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David Stern: Diversity is Key to the NBA’s Success

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern discusses how diversity forms the foundation of the league’s recent growth and success. At one point, Stern was told the NBA was “too black to thrive.” Now, it’s as popular as ever.

When David Stern stepped down earlier this year after three decades as NBA commissioner, he left behind a legacy some would deem controversial though no critic could ever call unsuccessful. Stern carried the NBA brand to stratospheric heights after being handed the keys in 1984. He expanded the league to 30 teams, grew the sport’s popularity on the world stage, and built corporate partnerships that married pro basketball with glitz and glamour. 

That’s pretty good for a league once described as doomed to fail. According to Stern, he was told during the 1970’s that the NBA was “too black to thrive,” that a black sport could never succeed in a white country. 

“So we developed chips on our shoulder early on. If you worked at the NBA in the 70s you had to be a believer that America was a good country and that we had something to teach rather than to be afraid of.”

During his recent Big Think interview, Stern explained why diversity is, above all his many accomplishments, the keystone of the NBA’s success and the foundation for his legacy:

As Richard Lapchick wrote in February at ESPN, Stern was dedicated to promoting diversity from the very beginning. As a new commissioner, he oversaw a massive shift toward equitable hiring practices in league and team front offices. The NBA has consistently received A-grades on Lapchick's annual Racial and Gender Report Card.

In the above clip, Stern hearkens back to his first years on the job. He remembers the special lessons he thought the league could teach with a white Ivy Leaguer like Bill Bradleywinning championships alongside black HBCU grad Willis Reed. The NBA was a meritocracy; it didn't matter what you looked like.

"If you were on the court, your talent counted regardless of your race. You got game, you play. If you don’t have game, you don’t... If you came to an NBA game it didn’t matter where you sat, you know, whether you were in the nosebleed section or at court side, your opinion counted regardless of your race."

Race, with its inextricable link to the league, was a major issue throughout Stern's tenure. He cites the work that needed to be done to dispel subtextual criticisms of players in the wake of the "Malice at the Palace" incident between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers in 2004. The "malice" began when an on-court brawl between the two teams spread into the stands after Indiana's Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace) chased after a fan who had tossed a beer bottle at him. Multiple players exchanged blows with fans. The game was canceled as the Detroit fans rained debris on Pacers players. It was one of the ugliest nights in American sports history.

Ron Artest in 2011 as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Yet the criticisms lobbed at the players involved were tinged with racial undertones you didn't see in the aftermath of a similar incident four years earlier that involved the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team fighting fans at Chicago's Wrigley Field. And while it's difficult to make steadfast assertions based on subtext, it's fair to say that the incongruous views of the two incidents are steeped in a cultural perception that baseball is an honorable white sport while basketball is a thuggish black sport. In a way, this is not unlike recent dissonant reactions to "black" rioting vs "white" rioting.

The aftermath of the Pacers-Pistons incident represented one of the many race-related challenges Stern had to navigate throughout his tenure as commissioner. It was his responsibility to dole out punishments for reprehensible behavior by Artest and others, yet it was also his duty to defend his players against unfair race-based criticism: 

"When I was required to act when Ron Artest ran into the stands in Detroit and there was a big brawl, et cetera, the talk radio that weekend – the words 'thugs' and 'punks' was uttered what seemed to be about a million times... I’m sure it was less but we all know the code words.  And so we tend to be particularly protective of our players in that regard and I think it makes us conscious of a lot of different things having to do with the racial discussion."

You don't have to be a major sports commissioner to observe racial disharmony and work to correct it. Issues such as these pop up throughout all sectors of society. Rather than run from the daunting task of confronting race, know that diversity and inclusion efforts can have a major positive effect on how you run an organization or simply how you live your life.

Artest photo credit: Derral Chen (Flickr: Ron Artest) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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