40 at 40: David Stern and the Utah Jazz, a respectful partnership

Al Bello

David Stern is the current commissioner of the NBA. He is retiring in a few days after 30 years of service to the league. Some people love him, some people hate him. But all Jazz fans should at least respect him.

David Stern is an average height, average looks, 71 year old, Jewish attorney from the New York / New Jersey area. He's easily someone that can go under the radar in his natural environment. But deep within the heart of this man lies the will and determination of a Goliath. He has run the NBA for three decades, and had to deal with a number of problems: four lockouts, many other labor disputes, expansion, relocation, and several huge image problems ranging from drugs, to gambling, to having crooked refs, to even having the best player in the league have to retire at the height of their popularity TWICE: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. He is a controversial figure who gets booed every year by NBA fans at the NBA Draft.

And he loves every moment of it.

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As a Utah Jazz fan, you should love almost every moment of David Stern too. After all, his formative year as a commissioner saw him be the first to introduce the newest member of the Utah Jazz to the world: John Stockton (#16). And in June, his last draft, had him announce to the world that Trey Burke (#9) would be the new guy in town. Book ending his relationship with the Jazz by heralding the arrival of two foundational point guards is a nice way to wrap up his history with this team. But there's more to it. Specifically, with the Utah Jazz the NBA and David Stern have found willing and respectful partners.

Back in the old days of the ABA there was a team called the Utah Stars. The Stars won a title back in 1971. They eventually hosted an All-Star game, despite being a small team in a small market, playing in a small arena. That was way back in 1973.

If you know your history, or if you watched the movie "Tropic Thunder" then you know what happened to the ABA. The state of Utah wouldn't get a pro basketball team for a few years, until the New Orleans Jazz moved to the #801 back in 1979. The NBA game was the bigger game, somewhat less flashy, but with the financial means to last.

The microcosm to the macrocosm the NBA was facing in terms of economic stability had to be the Utah Jazz. The Jazz had left New Orleans because it was in shambles, the front office didn't even bother making provisions to find a place for them to play playoff games in New Orleans if they ever made them. Larry H. Miller, using his head and not his heart, went out of his way to purchase the team in full from Sam Battisone and the slow climb of stability really started with him.

The NBA increasingly popular and so too did the Jazz in Utah. (Jazz attendance records season by season) Fans started to show up to games, something that was altogether unheard of back in New Orleans, and the team became profitable. Stability and money lent itself towards making smarter moves in the front office. Larry H. Miller hired Frank Layden to be GM and Coach. How good was Frank? Well, he was so good that he won the NBA's Coach of the Year award and the NBA's Executive of the Year award in the same year: 1983-84. Frank was so good, his son Scott Layden, learned how to be a great scout. And Scott, Frank, Larry, and David's lives all changed when the Jazz drafted John Stockton. (Which brings us to the first bookend)

Utah had already gone through the growing pains of being new to a market, building a fanbase, and even getting to the playoffs. They had a highly visible coach, and a good scouting department. And while they have had stars before, like Pete Maravich and Adrian Dantley, the team was now making the moves necessary to get these players you could build greatness upon. And most of all, thanks to Larry, they had the money to pay for all of it.

At the end of the day, money is a huge factor for the NBA, and the NBA head office was watching what was going on in Utah:

  • Team moves
  • team changes owners
  • fans start to come in
  • team gets good coach and front office
  • team plays better
  • team uses stars correctly
  • team makes playoffs
  • team continues to get better players, which means more wins, which means more butts in the seats, which means more money

The Jazz had gone from a franchise that was on the cusp of folding to being a great reclamation project that the NBA was ready to pat itself on the back for. After Stockton, the next season the Jazz drafted Karl Malone (#13). The season after they got rid of Dantley, and focused on the youth. Stars returned to Utah in the development of John and Karl, so many years after the ABA team had folded.

The NBA knows that the most money is where the stars were, they are the most player visible major sport, and under Stern their marketing department went into overdrive building and selling the league as a league of stars: Dr. J., Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas . . . and now this new group of Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Stockton and Malone. You may recognize a lot of these players from the original Dream Team. That team served many purposes in 1992, even though it was built to serve one master: USA Basketball. The team reclaimed the Gold that the 1988 Americans surrendered. For one, it was David Stern's jewel that he showed the rest of the world. "Look at my amazing players! Look at my amazing league of stars!" He used that team to sell the sport and his league to international markets; while galvanizing the one at home with a strong show of force -- Magic and Larry were old, but we have plenty of stars to go around!

He turned the sport into a show. And two of the players who helped him do that were Utah Jazz players, two Utah Jazz players he shook hands with less than a decade earlier.

The Jazz org did their best to make the Jazz a show too. They developed talent, and were mostly home grown. Frank and Scott drafted the right guys, and played them early in their careers. Larry paid all the bills, and the fans were showing up. For David Stern, a small market team was another success to parade about and shame the below average clubs with. Utah had stars, just built a new arena, and the team (specifically Larry H. Miller) gave USA Basketball permission to use his players to further the agenda of David Stern. [Sidenote: USA Basketball was having such a hard time with Nike and the other big companies that they almost shut down the dream team before the Monaco training camp, but John Stockton's call to Nike ended up saving the program . . . which is hilarious. This point was revealed in Stockton's biography, and is a point that USA Basketball would have rather wanted to sweep under the rug. Still though, great assist, John.]

  • Filled arena
  • All-Stars
  • New Arena Built
  • Still filled to capacity
  • Helped sell the brand through the Dream Team

The Jazz had been plugging away being quiet, but successful partners in the NBA league for two decades now. All of the uncertainty and financial problems from New Orleans were a thing of the past. Utah had been giving and giving. And the NBA paid it back bit by awarding the Jazz franchise as the hosts for the 1993 NBA All-Star game. Twenty years later, the Stars had all returned to Utah.

Yes, this was awesome. And a nice reciprocation for the hard work of the rising Jazz. This partnership has continued over the years. The Jazz kept getting better and better, we kept getting more and more TV games. The refs were nicer to us, and the team made the NBA a lot of money with back-to-back NBA Finals that broke TV records. Of course, they lost to the Chicago Bulls each time, but we need to collectively get over it.

Shortly after the NBA Locked out for the third time in David Stern's career as the Commissioner. And once again, Utah stepped up to the plate by delivering a solution. Jazz owner Larry H. Miller was at the vanguard of the problem and helped broker a deal to resolve some of the disputes between the players and the owners. Larry put the emphasis on the game. The parties worked it out, and David Stern smiled.

The Jazz-NBA / Larry H. Miller-David Stern relationship continued on till his passing. And now Stern is leaving too. I don't know how the two institutions (the Jazz and the NBA) will work well together in this brave new Adam Silver world, but I can hope that it's another one of honest, and somewhat equal respect. Our attendance is low, and we're not winning games now. We don't have stars, and the league is doing us no favors.

But the hope there is that we have some growing to do, and we're not going to be anything other than a model franchise for decades to come. It's likely that we are going to be great sooner rather than later with a young core of Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter, and Derrick Favors. We can only hope that Adam Silver's career will shine as brightly as our future appears to be.

Stern was there when we got Stockton, his first draft. And in his last one he saw us get Trey Burke. Those are nice bookends for sure. The volumes in between them speak more to our respectful partnership.

David Stern is leaving. Love him or hate him, he worked very well with the Utah Jazz --

-- but let's not forget that help only started to come after we became something the league could profit from. Help ourselves first, then get help from the league. Or, you know, pay it forward NBA, and give us a Top 5 pick in the lotto! You owe Larry H. Miller for his work during the lockouts still!

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