CHARLOTTE, N.C. (The Charlotte Observer) - I will never forget the terror on Ray Wooldridge’s face.
It was the day in 2002 when NBA owners were voting on whether to grant permission to the Hornets to move to New Orleans. Wooldridge had bought 35 percent of the Hornets and primary owner George Shinn let Wooldridge do much of the leg work on the relocation.
We at the Observer caught the Hornets systematically under-reporting home attendance to make the team’s situation look worse than it was. We learned that was done at the direction of Wooldridge and wrote about it before the vote. Commissioner David Stern obliterated Wooldridge in a conference room that day, unleashing a temper famous among anyone who worked for the league.
Stern died Wednesday at age 77 following a recent brain hemorrhage. In Stern’s 30 years overseeing the league, the NBA went from having its championship games televised on tape-delay to the international brand it is today.
Stern was a dynamic leader. He had vision. He had brilliance. He could inspire. And how he could instill fear.
Wooldridge looked so shaken, his face so pale, I asked someone in the room what exactly happened. I was told Stern kept poking his finger at Wooldridge, constantly coming within an inch of his nose, to reinforce his point. Obscenities burst from Stern’s mouth.
That was David. An hour later, he announced the Hornets would be allowed to move to New Orleans, but the league would look to place an expansion team in Charlotte. Then-Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory convinced Stern the city was prepared to replace Charlotte Coliseum to remain in the NBA, it just couldn’t do business with Wooldridge.
Again, that was David: Protect his owners’ investment, but also not destabilize a market that worked. There is a road named for Stern outside the new arena in Sacramento because there Stern brokered a solution that kept the Kings from having to move.
FORCEFUL, BUT A LISTENER
One of the many things Stern accomplished before leaving the NBA in 2014 was getting an iconic player — Michael Jordan — into ownership control of a team. The then-Charlotte Bobcats were losing value by tens of millions when Bob Johnson sold control to Jordan in 2010.
Jordan appreciated Stern’s style of leadership.
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Jordan said Wednesday in a statement released by the Hornets. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before ...
“I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Creating a consensus in a room full of owners — all those billionaires, all that ego — is a challenge. Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, coaxes. Stern demanded, often intimidated. You could see the former litigator in most everything he did.
When he’d call himself “Easy Dave” during labor negotiations with the players association, everyone knew the joke: There was nothing soft or yielding about Stern. The man knew how to scare the crap out of people when it served his goals.
But he also created relationships by being an authentic listener. If he asked you a question, it was to have a dialogue, not just make his argument. Long after the NBA had prospered enough that Stern didn’t have to practice local politics, he’d still meet with beat writers in cities he’d visit.
David once teased me about something I’d written months earlier about how the NBA should be more concerned with the health of college basketball: “Hey, Bonnell, I’m not the czar of basketball. Not in the job description.”
Then he asked, with genuine attention, what I thought he was missing about growing the game.
LAUGH AT SELF
I liked that Stern never stopped being the son of a New York deli owner. Forceful and confident as he was, he could laugh at himself.
One time he appeared in a commercial for ABC’s NBA telecasts, and the script called for him to be in a bathrobe. I told him that was cool, that I couldn’t imagine then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue agreeing to do that.
Stern looked at me quizzically and set me straight:
“Rick, Tagliabue wouldn’t have to. But that’s fine, too.”