Former NBA commissioner David Stern supports political speech in NBA

  • David Stern smiles during a news conference after an NBA board of governors meeting in New York in 2013. Stern spoke at UMass on Wednesday. AP FILE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2019 10:26:31 PM

AMHERST — It would be unfair to say David Stern is happy about the latest controversy in the NBA.

Ideally, the NBA wouldn’t have to insert itself so publicly into a tense and complex political situation overseas, but one tweet of support for the Hong Kong protestors from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey forced the league’s hand. What has transpired in the nearly two weeks since Morey sent and quickly deleted those seven words on Twitter has put the NBA in the middle of the situation between China and Hong Kong as the league tries to navigate defending Morey’s right to free speech while preserving its economic interests in the region.

But Stern, who served as the NBA’s commissioner for 30 years from 1984-2014, said controversies such as the one engulfing the NBA right now are good examples of what makes sports such a unique avenue in our society.

“It shows off sports for what it’s best at – engaging people in a single conversation,” Stern said after an hour-long lecture at UMass on Wednesday evening. “People now know more because of the little dust-up about Hong Kong, about China’s policies, about America’s policies and about the NBA’s adherence to America’s policies. It’s instructive and there are lots of people who wouldn’t have known about the subject, and that’s a good thing.”

Stern was at the forefront of the NBA’s push to become a global brand, which was the subject of his talk as the keynote speaker for the Mark H. McCormack Sport Innovators Lecture. He said his views on social responsibility as a sports league were shaped by two big events that came within his first decade as the NBA commissioner. The first was Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive and how Johnson changed the face and narrative around the disease in the aftermath.

The second was on a 1993 trip to South Africa during a tumultuous time in the country between Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and his election as president of the country. During a dinner with the South African leader, Stern said Mandela impressed upon him the notion that sports really can bring people together, and that ethos was woven into the DNA of the modern league.

It’s a philosophy that came to shape the way Stern grew the league and sport globally through his various initiatives. Under his leadership, the league began to fund basketball clinics in Africa for a program that later grew to become NBA Cares. Those and similar programs like Basketball Without Borders that were meant to grow the game globally fostered the rise of the non-American players, who Stern said now comprise roughly a quarter of players on training camp rosters this season.

“It’s the best use of the NBA’s celebrity status that you could possibly make,” Stern said.

Although much of the rise of the celebrity status for NBA players is a good thing for Stern, it does open up the league to more issues like the one with which it is currently dealing. As superstars like LeBron James and coaches like Gregg Popovich continue to speak out about injustice both at home and afar, there is an increased risk some of those remarks might hurt the league’s bottom line.

With the China situation, James added to the controversy with his remarks earlier this week about Morey potentially being uneducated when he sent the tweet. Stern said James’ larger point is valid even if James didn’t phrase it properly the first time.

“What LeBron tried to say – and he didn’t say it that artfully – is that you should know what impact your remarks might have before you make them,” Stern said. “Daryl Morey made some remarks that had some impact far beyond their local nature, which he certainly had the right to do. It put some players in harm’s way – not in harms that they were under threat – but they had an impact that the two teams that were in China at the time had to deal with. I think that’s what LeBron tried to say, but it doesn’t change the fact Daryl Morey had the right to say it and that should be protected.”

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