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Reflections on the wide-ranging impact of David Stern

January 2, 2020

“Is it ok to cry in a negotiation?”

This is the question an MBA student asked NBA Commissioner David Stern during a guest lecture to my class at Wharton a few decades back. The commissioner had already gone way over his scheduled time with hard-hitting, “tough negotiator” stories and his people were checking their watches. Without flinching, he said with a gleam, ‘If I could, I would.’ After pausing for both impact and laughter, Stern continued his remarks so he could convey generously to her and others the importance of being yourself and using the tools you have for success. I knew, by reputation, how difficult he could be. This, however was one of many times over the years I saw a side that many knew the man to be, beyond his boardroom demeanor.

I just saw Stern at an event in Philadelphia where he was, again, overly generous with an audience. He had many, many comedic pauses that recent day.

‘Is it ok to cry during negotiations?’ … an MBA student asked NBA Commissioner David Stern …Without flinching, he said with a gleam, ‘If I could, I would.’

Others will recount in detail all he accomplished in sport. In his decades as commissioner, 1994–2014, Stern led the turnaround of a league whose playoff games were, if shown on television at all, on something then called “tape delay.” The Dream Team is an example of his oversight of the perfection of the platform for the most marketable athletes in the world, from Michael Jordan to LeBron James.

As commissioner, Stern laid the foundation for the league and its current leader, Adam Silver, to become the most socially-focused major sports league in the world. It takes a generous person to have that level of foresight.

His commitment to social causes, personally and financially, will become better known as time goes on. He was already on my Mt. Rushmore of sports commissioners. He is a shining example of using sport for good while being financially successful. Our condolences to his family and friends. The world will miss David Stern.

Kenneth L. Shropshire is CEO of the Global Sport Institute and the adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport at Arizona State University and Professor Emeritus of the Wharton School.