The WNBA was not launched because of a huge stack of heartfelt thank-you notes that David Stern read nearly a quarter-century ago. But … they certainly didn't hurt.
As Stern steps away from his job as commissioner of the NBA, there's so much to talk about in regard to how that organization -- and basketball worldwide -- grew an amazing amount under his stewardship.
Part of his vast résumé is the founding of the WNBA in June 1997, thanks to Stern's belief in the concept -- and his ability to sell the NBA's owners on it.
"Without his vision and engagement, the league wouldn't have gotten off the ground," said Val Ackerman, who was the first WNBA president. "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?"
Ackerman, who played college basketball at Virginia and is now commissioner of the Big East Conference, began work in the NBA as an attorney in the late 1980s. She advocated for the NBA's greater involvement in women's basketball, with the long-range goal of sponsoring a pro women's league.
In 1990, the Women's Basketball Coaches Association went to Ackerman with a plea. The main sponsor had pulled out of the annual coaches party -- a networking and social event -- at the upcoming NCAA Women's Final Four. The WBCA asked Ackerman if the NBA would consider subsidizing the party, and the league agreed.
"Then, within two weeks' time, I must have gotten at least 800 handwritten notes from coaches, thanking me and the NBA for putting up the money for that party," said Ackerman, who then gave them to Stern. "I think that sort of struck him as, 'Wow, there's a big basketball world out there, and here's another segment of the game, and it might make sense to connect more to it.'
"My guess is the little things along the way that were happening back then [with women's basketball] were adding up in his mind and having a cumulative effect."
That Stern did not miss these so-called "little things" -- which might have escaped the notice of other executives of his stature -- can be attributed to his constant and voluminous intake of information.
"He pays attention to everything," said Donna Orender, who followed Ackerman as WNBA president, from 2005 to 2010. "He's able to see the open spaces and the unknown, and those things don't frighten him. If anything, they tempt him."
After the financial blueprint for the WNBA was put together in the early 1990s, Stern waited for the right time to greenlight the league. That came with the large crowds and enthusiasm generated by the gold-medal success of the U.S. women's basketball team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
That another pro women's basketball league -- the ABL -- had started in the fall of 1996 was no deterrent to the WNBA's launch the following summer. It seemed pretty obvious which one, ultimately, was going to prevail.
Even so, the WNBA and Stern were criticized by some in the women's basketball community for "undermining" the ABL, and for opting to have the nontraditional summertime season for the WNBA.
The pragmatic view? The WNBA had, by far, more resources, a better business plan, and a much greater likelihood of survival. The ABL folded early in its third season. The WNBA -- provided it negotiates, as expected, a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union -- will begin its 18th season this summer.
And speaking of the pragmatic view, it's important to remember that pragmatism was as much of a guiding force as idealism in launching the WNBA. Stern believed it was socially significant to start the women's league, but the bottom line always was the belief that it would burnish the NBA's already globally powerful brand name.
"Because of the 'power of David,' he was able to convince the owners," Ackerman said. "It was about doing the right thing for the NBA, but there were business benefits as well."
The WNBA began with eight teams that were all owned by NBA franchises. The business model changed after the 2002 season to allow for independent WNBA owners, opening up the possibility for teams to be located in non-NBA cities.
The WNBA expanded to as many as 16 teams -- too quickly, in retrospect -- and is now at 12. It has been a learning process for the NBA, the WNBA, the owners, coaches, players, fans and media. A lot of the WNBA's growth has been inspiring, but some of it losses have been very painful.
The WNBA continues to have financial ups and downs among its individual teams; some franchises traditionally have been run well, and others have not.
Of the original eight, only the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks remain where they started in 1997. And the Sparks are shaky right now, as they need a new owner to stay in L.A. The Sparks originally were owned by the Lakers, then went to independent ownership. The team's owners left the franchise suddenly in December; the only publicly identified potential buyers are the NBA's Golden State Warriors.
Founding franchises in Houston -- which won the first four WNBA championships -- Charlotte, Cleveland and Sacramento have folded over the years. Utah relocated to San Antonio, where the franchise is owned by the Spurs.
"I think there is a group of NBA owners who really believe in the WNBA," Orender said. "And some that probably have less affection for it, or are just focused on their other businesses."
One thing that has stayed rock solid, though, is Stern's commitment to the league. Admittedly, there were -- and still are -- NBA fans who dislike the WNBA and see it as one of Stern's vanity projects. But he has never wavered publicly in his support for and belief in the league.
And for those who wonder how strong the NBA's commitment will remain after Stern's retirement, realize that his replacement, Adam Silver, was also in on the ground floor of the WNBA.
"Adam was part of the team that wrote the original business plan for the WNBA," current league president Laurel Richie said. "I am entering into my fourth season with the WNBA, and I feel the same passion, commitment and support from Adam that I have from David."
Richie says that Stern has been making a constant push for profitability for the WNBA, but also keeps in focus that it is a lengthy process.
"He has an uncanny ability to drive results in the short term, while never losing sight of the long term," Richie said. "That has been part of his success with the WNBA, as well as the NBA and the D-League.
"All of us who work with him, you feel a daily -- if not hourly -- necessary pressure to deliver results. But that is complemented by his ability to have visionary conversations about what the end point is."
Or to put it another way, Stern has been able to crack the whip with the WNBA, but not pull the rug out from underneath the organization.
"It really was about a belief in women," Orender said of Stern's mentality in regard to the WNBA. "I can tell you there wasn't a day when I was with the league that I didn't think about what he did, and how he backed it up."
The WNBA's existence has been life-changing for many women, who recognize how Stern changed their careers.
"It's hard to put into words," said Indiana's Tamika Catchings, the 2011 MVP of the WNBA and a perennial All-Star. "From an opportunity standpoint, for all of us who've been able to live our dreams with a league here in the United States, and for young girls to be able to dream about it -- that's his legacy."
Catchings said she and her father, Harvey Catchings, have discussed Stern's impact on both the NBA and WNBA. Harvey played in the NBA from 1974-85.
"To think about even where the NBA was when my dad was playing -- we talk about that a lot," Catchings said. "David knew how to build a strong league, and he carried that over to the WNBA."
Catchings said she also knows Stern to be warm and personal, the flip side of the steely and calculating businessman that he has needed to be in guiding the NBA's empire.
"Every time I see him, he's always like, 'I'm so proud of you for all that you've accomplished, not just basketball-wise, but off the court,'" Catchings said of Stern's admiration for her Catch the Stars Foundation, which works with young people. "It's been really cool to me for him to know what I'm doing. It's not like, 'Oh, yeah, you're in the WNBA.' He really has taken time to get to know players individually."
Richie credits Stern for being "ahead of his time" in his support for women's basketball, but also thinks his success is attributable to a certain timelessness in his perception of the world around him.
"He understands popular culture," Richie said. "And he has had that ability for the entire time he's been commissioner. It's one thing to have that at the beginning of your career. To be as astute about it at the 30-year mark as the one-year mark is amazing."
Ackerman was there from the WNBA's embryonic stage. She said that Stern shies away from the accolades she thinks he deserves for helping change the very landscape of women's athletics.
"He saw which way the winds were blowing and put the NBA's full resources behind it," Ackerman said. "The credit is his. He's the guy. People not only in women's basketball, but in all of women's sports, owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude."