There are many things Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett respects about NBA Commissioner David Stern, but one incident stands above the rest.
In August of 2005, Stern and Cornett were exploring the possibility of the New Orleans Hornets potentially relocating to OKC after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
That's when Stern shared with Cornett the story of now former Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley wanting to look around the country for the most suitable place to relocate his Vancouver Grizzlies following the 2000-01 season.
“The commissioner said to him (Heisley), ‘Well, you can look all over, but at the end of the day you're going to be in Memphis,' ” Cornett explained. “That wasn't an edict from Stern. He just knew the landscape through due diligence and knew Memphis was going to be the place to go.”
Therein lies the intelligence and power of Stern, who last week announced he will step down as commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, the 30-year anniversary of the day he took the job.
The 70-year-old Stern frequently has known the answer long before the question was even asked. Such was the case for OKC, not once, but twice.
Stern knew this town would be the best fit for the Hornets before Katrina even hit shore. Stern knew thanks to due diligence and because of his previous dealings with Cornett.
When Cornett stepped into the commissioner's New York City office in April of 2005, he was trying to convince Stern that OKC was ready to become an NBA city.
“He had no reason to be nice to me,” Cornett explained, “but he went through every league, every TV deal. He and I spent over an hour together and he was just trying to help me figure out a way to get a major league sports team to Oklahoma. He told me he didn't have a team for me. There was no if ands or buts.
“He agreed an NHL franchise was possible and said, ‘Pursue that and I'll help if I can.' He didn't have to do that, but that's what established our relationship. He could see how much I wanted it and he wanted to be helpful.
“That's just being a nice guy. I mean, think how busy he is and to spend time with me?”
The timing of that meeting could not have been better because OKC was still fresh in Stern's mind when Katrina devastated New Orleans four months later.
“I was getting calls from folks all over the country to come there and to play at their arena,” recalled George Shinn, the Hornets' owner at the time. “David was the one who recommended Oklahoma City. When he did and I got to visit, I said, ‘Hey, he's right.' ”
The Hornets relocated to OKC for two seasons and enjoyed unimaginable success, selling out 18 of 36 “home” games at the Ford Center during the 2005-06 season with a record of 38-44, and then selling out 12 more games the following season while going 39-43.
A local ownership group chaired by Clay Bennett made overtures to purchase the Hornets after their first season in OKC. Shinn rebuffed offers and returned his team to New Orleans.
Stern attended the Hornets' finale in OKC and said: “I'm not going to steal a line from General MacArthur and use the word ‘shall.' Instead, we'll use the words ‘expect to.' We expect to return to Oklahoma City.”
Stern also had previous dealings with Bennett, who served on the league's Board of Governors as one of the principal owners of the San Antonio Spurs in the mid-1990s.
Like Stern's existing relationship had benefitted Cornett, the same would soon benefit Bennett, whose OKC-based ownership group would purchase the Seattle SuperSonics from Howard Schultz in 2006.
Stern flatly stated Seattle needed to build a new arena or it would lose the 40-year-old franchise to relocation. The team was playing at KeyArena, the NBA's smallest and oldest facility at the time.
Bennett's proposal for a new $500 million tax-subsidized arena was tabled when the Washington legislature determined there was not enough support to vote on the plan.
With his proposal stagnant and his team “hemorrhaging drastically,” Bennett stuck to his publicly stated self-imposed deadline and commenced relocating the franchise to Oklahoma City thereafter.
Stern criticized Seattle by bluntly stating, “They're not interested in having the NBA there.”
The Seattle franchise arrived in Oklahoma City in the summer of 2008, and the Thunder was born.
“David's leadership and his accomplishments for this league have been vast and nothing short of extraordinary,” Bennett said in a statement released Thursday after Stern's retirement announcement. “It has been an enormous personal privilege to work with such a legendary figure in the business of sports.”
Particularly interesting is how Cornett, Shinn and Bennett speak of their personal dealings with Stern.
“He's relationship-driven,” Cornett said of Stern. “I think what he saw was a relationship with me and with Clay that gave him more confidence than any other option he had. There wasn't time to reinvent things (after Katrina). It was what it was. He and Clay are close. I don't think people in Oklahoma City realize that Commissioner Stern probably respects Clay as a businessman and a friend more than any owner in the league. I wouldn't want to rate them for him, but I've been around enough to know that Clay is in a small group at the top.”
Stern and Shinn battled famously through the years, but all that changed with Katrina.
“I like him very much,” Shinn said Saturday. “I respect him even more than I like him, if that makes sense. David is a tough guy. If you're an owner in the NBA and he thinks you need to improve or sell more tickets or whatever, he'll be on your case. And sometimes he's not nice about it, but that's good. I'm not saying that was wrong. By being ugly, that was good. He could jerk you in or out real quick, but also he has a soft side. He's a good man.
“When the storm came and flooded the arena in New Orleans, there's no way I could ever explain to anyone this experience. It was horrifying to me and it had never in the history of sports happened to anybody else. So we were in new grounds, new territory and the most devastating time for me was right after the storm. During that time, David called me every day for several weeks. I can't tell you what it meant to me to have him to do that.
“I have nothing but admiration for the man. He was always there for me and we had our bouts, OK? I'm kind of an aggressive guy and David is very aggressive so when we met, we clashed, and I understand that. As I got older and I experienced some things, I just realized what an incredible guy he is.”