By Mitchell Weiser
How did the National Basketball Association become a global brand?
Try these two words:
“Michael was the face of the league,” former NBA Commissioner David Stern told listeners Wednesday at the Drew Forum in Madison.
Speaking with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Ira Berkow, Stern, who stepped down in 2014 after 30 years, recalled visiting Africa and seeing all the players there wearing Jordan jerseys.
There were other factors, of course. Stern said he was intrigued with making the NBA “a global game” from the start of his tenure.
He cited trips to China and Lithuania, and teams starting to sign international players in 1988.
“I believe the game to be cultural,” he said, reminiscing of an Atlanta Hawks trip to play the Soviet National Team in Moscow.
Following that global thread, Berkow asked Stern if he saw Dennis Rodman as a United States ambassador to North Korea. The former NBA star befriended North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in 2013 and has made several visits to the closed country.
The question brought a chuckle from the crowd, as Stern recalled suspending Rodman for kicking a photographer in the groin during a game.
When Stern confronted Rodman about why he did it, Rodman responded: “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
Rodman probably would not be the right man for the ambassador’s job, Stern opined.
Stern predicted “a real technological boom is coming” for the NBA, and said “the league is at the top of its game” under the guidance of his successor, Adam Silver.
But he was bleak about prospects for global expansion, except perhaps for future teams in Mexico City or Montreal.
Asked about declining TV ratings for the National Football League, Stern suggested “fans fear the existential threat of CTE” — a reference to serious head injuries sustained by players.
He also speculated that the NFL’s new Redzone station, which televises all games, may be affecting local ratings.
As the night came to a close, Berkow tried to pry a direct answer from Stern on the towering question of who is the best — Michael Jordan or LeBron James?
“Michael was the fiercest competitor, but we will wait and see” how James’ career concludes, Stern said.
As commissioner, he added, he always tried to back out of that question by answering: “Bill Russell, because he had 11 championships.”
Drew University continues its Drew Forum on Wednesday, March 28, 2018, when former Vice President Joe Biden visits Madison.
Mitchell Weiser is a senior at Drew University.