Stern, who grew up modestly, the son of a deli owner in the Chelsea section of Manhattan long before the area became fashionable, was not an easy person to work for or with, or against. He berated those who questioned his decisions, occasionally in public if they were members of the press. He dressed down employees, sometimes in front of representatives of the league’s partners.
The style bothered some more than others.
“Sometimes the delivery could be challenging, but it got you to the desired outcome,” said Peter Land, the N.B.A.’s director of marketing communications from 1993 to 1998.
Welts said there were days when he left the office wondering if he could continue working for Stern. Then his home phone would ring at 10 p.m., “and he would be Uncle Dave, and he would talk about what we were accomplishing, how great this was going to be,” Welts said. “I’d come in the next day ready to run through a wall for him.”
Other commissioners simply managed sports leagues. Stern fashioned himself as one of the world’s leading chief executives, worthy of hobnobbing at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and at the Allen & Co. media summits in Sun Valley, Idaho.
If players behaved in a way that tarnished the league’s image, he did not hide his wrath.
A 1997 fight between Latrell Sprewell, a star forward for the Warriors, and P.J. Carlesimo, a coach with a reputation for verbally abusing his players, earned Sprewell a one-year suspension and the termination of his contract. An arbitrator later ordered the suspension shortened and allowed Sprewell to recoup the $17.3 million his contract guaranteed him. Stern also had little sympathy for players who brawled with fans after a drink was thrown from the stands late in the fourth quarter of a game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers in 2004.
But those moves, widely viewed in hindsight as missteps, and Stern’s management style are largely overlooked now because of his ability to understand where the sports business was headed years before any of his rivals did.
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