(Editor's note: This story has been corrected to change 15 million homes to 50 million homes in the sixth paragraph.)
The NBA All-Star Game is on Valentine's Day this year, but David Stern is unlikely to be getting a dozen long stems from Washington Wizards fans. In one of his toughest rulings in 26 years as commissioner, Stern suspended Wizards Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton for the rest of the season for bringing handguns into the team locker room after an argument over a card game. I talked with Stern about the pressure on young players, the league's mentorship responsibilities, and the state of the basketball business.
What's the shape of the NBA as you approach this All-Star Game?
The game itself is in terrific shape with the young stars who were in Beijing and will be in the world championships—players like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. And this year, Kevin Durant and a group of youngsters are improving dramatically in Oklahoma City.
Kevin Durant just got 41 points.
The Bobcats are winning, Memphis is winning. And if you're the commissioner, you like to see some of the W's spread around. The business of the game, considering the economy, is also in excellent condition. We're going to suffer only like a 2% loss in attendance this year in the worst economic downturn of our lifetime. Our sponsors are beginning to spend again. We've got new arenas going up—Orlando, here at the old Madison Square Garden, and of course the Nets will be breaking ground in Brooklyn. So life is good.
How many franchises don't make money? More than 10?
Oh, probably closer to almost 15. There are plenty of corporations that don't make money, but their stock is robust and their prices go up. Actually, we're heading into a collective bargaining negotiation, and...we need a sustainable business model where every team has the opportunity to break even or make some money. We are trying to compress the difference between the highest team and the lowest team because what we're selling is competition.
Why do they pay commissioners such big salaries?
Commissioners have evolved into CEOs. In this case it's a $4 1/2 billion enterprise with a market cap of $12 billion to $15 billion. We're in consumer products, sponsorships, events. We're in the Web business. We run our own network. NBA TV is approaching 50 million homes. In our own way, we're one of the largest providers of reality programming, with 1,200, 1,300 episodes a year. There is a huge array of assets that get managed under this umbrella.
The Wizards. Guns in the locker room. Suspended players.
Let the record show those are all statements and not questions. Counselor, is there a question pending?
When you heard about this, what did you say? Drawing guns in the locker room of an NBA franchise?
Well, it wasn't exactly drawing guns. But the mere possession of guns in the locker room was horrible and dumb enough without embellishing it with even more threatening descriptions.
So they're out for the season?
Yes. Half the world will think it's too severe, half will be convinced that I should have barred them for life. But you do what you think is fair on all the facts. It cost Gilbert several million dollars. Javaris was in a rookie contract, but nevertheless it cost him huge sums average people can't identify with. And they were remorseful.
How much of all this has to do with fame and money and emotional immaturity?
Our guys are very reflective of their age group, between 19 and 34. When I say there are too many guns out there—which is my view, not anyone else's—our players are part of that issue. NFL players are part of that issue. And one of the things I've always been sensitive to is that it's easy to generalize and say, "Well, these players are thugs and punks. There they are, the tattoos, the corn rows" These players are not thugs and punks. The 430 players of the NBA do more on average for their communities than any similar group of people anyplace in the world.
But because of who they are, they get a lot of attention if they do anything.
They are attention-grabbers, and they recognize that. It's hard. They're human, too. But they have an enormous opportunity to change values. Look what happened when Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. It changed the debate on AIDS in this country.
What's your responsibility, because they're young and famous and making tons of money?
The responsibility is to help guide them through these treacherous fields, and we do.
Do you really do that?
Yes, we do. If a college graduates most of its students but three get into trouble, is it "Oh my God, that's a bad college?" It's not. You have to look at the masses. We have somebody working with our players to complete their studies...or do online education about life skills, things they need.
Have you opened the door a little to legalized gambling on basketball?
Not exactly. What I've done is explained my own journey, which is going from [speaking out against] the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City...to now, where 46 states have gambling, and people are rushing straight into organized legal [sports] gambling.
So you think it's worth studying?
I think it's worth studying by my successor because it is not lost on me that you can walk into a soccer match in England and place a bet in the stadium. I can't imagine that happening in our case, but as our legally elected representatives begin looking for new sources of revenue, I fear/expect that sports betting is going to appear on their radar.