THE BUSINESS AND POLITICS OF SPORTS
National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern seems to be staying out of this year's Oregon Gubernatorial campaign. There is nothing odd about that until you realize that one of Stern's former employees — the one time New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks center Chris Dudley — has the Republican line in this contest. John Kitzhaber has the Democratic line in the contest.
Stern is a master political operative as a lobbyist but Dudley doesn't really rate on his radar screen. Dudley is not in the same class of pedigree as former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley who, of course, was part of the New York Knicks championship teams in 1970 and 1973. When Bradley decided to run for President in 2000, the entire NBA seemingly was at his disposal.
Not so for Dudley.
Dudley does have a basketball money savior though. NIKE's Phil Knight is a big donor. Dudley, who graduated from Yale and wasn't much of an NBA player, has some political genes as his grandfather Guilford Dudley was the United States Ambassador to Denmark in the Nixon and Ford Administrations.
Back in the days when basketball leagues looked for any available space to play a game, the game had almost no political influence. Over the decades that changed. The National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle persuaded Congress to allow league's to bundle its teams together and have one entity negotiate for a national TV deal. President John F. Kennedy signed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 on September 30, 1961 and that changed the bargaining power of leagues.
The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was an important factor in the growth of the National Football League and ultimately the NBA. By 1999, Stern, a lifelong Democrat, was holding a league sanctioned political fundraiser at Madison Square Garden for one of the NBA's own, Bill Bradley.
Bradley rolled out a who's who in basketball lore in his bid to raise money for his challenge against Al Gore for the nomination.
Presidential campaigns and Hollywood seem to go hand in hand. Both Democrats and Republicans have sought out actors and actresses to bolster campaigns and money. In fact, Hollywood has produced one President, Ronald Reagan. Others like Fred Thompson, George Murphy, Fred Granby, Sonny Bono and Al Franken went onto Congress. Arnold Schwarzenegger became the Governor of California.
Over the years, the world of sports has not had many players in the Presidential game. Certainly, the NBA did not although there were some owners who in the 1990s were heavily involved in politics. The Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl holds one of the Wisconsin senate seats on Capitol Hill. Former National Football League and American Football League quarterback Jack Kemp, who was also the President of the American Football League Players Association in the mid 1960s, was Robert Dole's running mate for the GOP in the 1996 Presidential election.
Bradley received help at his Garden fundraiser from Kareem Abdul-Jabber, Bob Cousy, his onetime Knicks teammate and roommate Dave DeBusschere, Bill Walton, Bill Russell, three other Knicks teammates Willis Reed, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, Bob Petit, Oscar Robertson, Nancy Lieberman-Cline, Wes Unseld, Dolph Schayes, Elvin Hayes, Nate Archibald, Julius Erving, John Havlicek, Dave Bing, Billy Cunningham, Jerry Lucas, Rebecca Lobo and Grant Hill. Spike Lee had a courtside seat along with the actor Harvey Keitel. Tennis great John McEnroe and Pro Football Hall of Famer quarterback Joe Namath were there too. Namath, of course was New York's big star leading the Jets to a Super Bowl championship in 1969 at the same time that Bradley and his Knicks teammates became championship contenders.
Patrons were paying New York Knicks-type prices to enter the Garden as tickets for the fund raiser ranged from $100-1,000. But a major question came up about the fundraiser. Could Bradley, a Rhodes Scholar who served 18 years as a United States Senator from New Jersey, get sports fans out to vote?
Would voters casting ballots in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut Democratic primaries vote for a hometown hero who helped New York win two championships or would they vote on the Bradley versus Gore record?
Jerry Lucas thought that Bradley's basketball pedigree was not going to sway voters. Bradley had been a college All-American at Princeton, had two championship rings, was a Basketball Hall of Fame member and enjoyed the support of a cross section of the basketball community, but Lucas thought that voters would scrutinize Bradley the man, not the basketball player.
"He told me he is having the most fun he has ever had in his life," said Lucas of his friend's campaign. "He is very much enjoying his campaigning and what he is doing. He is a very capable and very honest person and I appreciate that in Bill."
It's the human Bill Bradley, not the athlete that Lucas thought would connect with voters. Bradley also had Stern's commitment to help him on the stump.
Bradley wasn't the only 2000 Presidential candidate who had NBA star power around him. Gore picked up the endorsement of Newark native Shaquille O'Neal. That was somewhat interesting in that O'Neal's coach at that time with the Los Angeles Lakers was Phil Jackson who thought of running Bradley's campaign in Iowa but took the Lakers coaching job instead. Jackson was supporting his old Knicks teammate.
In an even stranger twist of sports in politics in the 1999-2000 election cycle, Philip F. Anschutz, who build the new downtown Los Angeles arena and had a piece of the Lakers ownership, rented out the arena for the 2000 Democrat Convention. Anschutz counted the 1996 Republican nominee for the Presidency, long time Kansas Congressman and Senator and one time Vice Presidential candidate Robert Dole as one of his lifelong friends. Jackson was, of course, the Lakers coach.
Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf was closely aligned with the late Ron Brown, the former Commerce Secretary and the Democratic National Committee chairman in 1992. Reinsdorf got the 1996 Democratic Convention at his arena in Chicago when he needed dates to fill and money to pay off costs of the privately funded arena. Owners and politicians do work rather closely.
Lucas said he supported Bradley because he was more than just a friend and he thought other basketball players felt the same way.
"When I played, we didn't support candidates," said Lucas, who competed in the NBA in the 1960s and 1970s.
One NBA big name ran for Congress after his playing days were done. Mikan. He lost in his bid for the House in 1956 to incumbent Democrat Roy Wier. The NBA did not hold a major fundraiser for Mikan in 1956 but then again there was nothing major about the NBA in 1956.
Some athletes like Wilt Chamberlain did attend national conventions. Chamberlain supported the Republican Richard Nixon who served as the American President between 1969 and 1974. Bradley was the first to take basketball players out on the campaign trail.
"People want to help certain people that they appreciate, love and believe in," said Lucas.
The fundraiser didn't help; Bradley was out of the race in March 2000 after Gore picked up most of the delegates available in the Super Tuesday primary including those in New York. His basketball background might have picked up a few votes but not many. In the east, people are not impressed with stars as say in California.
Perhaps Dudley is better off without Stern's involvement. Stern has failed to deliver new arena in Sacramento and seems to have lost a mile off of his political fastball lately. But make no mistake, the NBA is a political entity and wields enormous influence locally and nationally. Stern is still peeved at New Jersey legislators for not building the Nets a building in Newark going so far as saying that New Jersey politicians blew it. Bruce Ratner is building an arena in Brooklyn and the New Jersey Devils are in Newark. But Stern will keep hammering away as the politics of sports business never fades away even if Dudley isn't getting any support from the NBA's home office.