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Dream no slam-dunk

Managing a major entertainment enterprise isn’t easy. Consider the media microscope as well as intense fandom, heavy competition, politics and egos, physical and emotional stress, strong unions, wealthy employees and wealthier employers.

David Stern has been the National Basketball Assn.’s commissioner since 1984. During his tenure, the league has developed into a $3 billion international, retail and consumer products juggernaut. Visiting Stern at league headquarters in Manhattan, we spoke first about the Nov. 19 brawl between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.

Q: What has been done and what still needs to be done in order to avoid a brawl?

A: Well, you can never be sure that you’ll avoid anything, although we did manage to avoid a similar brawl for the first 26,000 games of my tenure as commissioner. But, No. 1, I think that the brawl itself will help us to avoid future brawls, because the parties involved know what it can escalate to. No. 2, we have to deal with the way players, officials, fans and security react to these situations. All of those are under review.

Q: Why do NBA players listen to you more than players in other leagues listen to their commissioners?

A: We have for a number of years, I think, forged what is a pretty good partnership. Our average player salary has gone up — the first number I remember was $250,000. That’s an average salary, which everyone thought was outrageously high in the early days of free agency. This year it’ll be $4.4 million.

Q: NBA players are often independently wealthy. Do you think the teams need them more in some ways than they need the teams? Does that make the league harder to manage?

A: I don’t agree with that premise. If you’re a professional athlete and you’re an NBA player, it’s like Fred Astaire. What Fred Astaire did was dance. What our players do is they play. And they love it. … Nevertheless, I think it’s fair to say there are management issues which really have to do with the demands on the time of the celebrity. … And I think a lot of our athletes react to the stress that is caused by that.

Q: How does being commissioner compare to running a Fortune 100 company?

A: We like to think that the differences relate only to product rather than to management; that we conduct ourselves in a way that is … infused by the spirit of Sarbanes-Oxley in terms of accountability and disclosure. We consider ourselves to be another entertainment company except our product is live. We’re one of the largest producers of reality programming in the world. We’ve got 1,200 episodes a year, and a significant additional number of episodes off the court.

Q: How do you keep up your intensity of focus, attention and interest when the basics of what you do can resemble “Groundhog Day”?

A: (A), that’s why you delegate… And (B), the answer is a single word: insecurity. It’s a wonderful motivator. You wake up every day and you say to yourself, “This is the day when it all comes crumbling down, right?”

Q: I’ve asked CEOs and politicians, “What is your dream job?” They’ve said, “Commissioner of the NBA.” So I wonder: Does the commissioner of the NBA have a dream job?

A: I have my dream job. And I’d love to morph it a bit, because the part of it that’s actually the best part of the dream is when the Chinese government says to us, “We want to deal with the stigma attached to AIDS; we’d like you to help us with public service announcements.” So when Yao Ming and Magic Johnson do public service announcements airing on Chinese television, that tells me that sports has this enormous, still mostly untapped, capacity to effect change in a positive sense.

Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.

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