David Stern on the NBA's Legacy of Diversity

While other sports were slow to integrate both on and off the field, David Stern and the NBA led the way in hiring African-American head coaches and general managers.

David Stern: Our business focuses us on diversity because we all work in a sport that was deemed too black to thrive and actually even survive. People forget, but there were articles, “The Dark Clouds Over the NBA…” I literally – when I was executive vice president Larry sent me up to a newspaper and the television guy said, “You don’t get it, Stern. You guys are just not going to make it. This is a white country and you have a black sport.” 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. A sport that, you know, could have Willis Reed from Louisiana and Grambling and Bill Bradley from Crystal City, Missouri and Princeton on a championship team, hmmm, that says something about a sport that has something to teach. That’s about talent.

We sort of rallied around the notion that 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. And 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.

And so this was a subject of some discussion at the NBA always on an ongoing basis. And it has ramifications throughout our whole business. 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. 


During his three-decade tenure as commissioner of the National Basketball Association David Stern built the model for professional sports in league operations, public service, global marketing and digital technology. But perhaps his greatest legacy, which he attributes to his administrative colleagues and the players themselves, is one of diversity. When other sports were slow to integrate both on and off the field, the NBA led the way in hiring African-American head coaches and general managers.

This clip can be used as an implementation case study by organizations wishing to recruit and support a more diverse workforce. Additional lessons for corporate leadership and management from David Stern are available on Big Think Edge.

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