David Stern doesn't know where LeBron James will sign, either.
In a wide-ranging interview after a lunchtime seminar, Stern said Wednesday that if he was still NBA commissioner and he was confronted with a national anthem protest by Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf he might handle it more delicately and sympathetically, considering how the political climate has changed in the past two decades. And, as social media becomes more prevalent, he has no problem with Twitter beefs among players – at least, not as long as Donald Trump continues his uncivil, unpresidential tweet-athon.
But Stern isn't commissioner today. He bequeathed his throne to Adam Silver in 2014, which freed him to watch the Sixers' three-year tank-a-palooza from afar (he was not a fan) and to do things like he did Wednesday, when he served as the keynote speaker at the Sixers' sports science summit. Representatives from five NBA teams (including the Celtics), three NFL teams, the Philadelphia Union and the NBA league office listened to 11 lectures from experts who hold nine Ph.D.'s among them, on subjects ranging from technology to tendon health. Dr. Adam Kiefer's work at Cincinnati Children's Hospital involves virtual reality and augmented reality, so he had the coolest presentation, but Stern, as always, stole the show.
In front of 200 attendees at the Sixers' training complex in Camden, Stern affirmed adoration of technology and sports science. But, Stern being Stern, he also got in some good-natured jabs at FIBA, the IOC and noted philosopher Charles W. Barkley. He was glib and garrulous, and he even lobbied for 10 extra minutes, but Stern insisted that his on-stage comments be off the record.
Little matter. Following his one-man show, Stern, now 75, gladly put on another.
A self-described "cynical democrat," Stern considers Trump's behavior on social media so outlandish that he cannot bring himself to criticize the minor dustups between rookie-of-the-year finalists Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, or between Joel Embiid and … well, anyone in the NBA.
"When we have a president who can say the most ridiculous things in person and tweet?" said Stern, who remains so addicted to the political scene that he is able to recite Trump's playground taunts at U.S. Rep. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). "I heard him refer to a candidate in Nevada as 'Wacky Jacky' and [used] 'Pocahontas' referring to Elizabeth Warren. Almost anything goes in the public discourse of this country."
Of course, the recent Twitter discourse that rocked the Sixers and the NBA involved four anonymous, "burner" accounts established by Barbara Bottini, wife of Bryan Colangelo, who served as the team's general manager from 2015 until last month. That's when the accounts were connected to Bottini. The tweets contained sensitive information and impugned current and former Sixers, as well as other NBA personnel, so Colangelo resigned. A simple policy change by Twitter boss @jack, to not allow anonymity on his platform, would have precluded the situation.
"It shouldn't be allowed," Stern said. "If you're going to say something that's harmful, you should have to associate your name with it. I think anonymous is cowardly."
There was nothing cowardly about the stance Abdul-Rauf took in 1996, when he declined to stand for the national anthem. Stern suspended him for one game, then compromised with the players union to allow Abdul-Rauf to stand and pray during the anthem, but the league's hard-line stance framed Abdul-Rauf's exile from the league after the next season.
"Times change," Stern said, softly.
Led by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, NFL players have protested during the anthem for the past two seasons, which led Trump to call for any such "son of a bitch" to be "fired." The difference was that the NBA had a rule that stipulated that players stand for the anthem, while the NFL did not. Stern enforced the rule then. He seems more sympathetic now.
"I was just following my rule," he said.
The rule remains, but NBA players have become the most active protesters in any sport, most of it centered on Kaepernick's core cause: police violence against young black men. They wore T-shirts that read "I Can't Breathe" and they wear hoodies like the one Trayvon Martin wore when he was killed. Stern is unmistakably proud of them. Would he let Abdul-Rauf protest today?
"Times change," Stern said. "I might."
Times have changed on the sports-science front, too. Stern was dazzled at the depth of talent and the diversity of subject matter the Sixers offered: the science behind crowd-sourcing and networking to make organizational decisions; the delicate balance of load management; the arsenal of gadgets available to athletic trainers and conditioning coaches.
Stern was impressed by the event, officially titled the HB Sports & Entertainment STTAR (Science, Training, Technology, Analytics and Rehabilitation) Summit. It served as a coming-out party for the umbrella company that Sixers owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer created 9 months ago, which includes the Sixers, the NHL's New Jersey Devils and Crystal Palace, the London soccer team that plays in the Premier League. Sixers sports science director Dr. David Martin coordinated the summit, and he said he invited all of the major-league professional teams in the United States and Canada. Selected industry experts also were invited.
Stern was blown away by "this in-gathering of some of the most dedicated minds in education in this process of player health and rehabilitation," he said.
Stern said other teams might have more veteran staffs than the Sixers, who recently hired four analytics staffers to bring that department to 17, who complement Martin's eight sports-science staffers, and that other teams might be just as progressive in their philosophies, if not as transparent in their strategies.
"Unfortunately, they view it as a narrow competitive advantage rather than something that could help the whole league," Stern said. "Clearly, the 76ers are a leader in this field."
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Always a bit nerdy, Stern realizes that "analytics is moving front-and-center" and that coaches' gut feelings can no longer govern their strategies. He doesn't care about players manipulating rosters to build super teams — he pointed to the 1980s' "two baskets with eggs," in Los Angeles and Boston, and he isn't sad the Sam Hinkie era ended in 2016.
"I cannot emotionally relate to suggesting to an organization that it should lose games," Stern said. "It just doesn't do it for me. We're busy building — in the business world they call it 'brands,' but elsewhere they might call it 'cultures' — and if you're on a team you want to develop a culture of winning."
That's what many teams tried to do in the summer of 2016, when the NBA salary cap spiked and franchises overspent on overvalued players. Now, thanks to what Stern called "the law of excess expenditures," all but a handful are crippled by ungainly contracts. The Sixers are among that handful, with about $27 million available as free agency arrives Sunday. So are the Lakers, and, to a lesser degree, Stern's hometown Knicks.
So, can Stern can answer the most significant question in sports?
"Where is LeBron going?" Stern said, laughing. "I am not projecting that, on the record. As a fan, I have a very strong opinion."