In launching WNBA, David Stern helped grow women’s basketball

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Updated: January 2, 2020



10:58 AM ET

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

A few years back, David Stern was talking about the history of the WNBA while also dropping off a pair of shoes at a repair shop in New York City. It might have seemed like a task the former NBA commissioner would assign to someone else, but that wasn’t Stern’s way.

He knew how to successfully delegate, but he also had a hands-on approach to everything he cared about. And that included the WNBA.

As the world reflects on Stern’s death Wednesday and how much he contributed to the NBA, remember this too: By launching the WNBA in 1997, he also dramatically impacted women’s sports.

But if you said that to Stern, he would try to deflect it. That kind of praise seemed excessive to him.

“I tend to push these things away from me,” he said in 2016, “because it makes me uncomfortable.”

Yet without his power as NBA commissioner, his force of personality and his vision, the WNBA would not have started when it did. It still might not exist at all.

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Stern wanted much of the credit to go to Val Ackerman, who was the first WNBA president. A former women’s basketball player at Virginia, Ackerman joined the NBA as an attorney in the 1980s and even then advocated the eventual viability of a women’s professional league. Stern referred to Ackerman as “our navigator and guide as to how we were going to get this done.”

But Ackerman always lauded Stern because he invested himself in the WNBA.

“Without his vision and engagement, the league wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Ackerman told ESPN after Stern retired in 2014. “He was the mastermind, and the WNBA was really in line with his vision about how sports and society are intertwined.

“David’s list of accomplishments is so long, you have to talk in categories. The NBA was there when it came to innovations in technology. The NBA was there when the world was getting smaller, and globalization became not just a buzzword, but a business mandate. And the NBA was there with women. As they were becoming more a social, athletic and economic force, how could the NBA not be there?”

Stern didn’t need to support the WNBA for power or legacy or wealth; he already had all that from the NBA. He did it because he believed the WNBA was the right thing, that it filled a need, and would in time be financially successful. He was pragmatic about that, though, saying, “We knew it was going to be a long haul.”

“We will sorely miss … his irrepressible habits of asking hard questions, never backing down and always speaking his mind.”

Val Ackerman on David Stern’s passing

Stern was known in the NBA for his iron will and, to a large degree, take-no-prisoners leadership style. But his support for the WNBA, among other initiatives, also showed there was room in his businessman’s heart for dreams that needed nurturing, for the little plant that required enough sunlight, water and time to grow strong roots.

The WNBA’s financial blueprint was put together in the early 1990s. The enthusiasm generated by the gold-medal success of the U.S. women’s basketball team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics convinced Stern the time was right to start the league.

Another pro women’s basketball league — the ABL — started in the fall of 1996, and some criticized the WNBA and Stern for launching the following year and having a nontraditional summertime season. But the WNBA had more resources, a better business plan and picked a more sustainable time of year to play. The ABL folded early in its third season.

The WNBA currently is finalizing a new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union that will propel the league into its 24th season this spring. The WNBA still has a lot of growing to do, but without Stern, it would never be this far along. The outpouring on social media from WNBA players, past and present, about Stern’s death shows they understand what he meant to the league.

Ackerman, now commissioner of the Big East Conference, released a statement on Wednesday expressing her grief, but also her admiration for Stern.

“We mourn a titan, an innovator, a perfectionist, a taskmaster, a role model, a mentor and, most of all, a dear friend,” Ackerman said. “We will sorely miss his boundless energy, his unquenchable intellectual curiosity, and his irrepressible habits of asking hard questions, never backing down and always speaking his mind.

“Those of us who have given our lives to the game of basketball owe it to David for taking the sport to heights Dr. Naismith never could have imagined.”

Stern spoke of the formal and informal conversations he’d had with Ackerman and others over the years and of the way his view of the future of women’s basketball broadened and evolved. He was proud of the collaboration he said made the WNBA happen.

“It was really spectacular camaraderie,” Stern said, “and everyone had a real sense that we were doing something that was going to have a major impact. It was uplifting.”

Stern wanted the WNBA to make money and measure its success in a traditional way. But he also understood it was up against more than a men’s sports league would face in trying to launch. He didn’t mince words about that, either: He knew sexism, racism and homophobia were part of the resistance the WNBA experienced. But he also saw the league breaking down some of those barriers.

Former NBA commissioner David Stern died Wednesday at age 77, three weeks after suffering a brain hemorrhage. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

He told a story about a conversation he once had with an NBA/WNBA owner whom Stern described as very conservative. The owner had been approached by a fan who told him she was a lesbian and lifelong women’s sports fan; she thanked him for providing a place for women to play where she also felt welcome.

“Now, I happened to know his views were probably not very consistent with that fan’s views on a lot of things,” Stern said. “So I asked him, ‘What did you say?’ And he said, ‘I said thank you too.’ So I knew there were some broader societal issues that were at work there that the WNBA could impact in a positive way.”

Stern also didn’t hesitate in supporting the WNBA against what he thought were media attacks or an indefensible lack of interest. He would go to events like the Associated Press Sports Editors convention with Ackerman or one of her successors and “invariably get into arguments.”

“We felt the WNBA didn’t get the respect that we thought it deserved,” Stern said. “The way the editors decided on what to cover was, they said, part art and part science.

“I used to always tweak them. I’d say that sounded like excuses, and I reminded them that’s the way the old boys’ network always cut down on minorities and women getting jobs.”

One could say, of course, that Stern was part of that network, but through his actions, he chose to push more doors open. Stern was a bottom-line negotiator who backed down from no one. He wanted to get his way, and he usually did.

But there also was a deep-seated desire to provide opportunities and a belief that the sport of basketball was global in every way. That it was big enough to include everybody. By launching a women’s pro league, Stern did something no other commissioner in one of the major North American men’s professional sports leagues has done.

That will forever be part of his legacy, as well, and something for which so many basketball fans will always feel gratitude.



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