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 Bradley winning 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

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Meet the Bajau sea nomads — they can reportedly hold their breath for 13 minutes

The Bajau people's nomadic lifestyle has given them remarkable adaptions, enabling them to stay underwater for unbelievable periods of time. Their lifestyle, however, is quickly disappearing.

Wikimedia Commons
Culture & Religion
  • The Bajau people travel in small flotillas throughout the Phillipines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, hunting fish underwater for food.
  • Over the years, practicing this lifestyle has given the Bajau unique adaptations to swimming underwater. Many find it straightforward to dive up to 13 minutes 200 feet below the surface of the ocean.
  • Unfortunately, many disparate factors are erasing the traditional Bajau way of life.
Keep reading Show less

Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists create a "lifelike" material that has metabolism and can self-reproduce

An innovation may lead to lifelike evolving machines.

Shogo Hamada/Cornell University
Surprising Science
  • Scientists at Cornell University devise a material with 3 key traits of life.
  • The goal for the researchers is not to create life but lifelike machines.
  • The researchers were able to program metabolism into the material's DNA.
Keep reading Show less