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Podcast No. 1: David Stern, NBA Commissioner Emeritus

December 5, 2018

My first guest on the WHOOP Podcast is David Stern.

By Will Ahmed

Listen, review, subscribe.

David served as commissioner of the National Basketball Association for 30 years, during which time the NBA became one of the most successful leagues in the world and he was one of the most powerful men in all of sports.

When David and I first met, I pitched him on why I thought recovery and sleep would be critical to understanding pro sports schedules over time and how I thought data could solve questions about keeping our favorite athletes healthy for longer. To my surprise, David was finishing a lot of my sentences for me, he seemed to have been thinking about these topics for a long, long time.

I’ve been fortunate to get to know David through our work together on WHOOP, where he is an advisor and an investor. His amazing career does not seem to be slowing down, as he’s become a notable investor across sports and technology.

In this conversation we talk about David’s career as commissioner, the challenges he faced and how he overcame them, sports and its overlap with politics, social media, gambling, cannabis, and how he suspended a player for kneeling during the national anthem 20 years before Colin Kaepernick. Lastly, we predict the future of technology and how it may affect sports.

I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Show Notes:

3:34 – 1984 Draft. David became commissioner just before one of the greatest NBA drafts ever. What was going through his mind at the time?

5:02 – NBA Rule Changes. The most important rule change he ever implemented.

7:22 – Michael Jordan. When did David know Jordan was something special? A trip to China. “She wants you to know she’s a fan of the red oxen.”

11:47 – Mark Cuban. David discusses his friendship with Mark (despite repeatedly fining him), and how he pushed to have him approved as an owner.

13:30 – Pacers/Pistons Brawl 2004The malice at the Palace. David reflects on one of the worst incidents in NBA history and how he managed the crisis.

15:27 – Kneeling During National Anthem. In 1996, David suspended a player for doing this decades before it became an issue in the NFL. “Yeah, we did that. I’m not sure I would be so flip at enforcing the rules under the current environment.

19:49 – Social Media. “During an NBA Finals, 75% of the total twitter traffic is about the Finals.”

22:53 – Personal Brands. With the help of social media, players are building their brands to the point that they are bigger than teams, or possibly even the league. “A player like LeBron James has the number of people who follow him on Twitter that the President of the United States has.”

24:22 – Politics and Sports. “Sports has this enormous power and it can not hide from its relevance … In 1991, Magic Johnson, with a little help from his friends at the NBA, changed the debate on HIV and AIDS in this country.” Plus, what David learned from Nelson Mandela and Clay Travis’ book Republicans Buy Sneakers Too.

29:50 – Legalization of Gambling and how prop bets will increase ratings. “The NBA changed it’s position because of daily fantasy. No one said no to it, that’s just betting by another name … Whether or not it’s in the arena itself is sort of a non-issue for me. If you have your cell phone in the arena, you’re going to be able to bet in the arena.”

32:29 – Technology Extending Careers. “Imagine if every NBA star had an extra year tacked on.” What WHOOP and other technologies can accomplish. “The playing career length is going to be a function of life length, we’ll have more people who are going to be Octogenarians [someone who is 80-89, Nonagenarian are 90-99].”

35:44 – Future of Data in sports, biometric and beyond. How will it affect judging player talent and the way coaches do their job? “His facial recognition tells you that he’d like to be every place but where he is.”

38:29 – Jordan Flu Game. In Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals, MJ famously overcame the flu to help the Bulls defeat the Jazz. Will calls this one of his favorite sporting events of all time, and David explains he wasn’t able to enjoy it as a fan.

38:58 – David’s Investments, including technology that can predict if a shot is going in, and what if you could place a bet knowing the outcome?

41:54 – Missing Games to Rest. Is it a trend that will continue? “Perhaps not, because of WHOOP, and other devices like, because you’re going to know whether the player needs the rest or not.” Should coaches be empowered to sit players if WHOOP tells them to? And what about the opposite? “You may be able to say what activity causes the most strain … rather than rest a player from a game, maybe you should stop doing two-a-days at some point, or shootarounds, or something else.”

45:17 – Cannabis. Can it help players’ careers? David wonders if it has been unfairly demonized.

47:42 – eSports. Will it continue to grow? “eSports aficionados love to write about the fact that more people went to the League of Legends finals at Staples than went to Kobe and Shaq’s playoff games … Maybe [the superstar] we’ll be replaced by his icon or his character.”

54:54 – Optimal Performance. What does it mean? “It has to be on the court and off the court.”

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance and health. WHOOP members include professional athletes, Fortune 500 CEOs, fitness enthusiasts, military personnel, frontline workers and a broad range of people looking to improve their performance. WHOOP has raised more than $400 million from top investors and is valued at $3.6 billion, making it the most valuable standalone wearables company in the world. Ahmed has recruited an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, marketers, and designers. Ahmed was recently named to the 2021 Sports Business Journal 40 under 40 list as well as 2020 Fortune 40 Under 40 Healthcare list and previously named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. Ahmed founded WHOOP as a student at Harvard, where he captained the Men’s Varsity Squash Team and graduated with an A.B. in government.