Every major news organization in the United States and many overseas have been writing commentaries and tributes to David Stern as he steps down this week as NBA commissioner after three decades.
Understandably, most of the articles have focused on the business and culture of the NBA. I want to make sure that Stern is also recognized for his unique efforts on race and social justice issues. This includes not only creating programs that help communities in the United States and around the world but also for his deliberate attempt to be inclusive of whom the NBA hires in the league offices as well as who is hired at the team level.
Stern's tenure as commissioner began a few years before I started writing the Racial and Gender Report Cards evaluating the hiring practices of the NBA, NFL, MLB, WNBA, MLS, college sports and the media. Stern has created a tapestry of acts of inclusion.
When he took over, the league was divided by race and lacked diversity at every level. Many people criticized the NBA player base as being "too black" while league and front-office employees were overwhelmingly white and male. From the start, the new commissioner said positions on the court would be filled according to the skills and talent of the contenders. In fact, the percentage of players of color has increased while the percentages of women and people of color in professional positions in the league office and team front offices have advanced dramatically.
Right from the start of his tenure, hiring in the league office included more women and people of color in the New York offices and later in its global offices. The NBA has been the only men's league to get an overall A for racial and gender hiring practices. It has done so for six consecutive years. The other men's leagues are now close to the NBA's A for racial hiring practices, but both the NFL and MLB still get a C-plus for gender. The WNBA, which Stern helped to launch, is the only organization that beats the NBA and has had an overall A-plus. Seventeen years after its launch, the WNBA has had an A in both categories in all but one year.
Although the NBA has always won accolades for results on both the NBA and WNBA report cards, Stern told me he wished there was no need to issue the report cards. I told him I would stop doing it when I thought everybody was doing as well as the NBA. Stern said his ultimate goal is that "no one will notice not only when we hire a person of color but also when we fire a person of color."
There should be no surprise that the upcoming All-Star Game has a day of service scheduled before the festivities begin. Players, NBA executives and friends will serve the New Orleans community, which is still devastated from Hurricane Katrina almost nine years later. Through his tenure, Stern made sure NBA teams interwove service with business. It marks the second time the game has been played there since Katrina with a stated purpose of helping the recovery. Stern further influenced the city when the NBA temporarily took control of the team to secure the future of the now New Orleans Pelicans.
In 1992, I went to Stern and National Basketball Players Association director Charlie Grantham and asked them to help launch Project Teamwork in post-apartheid South Africa. Project Teamwork was a program I helped start when I was at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in 1988. After evaluating it, public opinion analyst Lou Harris called it "America's most successful violence prevention program," and President Bill Clinton named it as a model program. It used athletes to train young people with conflict resolution skills with a special emphasis on conflicts based on race and gender.
In South Africa, rugby and cricket were all-white sports and soccer was almost an all-black sport. It became a goal that basketball might be an integrated sport. Stern agreed to put together a team that he would lead to go to South Africa. The team included Lenny Wilkens and Wes Unseld as coaches and Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning as players.
Project Teamwork went there in 1993 and 1994. The South African youth were dazzled by the size of the American players, who were all great with children. They took to the game right away. The NBA built several courts in the impoverished communities of Soweto and Alexandria. The players were stunned by the living conditions. Mourning told me, "If I had seen this as a boy, I would have never complained about being poor in America."
In 2001, the NBA created its Basketball Without Borders program, which annually goes to Africa and countries in Eastern Europe and Asia. Basketball Without Borders brings together the best talent from the continent and teaches basketball skills for half of the day and life skills and community service for the other half of the day. Stern wanted NBA players to understand the power of sport to bring positive social change whether you are in the United States, Africa, Europe or Asia.
The NBA is the only American league that has an office in Africa. It is situated near Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg. Stern and I were among the guests invited to Mandela's inauguration. I know being there had great significance to him personally just as it did for me.
Kathy Behrens is the NBA's executive vice president for social responsibility and player programs. NBA Cares is the largest program in pro sports that gives back to communities where each team is located. Basketball Without Borders weaves the NBA's influence globally with a focus on education, youth and family development, and health and wellness. I have participated in NBA Cares programs in Orlando, Boston, New Orleans, Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, and Dakar, Senegal. I have witnessed the impact up close. It is real. No other league has an executive vice president for social responsibility let alone the extensive programming run by the NBA and WNBA. The tapestry is vibrant.
Behrens told me this week: "David has always championed the idea that the NBA, in fact all sports, should use the power of its brand and the celebrity of its players to bring about positive social change. He's pushed our staff and our teams to think about the impact we could have on communities where we do business and to understand that the values of our game provide teaching moments that don't exist with other businesses. It's been an extraordinary experience to see that vision take shape with our programs and partnerships, and with Adam [Silver]'s continued leadership in this space, our work can only get stronger."
The threads of Stern's influence continued to grow and support other efforts. After his playing career ended, Mutombo became the NBA's global ambassador in 2009. No other league has a global ambassador.
I recently went to South Africa for the funeral of Mandela. I chose to view the funeral from the youth center in Kliptown in Soweto where hundreds of children are served by the facility created by the NBA. It is an oasis in one of the poorest towns in South Africa where running sewage dribbles through the streets lined with shanties. I went there partially to see the legacy of the NBA's gift of the youth center, which I had first visited in 2008 with Basketball Without Borders. Six years later, it is thriving as the lifeline for the 200-plus young people who otherwise would have no hope for any kind of meaningful future.
There cannot be anyone involved in big-time sports who does not know something about Stern's life work. But I think that an ultimate test of his legacy is that 11-year-old girls in Kliptown not only know his name but also are grateful for what he contributed to their lives. I know I am grateful for what he contributed to my life's work of trying to use the power of sport to make this a better, more equitable and more inclusive world.