Nearly five years after stepping down (he did not retire) as NBA commissioner, DAVID STERN has no time for war stories. The reticent icon is busy crafting a second act that could impact the future of the game
"ASK ME ANYTHING," DAVID STERN SAYS.
It's a Wednesday morning in August. We're sitting in his new office, 33 floors above Fifth Avenue and five blocks from his old office. Outside, it's so hot that the thermostat has been locked at 78º to conserve energy. In here, however, Stern—76 years old, shirt creased, white hair still parted as if by laser—is unperturbed. If anything, he appears to be in a great mood.
Ask him anything? Where to start? In 30 years as NBA commissioner, Stern led a floundering league to unprecedented growth. Since his departure LeBron moved back to Cleveland, the Warriors became The Warriors, Donald Sterling got the boot, and LeBron left Cleveland again. And this is not even touching on the larger cultural shifts; remember, a year ago, when Mark Cuban was seriously considering running for President?
Anything? How about what Stern has learned? What he misses? Why didn't he trade CP3 to the Lakers? Is that really the Larry O'Brien trophy over there on the shelf? Did he just give me a printed itinerary for our day? Does he always eat peanut butter cookies for breakfast? Does this mean I can eat peanut butter cookies for breakfast?
Or how about the deeper stuff: about family and motivation, what drove him to work 14-hour days and demand his staff do the same, and what drives him to keep showing up at the office from 10 to 7? Can he turn that stuff on and off or is he on some workaholic autopilot, a virtue that doubles as a flaw, forever keeping him from really pondering the why of life.
Then again, maybe I'm overthinking this. Stern only said to ask anything. He didn't say he'd answer. Because when has David Stern ever divulged anything he didn't want to divulge?
HIS WAS a triumphant, carefully choreographed exit. On Feb. 1, 2014, after a nice round anniversary, Stern handed the job to his hand-picked successor, Adam Silver. Six months later Stern was inducted into the Hall of Fame.
What Stern didn't do, in any way, shape or form, was retire. "He hates when people say that," says Silver. No, Stern will explain with exasperation, as if you are a third-grader who forgot his homework yet again, all he did was step down. And just so we're clear: He did so on his terms. Because retiring is something old people do. Boring people. People unlike David Stern.
Even so, you could be forgiven for assuming that he had. In the half decade since, Stern has mostly dropped out of public view. No memoir to burnish his legacy—despite what he describes as "many, many" entreaties from literary agents. ("Too self-important," he explains. "Just thinking about it gives me a rash!") Stern agrees to infrequent interviews, which are usually brief or esoteric. (He was a guest on the first and only podcast of freelance writer Nunyo Demasio; he spoke to former NBA player Al Harrington for a video series on medical marijuana, which Stern supports.) Occasionally, he shares anecdotes—how he once beat Donald Trump at doubles tennis, for example—but rarely does he go into detail because, he says, "I don't do war stories." On the contrary, he's made an effort to limit his exposure. Upon hearing that his Q&A at Seton Hall in April with former players association head Charlie Grantham is now on YouTube, he says, "Was that recorded? Oh s---." The reason for this reticence, Stern says, is that, "There can be only one commissioner."
And the 56-year-old Silver has thrived in the position. He is markedly different from his mentor: forthcoming, a bit goofy, sensitive—even vulnerable. Whereas Stern often played the role of emperor, forever beating back the barbarians at the gate (the media and players union), Silver comes across more like a friend or an ally. One of his first acts was to drop the hammer on Sterling, the racist, sexist owner of the Clippers, who was banned from the NBA for life and forced to sell his team. Silver is open to feedback, encourages his players to speak out. He is a woke commissioner for a woke age.
This is not to diminish Stern's cultural legacy. He was ahead of the curve on many social issues. Met with Mandela. In 1992, on live TV at the All-Star Game, he hugged Magic Johnson—his favorite player ever—to demonstrate that HIV wasn't casually contagious. He arranged for a climate-change expert to appear at the owners' meetings way back in 2006. He pushed for African-American owners in his league at a time when the big four sports had none.
To this day Stern remains a staunch liberal, donating even if, as he puts it, "The Democratic Party has not been a successful investment." Still, he has plenty of ideas. He hated Hillary Clinton's "Stronger Together" and "I'm With Her" campaign slogans (too narrow, unlike, say, "Prosperity, Strength, Inclusiveness and Education," which Stern offers). And he is horrified by his former doubles opponent. "How dare he rip the fabric of the republic asunder for narrow partisan gains," Stern says of Trump. "It's not fair."
He does what he can, regularly speaking with Democratic figures he'd rather I not name. Dianne, his wife of 55 years, is on the board of Earthjustice, an organization that provides legal aid for environmental causes. Even so, Stern feels he has more to add to the Democrats but, "They don't ask and they don't value [the advice]." Friends lobbied him to run for mayor of New York City. He was also mentioned as a possible ambassador. Neither job was for him, though.
His passion lies elsewhere.
YOU DON'T want to write about me," Stern said back in June. I had been trying to reach him since January. "My life is boring. Stultifying."
Plus, he didn't want me following him to his business meetings, as I'd proposed. What would the investors think? No, that would not do. Besides, Stern was so, so busy—the engagements and advisories and consultancies and investments and, oh hell, maybe it wouldn't be that bad for someone to witness it after all. Maybe he could even teach a reporter a thing or two. We set a date.
But then, in the interim, he talked himself out of it. On second thought, the idea struck him as "ridiculous" and "stupid." Still, he felt guilty about backing out. "I'll do my penance," he said. He offered a new scenario: lunch and an interview at his office.
FOR A high-profile figure, Stern has managed to keep much of his life private. His father, William, was a passionate, demanding man who put his life into the family business, Stern's Deli, on 23rd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Stern's was open seven days a week, and until 1 a.m. on Saturday nights. David's mother, Anna, the ballast in the family, was the bookkeeper. David and his two sisters worked weekend shifts.
William passed away in 1980, at 62, but his work ethic imprinted. David excelled at Teaneck (N.J.) High, then at Rutgers and Columbia Law School. He began representing the NBA in court cases in '67 while at Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, worked on the ABA-NBA merger in '76, then left to become the NBA's first general counsel, later ascending to executive VP. The league was struggling: 16 of the 23 teams lost money in '80--81, and an '82 Los Angeles Times story reported that up to 75% of the players were on drugs.
By the time Stern became commissioner, in 1984, he'd long since lost the battle for work-life balance. He and Dianne had two sons, Eric and Andrew. Once, Stern had coached both their basketball teams. Now he went "all in," as he likes to say, working as long as it took to get things right, which was often very, very long. Surrounding himself with young, ambitious people, Stern instilled a culture of near manic productivity. He'd later be described as "abrasive" (Rod Thorn) and "a yeller" (Steve Mills), but no one questioned Stern's effectiveness. He also countered his demanding, berating nature with a heavy dose of mentorship.
By the time SI printed the first (and, best I can tell, only) lengthy profile of Stern, in 1991, the league was ascendant and he had been rewarded with a five-year, $37.5 million contract. Stern was also adamant that the writer, E.M. Swift, not talk to his family. Neither did Stern provide much biographical information. (Swift was the second SI writer to try to tackle the subject after the first gave up.) Swift did procure one anonymous insight, though: "I think David has a fair amount of regret over his personal life. I understand that he is the same kind of father that he is a commissioner, and I don't think the kids have responded well to that. He can be so demanding, so much the perfectionist. It's also been really hard on David. He spends every waking hour thinking of the league. He expresses regret at times for who he is. He'll say, 'I terrorize, I demand so much from everyone. I can't back off. I can't pull down.' David only knows one way to go, and that's full speed ahead."
These days, Stern says he sees his sons regularly. Both went to law school in New York City. Eric, 50, works as the senior adviser to Montana governor Steve Bullock and lives in Helena. Andrew, 52, lives in New York City and is in real estate. Both are unmarried, and the Sterns have no grandchildren. Neither son tried to follow David into the NBA life. I'd offer further perspective, but they don't speak to the media. In Eric's case, he initially wrote that he'd be "happy to talk," but upon learning that his father didn't want him to, he went silent.
Stern has long had a complicated relationship with the media. He tells me he once got a writer fired from USA Today because he wrote "the most horrible things about some of our people." Recalls Stern, "He said, 'You got me fired didn't you?' And I said, 'Yes, and I'm proud of it. I'd do it again.' There is a family. We call it the NBA family and we really, we live it."
Stern also recounts how in 2010 he fined Pistons general manager Joe Dumars $500,000 for leaking league memos to reporter Adrian Wojnarowski after enacting a sting. When Stern stepped down, Woj opened fire with both barrels, calling him, "the biggest ego in the history of the sport" among other things. ("I never read it but I heard it was nasty," Stern says.)
Still, Stern says he never disliked the media, that he understood they had a job to do. (As for his claim that he never read stories about himself, one longtime coworker says with a laugh, "Oh, he totally reads them.") "Bob Costas used to relish getting me on during the Finals," Stern smiles. "O.K., Bob, give me your best shot. It was kind of fun. If you stood on your hind legs and had federal judges dismissing your arguments and you've been commissioner for 30 years is there something new and different that's going to be thrown at you? Probably not." The real danger, Stern contends, is if you don't engage in the p.r. fray. "Hinkie's biggest mistake," he says when I bring up the former GM of the 76ers, Sam Hinkie. "He wouldn't talk to the media. What was that about?"
This is how Stern viewed his job: as bodyguard for the league. He refers to the NBA as "an asset" and his goal was to "make the asset more valuable." He says, "When I think back on the best stuff, I'm not thinking about Michael hitting all the threes or the last shot. I think about Magic announcing he was HIV positive, and Latrell Sprewell deciding to choke P.J. Carlesimo, Ron Artest going into the stands, [former referee Tim] Donaghy betting on games. Those were places I had to step up and protect the league and that comes with the job. That wasn't extra stress. That was the job."
This trait both made Stern effective and difficult. "It's not always fun to be on the receiving end of it, but he gives you his views unfiltered," says Silver, who worked under Stern for 22 years and considers Stern "a friend and mentor." "My shorthand for his technique is pay attention. He pays attention to every detail. If he called a colleague and he didn't like the way the phone was answered by them or someone on their behalf, he let them know. And if he didn't think your outgoing voicemail message on your cellphone was an effective form of communication, he let you know."
Silver continues. "I learned that from him. We were alike. I'd react to all those small details before I worked for him, but always in my head. I never thought those were things you could actually talk to people about, and maybe I have a different way of talking to people about them, but I think that's always been our commonality. I've become more direct, and I've learned to become more assertive because of him." Silver pauses. "I learned from David that being direct with people is in their interest, not just our interest."
Direct is one way to put it.
HEY, LISTEN s---foot, how about letting them know what you're doing before we walk in there?"
This is two hours into my morning with Stern and he's in a glass-walled conference room, speaking to and about a business partner.
As usual, he'd arrived that morning around 9:30, by car service from the home he and Dianne have owned for 40 years in Scarsdale. Outside his office, as always, is Linda Tosi, his assistant of 27 years. Working for Stern is one of two jobs she's had in her life and she says she loves it, even if it's more demanding now. At the NBA, Stern had three assistants; these days it's just Tosi. She has seen a lot. She also knows her job is to recede into the background. She'd prefer not to speak on the record. Or, really, to be part of the story at all. But if anyone should write a book, it's Tosi. But she won't. She will offer up that he's mellowed. "Did you know him before?" she asks. Also, she says, he can't stop working: "His motto was always 'a relentless pursuit of perfection' and that's entirely the case."
Most weeks Stern spends his Monday at Greycroft, the New York City venture capital firm where he is a senior adviser. Fridays he tries to take off. The majority of the time, though, he works in his spacious office, which has the feel of an extremely well-lit museum. His desk is meticulously organized; pencils separated from pens, an NBA-branded memo pad, a ripped-out newspaper story on top of stacked folders. (Stern, who prefers news to books, pores over three papers in print each day.) The other available spaces are filled with photos of Stern alongside various important folks: Mandela, Bill Clinton, Phil Jackson, Magic, Ronald Reagan. His Columbia law degree hangs on one wall. On another is a Sacramento Bee comic strip depicting him as Superman, printed after he worked to keep the Kings in town in 2013.
Stern's days are full of tightly clustered meetings. The previous day, among other things, he had: filmed a clip at NBA headquarters for the Hornets' 30th anniversary; visited with the president of the EuroLeague; met with an exec from Paddy Power Betfair; talked investments with a banker over lunch; sat with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's son, who works for a tech firm; and met with, "someone raising $260 million to do podcasts—don't ask." He prefers to do business in person or on the phone, even if it feels antiquated. "We have younger friends, they don't even answer their goddam phones," he laments. "If you don't email or text, they don't respond. A whole other generation out there."
Part of that generation is here, in the conference room, where Stern has assembled a group of people he works with and deems acceptable for me to speak to. The attendees include Dayveon Ross, the tall, amiable cofounder of a sports wearable company called ShotTracker, for which Stern is an adviser and investor; Bruce Janni, ShotTracker's short, extremely fit CEO; a deferential Intel exec named Shawn Bryant; Will Szczerbiak, principal at Greycroft and brother of former NBA forward Wally; and Zach Weiner, the very chill, lightly bearded, T-shirt-wearing 26-year-old CEO of Overtime, a streaming sports company focused on content produced by and for millennials. The meeting is representative of Stern's post-NBA life, which is precisely why it was scheduled to take place when I was there. Those who know Stern would expect nothing less. His personal investment fund, MVP, stands for Micromanagement Ventures Portfolio.
Not long after lighting into Ross (the aforementioned s---foot) he turns to Weiner. "Shut up, shut up, shut up!" he bellows, holding up his right hand like a stop sign. And then, to Janni: "Say the right thing or I'm going to beat the crap out of you." Later, riding an elevator, Stern will suggest that ShotTracker will likely "go down in flames" within a year, to which Ross (also on the elevator, incredulous), will respond, "You know he's still here, right?" nodding toward me.
Despite how his words may read, at no point was Stern actually upset or even mildly perturbed. On the contrary, he was having a great time. The best time, really. Neither were the investors and startup guys taken aback because, while a term like s---foot may be a particularly creative composite, it is merely one of the many, many names David has called each of them over the years. That's just how Stern communicates, they explain, how he has always communicated. In return, the men refer to Stern, with some reverence, as D, the Commish, and their North Star. As Ross explains, "Not many people can see around corners and David sees around not just one but three or four." Janni says, "As a tech startup, you want to surround yourself with people who give you an unfair advantage, and that's what David gives us."
Weiner immediately took to Stern. "One of the things that's really difficult is that there are so many people in the sports industry that have a lot of experience, but, like, they're 55 and they don't really understand our demo," Weiner says. "I'll talk to them and be like, you're superimpressive and I'll try to learn some stuff from you, but I have to take everything with a grain of salt. But with David, it's not really like that. Somehow he still understands the youth. That even goes down to the way we text." Weiner shows me a recent text from David that includes five emojis: Scotch, wine, martini, biceps and a heart. (Stern's go-to sequence of "the three drinks and the biceps to show I'm strong.") Below the emojis is a GIF, also from Stern. It's of Elmo from Sesame Street, shrugging.
The dominant theme of the meeting is the future of sports, though not the way a fan might see it—in athletes and teams and humans—but rather as opportunities. The men discuss "new form factors" and "growth and engagement across the user base" and "autonomous feeds." Stern name-checks a dizzying number of sports-related startups: Livelike, Fathom, Fubo, Whoop, Statmuse, Boston Biomotion, Bitfry, Jackpocket. They're going to change the entire landscape, he predicts.
"I give a little spiel," says Stern. "I say, 'In the future, an assistant is in the locker room watching all the monitors and communicating with an assistant on the bench, and he says of [this player], his hydration is lousy, his blood pressure is low, his heart rate is high, his lactic acid is congealed and his facial recognition says he wants to be anywhere but in the game, get him out! And that's all doable now, with wearables."
Most exciting to the men, however, is the greatest opportunity of all: gambling. Wearables like ShotTracker will provide invaluable data to "market-makers" (read: bookies). Stern envisions TV programs, like Jim Cramer's Mad Money, but for wagering. He is fascinated by the role of casinos and racetracks and FanDuel. "Just follow the money!" Stern exclaims.
Hearing Stern so amped about the topic is jarring. As commissioner, Stern was vehemently opposed to sports gambling. Two years ago he gave the keynote at the American Gaming Association's Global Gaming Expo in Vegas, and he's now a senior adviser to PJT Partners, which is focused on the industry. "To have David become an advocate rather than adversary to the casinos was a turning point," says Don Cornwell, a partner at PJT, who considers Stern "an absolute godsend."
Stern says he was "the last holdout." (Silver came out in favor of legalized gambling in 2014, writing an op-ed in The New York Times.) "I always said the reason we don't want to have gambling is because we don't want Junior going to the game and coming away disappointed because the home team won but they didn't cover," says Stern. "But as soon as they allowed daily fantasy, I said that's it, there's no sense in having daily fantasy and not being in favor of betting—especially when you add in the fact that so much of it is already done offshore illegally and lining the coffers of some people you don't know."
He sees so much changing in the years to come. Take the next round of bidding for NBA broadcast rights. Imagine free global streaming of all games, with the revenue generated by the ad prices to reach such a vast audience. "This will be a unique possibility to have one buyer on a global basis. It could be Apple, Amazon, Hulu, Facebook, Google, AT&T—could be almost anything. Doesn't necessarily mean it's an American company. The Chinese five are there. You have to game-play every possibility."
Is that the future? Who knows? Says Stern, "When you draw a profile of a millennial who doesn't have a landline, doesn't have a television set—isn't that quaint?—how is he or she going to consume the product? Or will they? Which is why NBA2K is watched by so many people. All of these are pieces of the puzzle. The fun part of the NBA was trying to put the pieces together."
Doing so is no longer his challenge, though. As he likes to say when thorny issues arise, "Commissioner Silver is going to have to figure it out."
BUT WHAT about basketball itself? You know, the game, the NBA, all that? Stern says he occasionally wants to pick up the phone at midnight and call Silver—and sometimes he does—but that, despite all this "we" and "our" stuff, he says he doesn't "miss it at all."
Similarly, he prefers not to share his thoughts on the league, but he did say to ask him anything. So over sandwiches—which we eat in because Stern always eats in—I take him up on his offer. Here goes:
LeBron going to the Lakers? "I always thought it was going to happen that way," Stern says. "Someone tells me his son is enrolled at Crossroads. He wants to be with his family. It was a family decision. I mean, Maverick [Carter, James's business manager] moved there. C'mon! C'mon, guy!"
The dominance of the Warriors? "It's great. They've got a great team. Interesting players, a dynamic coach, owners that demonstrate that they care, they're about to open up a billion-dollar-plus building.... I think it's only good. And I don't believe in the debate about superteams, because when I started there were two superteams: the Celtics and Lakers.... Look at the attendance and the ratings and the product sales. We're the most metricized business there is, and all signs are positive."
Any regrets? He pauses. The lockouts, Stern finally offers, referring to the four that occurred on his watch, in 1995, '96, '98--99 and 2011. He hated that they had to occur. Bad for the fans. Bad for players. Bad for the league. "I did what I had to do, but it was terrible. I don't mind doing battle with the media or reporters but not with our players."
The recent sexual harassment scandal with the Mavericks? "I think that it's just another area where management has to be observant and obsessive. We make it our business to be out there, and we have to suffer what comes from the scrutiny."
What about Roger Goodell? Couldn't he benefit from Stern's advice? "You'd think, right? You'd think he'd call every day."
How about Chris Paul, whose trade to the Lakers, Stern vetoed in 2011 during his time as de facto owner of the New Orleans franchise (then the Hornets, now the Pelicans)? "I didn't do a great job of explaining it at the time. There was a trade that [New Orleans GM] Dell Demps wanted us to approve and I said heck no, but he had told [Rockets GM] Daryl Morey and [then Lakers GM] Mitch Kupchak he had authority to do it and he didn't. I said no. We just settled a lockout and you want me to approve a basketball trade?"
The reaction was swift but Stern held firm. "[Demps] had agreed to [trade Paul to the Rockets for] Kevin Martin and Luis Scola or something, and I said we can do better than that.... And the next trade was [to the Clippers for] Eric Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu and what we thought was a really great draft pick, the 10th pick, which turned out to be Austin Rivers. At least those three and someone else [center Chris Kaman]. But Dell Demps is a lousy general manager and none of those players are currently with the team anymore, and he may lose Anthony Davis."
Stern continues: "I did it because I was protecting the then Hornets.... To this day everyone always asks me, 'Well why did you keep Chris Paul from going to the Lakers?' I didn't keep him. I didn't approve the trade. No team sells or trades a future Hall of Famer without the owner signing off, and I was the owner's rep. But I wasn't going to hand up Dell Demps." After this, Stern goes on for a bit before returning to what he sees as the irony. "Now when DeMarcus Cousins signs with Golden State, then the great unwashed Twitter says, 'Adam Silver should be like Stern and stop him from going.' Oh, O.K., guys, that's great! Right? That's ridiculous. Step up, strap on a set. It's stupid."
The explanation is classic Stern: an admission of error followed by a diminishment of that error and, ultimately, vindication.
OUR DAY stretches beyond the allotted time. It's almost as if Stern's enjoying it. His affect is part curmudgeonly grandpa, part tour guide. When SI's photographer, Taylor Ballantyne, snaps pictures, Stern complains, "She's such a pain in the ass," at least five times, but he doesn't mean it. "You can come back anytime you want," he tells her. After lunch, we persuade Stern to leave the office and walk around the corner to Starbucks. He moves slowly, favoring the right knee he is about to have replaced, the result of an old lawyer's league hoops injury. (He's also had his left hip replaced.) He orders an Americano, and, when the woman at the register asks his name, enunciates "Dayyyyy-vid," nice and slow. She doesn't recognize him, and neither does anyone else in the place. He says this is unusual. That he is often asked to pose for selfies and when he walks down Fifth Avenue some of the security guards will yell out "The Commish!" because, as Stern explains, 'I have a great Q rating with the brothers."
To spend time with Stern is to note his brash, tell-it-like-it-is charm, but to also feel as if he's about to hand out an exam, only you're not sure what it's on. His default expression communicates that he is listening to you just long enough to form an opinion or to marshal an argument. He has a tendency to make pronouncements that are directly confrontational but, upon further review, also true. Janni, the ShotTracker CEO, says Stern has "an uncanny ability to know exactly what your button is and push it while he's laughing and you're laughing, and then you're like, 'He just punched me in the face!' " (Responds Stern, "I'm just trying you help you be the best you can be!")
Throughout the day I try to plumb more personal issues. Stern once mandated that referee Joey Crawford go to therapy, something Crawford credits with saving his career. So, how did Stern deal with stress? "I don't know, I don't think about it a lot," he says. What impact did his father have? How does he view work-life balance? He bats each query away, annoyed. He doesn't understand why I'm focusing on such mundane topics when we could be discussing wearables and burn rate and the 30% year-over-year growth of E-sports. Only later does it strike me that his evasiveness might be part of the strategy: by being so consistently provocative and challenging—your idea is stupid and ridiculous—he keeps others from getting close to him or understanding him.
At 3:30, Taylor and I take our leave. Stern's next appointment, Tatia Williams Carson, the NBA's VP of business affairs, is here. She says she comes to David for advice or counsel or, "Whenever he summons me." They begin speaking in hushed tones. (Stern is a world-class whisperer.)
The rest of his day, and month, look similar. Lots of meetings. Important deals. Long hours. Business dinners. A steady stream of acolytes. When I asked Russ Granik, his deputy for 22 years, about Stern's post-NBA life, Granik said, "I don't think it's a surprise to any of us who did know him well that he hasn't slowed down."
Silver agrees: "It's kind of, and I mean this in a complimentary way, but it's all he knows. David only had one gear in this 30 years as commissioner and it was to go full speed, and I think that's the way he still operates." He pauses. "Why, what's your theory?"
It was a very Adam Silver thing to do: To turn around the question and make you feel valued by soliciting your input. It was very much not a David Stern thing to do.
IEMBARKED ON this story because I was curious why Stern was spending his golden years investing in gambling and wearables and streaming apps. It seemed weird to me. Wrong in some way that was difficult to pinpoint. How could you devote the bulk of your life to a game and not remain enraptured by that game? Not the noise that surrounds it, but the essence: the backdoor passes and dream shakes and funky Manu Ginóbili layups. But of course that presupposes that underneath it all Stern is a fellow hoops junkie, forever tempted to stay up late to watch the West Coast feed on League Pass and bolt work to make the noon run at the Y. And of course that's absurd and unfair. A man like that couldn't have created all this....
Similarly, perhaps it's unfair to compare Stern to Silver. "I'm not sure I would have been the right guy in 1984, when David became commissioner," says Silver. "David had to fight every step along the way for respect for the NBA. I inherited a very different situation. A transcendent league, one that was clearly still on the ascent. The charge for me was: Don't screw it up. David was faced with an entirely different set of circumstances. Whether David adopted his personality for the times or that's who he always was, I'm not sure."
I'd add to that: Does it matter? Probably not, though I suspect that he was born that way. If I learned one thing about Stern, it's that he's one of those people whose hobby—whose passion—has always been the same as their job. The reason he didn't change tracks after leaving the NBA is because what he really wanted to do was what he'd already been doing, what he'd always wanted to do, what he will always want to do. Be in charge. Be the smartest guy in the room. Get involved in other people's business before they get involved in his. Tackle one puzzle after another, energized not by the solving but the knowledge that another puzzle awaits, and another after that. The real fear is of a time when no more exist.
So why look back when you can look forward, peeking around the next corner, and the one after that? Why revel in the past when tomorrow awaits?
How much longer will he keep doing this? I ask Stern. "Until whenever," he says. "Why think about the end?"
"[There] were places I had to step up and PROTECT THE LEAGUE and that comes with the job," Stern says. "That wasn't extra stress. That was the job."
"I mean this in a complimentary way," says Silver, "but it's all he knows. David only had ONE GEAR as commissioner, and I think that's the way he still operates."