INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — My first interaction with David Stern took place long before I covered the NBA.
But it may be the best example of what I always felt was an underrated aspect of Stern’s run as NBA commissioner. It’s a run slated to end Feb. 1, 2014, per the league’s announcement Thursday from the Board of Governors meeting.
Anyway, I was living near the non-NBA city of Pittsburgh. It was at a time when you had to use your phone line to access the Internet. Email was a relatively new concept.
I often wondered if Pittsburgh might someday field an NBA team, so I decided to give all this new technology stuff a try. I decided to send Stern an email — as nothing more than an everyday fan.
He responded within the hour. I don’t remember his exact words, but as always, they were PR-savvy. Stern indicated there was, in fact, a group of interested investors from Pittsburgh. But it was a longshot, simply because the league had no plans for expansion at the time.
All of that is beside the point. (Especially since our pals in Pittsburgh still don’t have a team.)
What impressed me more about Stern, particularly as I went from fan to writer, was how much he used these new gadgets to publicize his league. Under Stern, and I would say because of him, the NBA stayed at the forefront of the changing times, particularly when it came to the changes in dispersing and collecting information.
When the Internet gained steam in the late 1990s, Stern and his accomplices not only built NBA.com, but added a relatively new feature called a webcast. It was known as NBA.com TV.
Shortly thereafter, or March 1999 to be exact, Stern and the NBA launched the first league-owned cable channel in North America. It may not seem like it today but that, my friends, was innovation.
Then the social networks took flight, and the NBA quickly hopped on the bandwagon. Not only could you receive information from the league’s official website, you could now be friends with the NBA on MySpace, watch videos on its official YouTube channel and “like” its official Facebook page.
Granted, these concepts weren’t invented by Stern. He just seemed to realize their significance before commissioners in other sports did. You also got the sense Stern really enjoyed using this type of technology himself. Somewhat fascinating, when you consider cable TV still was in its youth when Stern took office in 1984. As for the Internet, no one could have even dreamed it up back then.
Not long ago, I read a story about Stern’s early years as commissioner. It told of a time when he walked the streets of New York and saw fans sporting jerseys of athletes in other leagues, such as the NFL and Major League Baseball.
Stern longed for similar awareness involving the NBA. He made it a priority to get it. Not long after, he walked the streets and proudly saw T-shirts adorning logos that advertised the Celtics and Lakers and Bulls, oh my.
Sizzle in sports, it seems, is half the battle. Stern has always understood that. Eventually, he flourished by selling it.
And a simple email about the possibility of basketball in a non-NBA city provided one small, but shining, example.