David Stern part 5: portrait of a honcho

They said the New York accent would never play nationally but they sure were wrong. The voice is a huge part of the allure. He’s New York City through and through, born in the city, school in the city, all that crap. Lots of stories about his dad and his dad’s business. The neighborhood! The old days. Ball games and so forth. He could play the “authenticity” card at just the right times.

It helps that he was kind of an asshole. “Hey that’s just how you have to be to run things! That’s New York!” This despite the fact that other bland technocrats run these type of businesses without resorting to screaming at reporters and cultivating decades long feuds.

That business! Bustling and booming. Sure, he took it over in the late 70s, right at a structural nadir of the economy. It’s hard to distinguish his success from the broader fortunes of similar businesses but… something’s he’s doing has got to be working, right? Ok sure he didn’t exactly build it himself, it was already doing quite well, but he was adept at pushing those existing advantages to new heights! Just look at that devilish grin always popping up, and his sly interviews with favored journalists.

Sure there were scandals. He had to bend the rules a little bit! Deep down don’t you admire him for it? He’s one of the tough ones! He had some underlings who were cheating the tax man. Nothing he directly oversaw. Hey you’ve got to sometimes. There were predators in his operation and of course he covered for them. It’s a rough business. And there’s the weird way his power tripping exposed itself, like in an unhealthy obsession with his employees’ dress and appearance. And the thumb on the scale in all things according to his whim. But hey, that’s my guy! He wants the best. Just like me. Deep down I know he’s got my interests at heart.

Hi. The word “huge” was your clue.

Bad profile journalism is personality cult journalism. Despite all the similarities I was able to play up above, obviously there are huge differences between David Stern and Donald Trump. Those little cultural signifiers are tuned to the target audience.

Trump put his name on his businesses and played up the “self made, family business” aspects. That’s catnip to the actual business owners of the country and anyone lacking education credentials who dreams of being the boss someday. NBC blended and served that concoction over and over again for years and unknowingly built the MAGA constituency. Trump’s gauche displays of high-low luxury (gold plated toilets and Big Macs on private jets) appeal to those who feel shut out of any luxury.

Every Stern profile goes over his humble origins, (his father ran Stern’s Deli!) his college degree, his law degree, his rise from law firm partner to NBA macher and finally commish. Stern rode education culture credentialism into a swashbuckling position of power. He was a nice un-athletic boy who did well in school, went to college, got a law degree, got the right law firm job and then… behold he became the glamorous boss over all the athletes who gets his way and calls the shots. That fantasy is sold back over and over to higher-educated readers. They’re not interested in gold plates (they can actually buy gold) but they are interested in being able to turn their white collar careers into an alpha male fantasy character.

Everyone could see the anger rising within him, but no one expected the words that tumbled out of his mouth.
Stern told the room he knows where “the bodies are buried” in the NBA, witnesses recounted, because he had buried some of them himself.
“It was shocking,” Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose told Yahoo! Sports. “I was taking off my gear, and when he said that, I just stopped and thought, ‘Whoa …’

NBA players’ union leader takes bold stand” by Adrian Wojnarowski, March 21, 2011

Oh snap! If I do well on my LSAT and work on Sundays then someday I can yell shelf-stable toughguy lines at pro athletes and they’ll have to sit there and say “whoa.” Now back to debating whether Tony Soprano or Don Draper is the best TV character or all time and reading this Jack Welch biography.

Of course Stern is not as bad as Trump and no doubt more objectively competent. The sport of basketball survived Stern and we still don’t know if the country will survive Trump. Stern left the public stage (eventually) and seems to have done so gracefully in the years after his retirement. But if you are one of the people who “just can’t understand” Trump’s appeal and yet you have a little soft spot for Stern and all his bossman ways, I’m asking you to rethink and reframe your approach to personality-driven coverage of CEOs. It’s unfortunately extremely relevant to understanding the age we live in.

“You best start believing in the seductiveness of strongman personality cults… you’re in one.”

Step out of the wheel for one second and reflect on why any speck of basketball fandom was devoted to this caretaker lawyer in an office in New York who keeps the bills paid? Why did we elevate and venerate this guy at all? How sick is the sport that these tertiary off-court figures became subjects for otherwise-intelligent fans to celebrate?

I looked long and hard for a picture of Stern and Trump together. No doubt they were deeply familiar with each other in circles of New York power for three decades. The one thing I did find was this video of a podcast where Stern talks about playing Trump in doubles tennis with Bob Tisch and John Veronis. “Every time I’ve seen Donald since he says ‘Hey David we have to play again’.” By his own words there were many subsequent meetings, although none seem to have been photographed.

Incidentally, the midpoint between Trump and Stern is Vince MacMahon, who does deserve some of the “maverick genius of business” reputation that gets thrown around way too often. Like Trump, MacMahon inherited his father’s already-successful line of work. Like Stern, he was a sports commissioner who rode cable TV to mind boggling wealth in the 80s and 90s. But unlike the other two MacMahon actually built a true zero-to-one. There was nothing forgone about WWE becoming a nationwide TV phenomenon under the control of one unifying federation. (Yes he is also a terrible person.)