

Look, a few weeks ago the obituary writers did a great job capturing the X’s and O’s of David Stern’s remarkable life and career.  They wrote how he was the longest-serving commissioner in sports history.  They detailed how he was able to take a largely slumbering league and, with the aid of such things as the ongoing Larry Bird/Magic Johnson rivalry, the historic 1984 player draft, and the mythical Olympic “Dream Team,” spin that slumbering league into a global sports and marketing phenomenon.  And they wrote as well, how he started the NBA’s developmental league and the WNBA.

But here’s what I think many of those obituary writers missed.  David Stern, a lifelong New Yorker, didn’t just start the WNBA and walk away.  He didn’t just provide the finest women athletes in the world a chance to earn a living doing what they did best and loved most, and then simply wash his hands and move on. 

To the contrary.

He constantly challenged us to better itself. He urged us to continue to tweak our branding, our marketing and our on-court product. And he taught us to focus on not merely carving out a niche for the WNBA in the marketplace, but to fill it with athletes who were human, athletes who could connect with fans, young and old, and athletes who were the kind of people that those same fans, especially the youngest, wanted to take home for dinner, if not grow up to be like. 

Athletes, in other words, to be looked up to, admired and, emulated.

But more than that, the brilliance of David Stern as a leader was this.  In a world in which those in power often seek to hoard that power, especially at the professional sports level, he did just the opposite.  

He looked at his players – the vast majority of whom, like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James, were not only young men, but young African American men – and he trusted them.  He turned his league – more than any other commissioner in any other sports enterprise anywhere – into a player’s league, not an owner’s one.

He, in essence, gave all those young African American men under his watch the keys to the family car with little more than two simple instructions; “Treat it like it was your own” and “Bring it home with gas gauge on ‘full.’” 

The rest was up to them.

Not many leaders would have done that. That’s why I grew to love David Stern and that’s why I was so proud to be able to call him not just my commissioner, but my friend. 

And that’s why I’m writing this now, just days after it was announced that the WNBA’s players would, at long last, receive a pay raise across the board and that the league’s minimum salary would creep closer to a level at which none of our players would ever again be compelled to work in the off-season just to try to get by.

It goes without saying that all of us in the WNBA spent pretty much all last week grinning from ear to ear.  But unless I miss my guess, the person who smiled most of all was a tough-minded little son of a gun in glasses, a guy who’s looking down on us now and clapping for all he’s worth at just how far his NBA and WNBA have come.

Godspeed, my friend.  I will miss you – almost as much, in fact, as I already miss the sound of your voice and the remarkable passion you always showed me.

David Stern and me at the Jacob Burns Film Center

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