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David Stern: The long goodbye to the man who twice helped bring the NBA to OKC

DAVID STERN — When he retires as NBA commissioner on the 30th anniversary of taking the job, Oklahoma City will be losing a friend in high places.
BY JOHN ROHDE Published: November 3, 2012
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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 Hurricane Katrina.

That's when Stern shared with Cornett the story of owner Michael Heisley's desire to search the country for the most suitable place to relocate his Vancouver Grizzlies following the 2000-01 season.

“The commissioner said to him, ‘Well, you can look all over, but at the end of the day you're going to be in Memphis,' ” Cornett said. “That wasn't an edict from David. 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 month 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 found the answer long before the question has even been 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. He knew thanks to due diligence and also because of previous dealings with Cornett.

When he stepped into the commissioner's New York City office in April of 2005, Cornett was trying to convince Stern that OKC was ready to become an NBA city.

“He had no reason to be nice to me,” Cornett said, “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 overwhelming success at the gate, selling out 18 of 36 “home” games at the Ford Center during the 2005-06 season when the Hornets finished with a 38-44 record, and selling out 12 more games the following season while going 39-43.

A local ownership group chaired by Clay Bennett, who previously served on the NBA board of governors for the San Antonio Spurs, made overtures to purchase the Hornets after their first season in OKC. Shinn rebuffed the offers and returned his team to New Orleans.

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