Upon news of former NBA commissioner David Stern passing away on Wednesday, numerous people in sports media who covered the league during his tenure paid tribute to one of the pioneering executives in professional sports.
Many cited the NBA’s growth as a global sports and entertainment entity under Stern’s leadership as his enduring legacy. Star players were promoted to fans, rather than teams. Stern also drew praise for how he supported Magic Johnson following his HIV diagnosis and tried to educate players and fans on the disease on how it could — or couldn’t — be transmitted.
However, when someone passes, people often share personal stories and interactions as a way of conveying how that death affects them. It’s a tricky line to walk. Sometimes, those anecdotes come off as the storyteller making a person’s death about them, rather than to whom they’re presumably paying tribute. But the stories can also reveal something about the person in question, like the kindness he or she showed, mentorship or inspiration that was provided.
Longtime sports business reporter Darren Rovell often has a way of making himself — or his access to a product — the story, which has made him an unpopular figure over the years. So when he shared a story on Thursday about an interaction he had with David Stern, critics and detractors were quick to accuse Rovell of touting himself more than Stern. But Rovell’s anecdote (which he’s shared previously) showed how Stern sometimes related to the media and how he handled criticism that he didn’t like.
My favorite memory of David Stern was when he didn’t like my reporting — especially how much I wrote about the league’s failed basketball. So he sent the ball to me and signed it: “Didn’t know what to do with this discontinued model, so I autographed it and sent it to you.” pic.twitter.com/PmSoNXMfvS
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) January 1, 2020
The NBA’s attempt to implement a new game ball made of synthetic microfiber happened long enough ago — more than 13 years past, in June 2006 — that some fans might not remember it happening. But switching from leather to a composite material on the game ball — the central object in a game of basketball, handled by every player on the court — didn’t go very well for the NBA.
Players hated it. They wondered why the league never consulted them on the new ball. Moisture stayed on the surface on the ball, making it slicker to the touch. The microfiber also gripped fingertips harder, resulting in peeled and broken skin. Naturally, those issues affected shooting, passing, and ball-handling.
By December, Stern listened to the growing player objections and decided the NBA would go back to the old ball. (Listening to the players is one of the factors that made Stern such a good commissioner.)
Working for CNBC at the time, Rovell frequently reported on the issues with the new ball. In addition to the player complaints, the ball was also a consumer issue. Many prefer to purchase the actual game ball being used by the NBA and were presumably dealing with many of the same problems regarding moisture and friction with the skin. Would people be allowed to return the ball for a refund or exchange it for a different ball?
On the consumer side, the composite NBA game ball was a non-issue. Very few people returned the ball for a refund ($115) or exchange — fewer than one percent of purchasers, according to Rovell. Either people didn’t mind or maybe they wanted to keep the ball as a collectors’ item.
But Stern obviously remembered all of the attention that Rovell directed toward the failed NBA ball and took a funny shot at one of its most outspoken critics when he had the opportunity. That sense of humor — and willingness to hold a grudge — was yet another trait that made Stern such a memorable figure as NBA commissioner.