How David Stern, with a little help from a TV star, changed Aussie Rules history

David Stern remembered by the NBA in New York (0:28)

The National Basketball Association held a memorial in New York City for former commissioner David Stern as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and others were in attendance. (0:28)

Amidst all the tributes after the recent passing of former NBA Commissioner David Stern, there was one contribution specific to Australian sporting audiences that slipped under the radar.

Growing the NBA from a struggling league to worldwide phenomenon is the legendary legacy of his 30 year tenure, but was he also a special adviser who helped turn a Victorian Football League at the crossroads into the modern day behemoth now known as the Australian Football League?

That might be stretching the story a little, but a seminal meeting between a VFL delegation and Stern in 1983 shaped the way the lop-sided VFL became an AFL that is now built on equalisation.

The meeting was first revealed in Gary Linnell's 1995 book 'Football Ltd' -- which explored the VFL's turbulent growth from suburban competition to national league -- but after Stern's passing, the key player from the VFL, Dick Seddon, delved deeper into the almost serendipitous meeting that helped changed football and fostered a lifelong friendship.

"At the time, David used to say that he and I were the only two sporting administrators in the world that could have a sensible discussion about a salary cap!" Seddon chuckles when recalling Stern's little-known role in Australian Rules history.

Seddon was a lawyer who had become general manager of the Melbourne Football Club as it tried to make itself a legal entity after a history of living as a sporting section of the Melbourne Cricket Club. His legal expertise navigated that path and was noticed by the VFL as somebody who could help with the inevitable legal challenges the league would face as the stakes increased in the game.

In 1983, the league was in the middle of a season where the legalities of player movement were being tested. Sydney Swans player Silvio Foschini crossed to rival St Kilda mid-season without a clearance, breaking the league's rules but as it turned out, not the laws of the land.

The long-held fear that the system of zoning players to a club was unenforceable in the Supreme Court was now reality - St Kilda the league pariahs for bringing it to a head. It meant theoretically any player could move to another club freely of their own choice and would only further encourage the inflationary pressure brought by the poor trying to keep up with the rich.

This was a disaster for a league and a clutch of clubs that were financially stricken, something that Seddon explains was largely self-inflicted.

"In our case, the financial problems were driven by the clubs and not the players. It wasn't the players that were demanding big payments, it was the clubs trying to induce them to swap. We needed to save the clubs from themselves as a lot of them were broke," he tells ESPN.

Clearly there needed to be a rethink of VFL rules, and a fact finding-mission to the U.S was hastily arranged.

The league general manager Jack Hamilton noted in his 1983 VFL Annual Report: "On June 8 ... the general manager, VFL vice president Mr Ron Cook and Mr Seddon were sent to the United States to study and discuss the relationship between football administrators, owners and Players' Association Representatives."

"We had to find a way of stopping this behaviour [of players moving between clubs so freely] - we had to find something to fix it, and urgently," Seddon says.

"In desperation they got together this taskforce of so-called experts and said 'let's see what they do in America', and off we went."

The delegation landed at the door of NFL supremo Pete Rozelle and met with others during the trip but it was a spark of inspiration from, of all people, the American expat and Australian TV star of the time, Don Lane, that ultimately led the group to Stern, the-then NBA vice president and legal counsel.

"Don Lane had become a celebrity supporter of Melbourne FC when I was there," Seddon remembers.

"He added some glamour to our pre-match lunches and he got quite enthusiastic about our footy, but his true love was the American sports he grew up with.

"I'd talk to him about the issues facing the game and he was the first one that alerted me to this salary cap mechanism that basketball (the NBA) had recently agreed to and how that could be a solution."

The expectation was that the delegation would study the NFL and try to formulate new governance based on its American brother, but Lane's advice meant the NBA was now on the list to visit too, even if it was only at the back of Seddon's mind.

"We'd written to the four major U.S. leagues to see the commissioners and somehow got meetings. Pete Rozelle was the Commissioner of the NFL and he was better known than the U.S. President," he says, still incredulous today that they managed to barge through one of the most exclusive doors in America.

"He was bigger than God and here are these little blokes from the VFL who got an audience with him. You have to marvel at our arrogance and cheek to think we could talk to them as equals, which we of course thought we were!"

While good knowledge was gained at the NFL and MLB on drafting, the group hadn't had the eureka moment that would deal with their immediate problem.

"We were getting some good stuff but no silver bullet, and a lot of the stuff we heard at the MLB and the NHL, we'd kind of been through that with the NFL," Seddon says.

Despite Lane's advice, the expectations were low for the last meeting of the trip with the NBA, as the salary cap concept was still nothing more than a vague term to the delegation.

"The NBA was a pretty poor cousin in those days. It was almost a courtesy call because we'd seen the others and thought we better keep the appointment. During that era they were possibly worse-off than us financially," explains Seddon, noting the general lack of excitement about the last stop on the visit.

NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien welcomed the group but was puzzled at the issues with player rules these strangers with a strange game presented. He called in the NBA's legal counsel and heir apparent, and Seddon's mood changed immediately.

"So David Stern came in, a million miles an hour, right on the money, and O'Brien excused himself, saying 'I'll leave you guys to it'," he says.

Stern sympathised with the VFL's predicament and was particularly interested in the Foschini case. It was his detailed legal explanation of the concept of the NBA's aggregate team salary rules, or its 'salary cap', that struck a chord with the Australians as a mechanism to spread player talent evenly. It was fresh in Stern's mind as he'd spent the early part of 1983 getting NBA owners to agree to his plan for imminent introduction.

"He started talking about the salary cap that he'd just introduced to the NBA and the intricacies involved. The light switch went on in my head," Seddon says.

Time ran out but Seddon pleaded with Stern if he could come back the following day. The fact that someone seemed as interested in his pet topic of the time prevailed upon Stern.

"The next day, he spent the whole day with me going through their salary cap rules line by line, and I was taking notes and basically adapting it to the VFL as he explained it," Seddon says. "By the time I left New York the next day I'd finished writing the new rules in my hotel that night."

Hamilton told Ron Carter of Melbourne's Age newspaper soon after that they may have found a solution to their problem in basketball's new regulations.

"They have similar problems to us with an incredible spiral in player payments -- one of their players, Moses Malone gets $2 million a year -- and some of their clubs are going broke."

The VFL contingent were also guests at the 1983 NBA Draft that saw Ralph Sampson picked at 1, the Daily News in New York reporting their attendance and that the "the Aussies weren't just hobnobbing with the power elite of American Sports. They have a problem."

"Silvio Foschini is the Andy Messersmith of Aussie Rules" the News declared, referencing the MLB pitcher of the 1970's whose legal challenge to baseball's reserve clause triggered free agency and the crisis the VFL faced, before alerting to Stern and the NBA's role.

"Stern explained the NBA's new player agreement, and Hamilton said the procedures could be best adopted to the VFL's needs."

Those new rules that Seddon had furiously drafted as Stern enthusiastically spread the gospel came in as a trial for the very next VFL season in 1984. By 1985, the concept was enshrined.

Then-VFL president Dr Allen Aylett said at the time: "Because of the urgency of our financial crisis and the fact that the salary cap could be implemented immediately, we introduced it straight away."

While there were caveats for existing contracts, and clubs did look for ways to circumvent it, it had the desired effect. By setting a cap it immediately limited the ability for the rich clubs to poach players in light of the fact that zone and transfer rules were now legally unenforceable. This subsequently reduced player wage inflation.

For the poorer clubs, the stabilisation of player payments was a godsend, but the setting of a cap limit also worked as a systematic league check on their own financial responsibilities, something that had gone awry in the arms race for success. It also indirectly put a stop to players using the courts to change teams - it was the circuit breaker the VFL had urgently required

Hamilton was optimistic in his 1984 Annual Report: "The introduction of new rules to govern the transfer and payments to players meant a dramatic change to league football ... it is felt in the event of the salary cap working successfully -- as it has in the National Basketball Association in the United States, from which it was derived -- the League can confidently look to an exciting future."

Eventually it would indeed arrest the runaway train on player payments that, with their own irresponsibility, was bankrupting clubs and creating an uncompetitive league of haves and have-nots.

It was the first plank of the three reforms that transformed the VFL that were gained from the mission. In 1985, clubs signed away their directorship powers to become licensees of a new independent commission that could govern the game with more agility as its American cousins did. Thirdly in 1986, the first fledgling national draft of players was held, built upon the NBA, MLB and NFL models. It was no surprise that Seddon jumped to the league to become its designated 'football man' on the commission as it headed towards a brave new world that eventually would become a successful national league, the AFL.

Meanwhile Stern was soon to ascend to the top job at the NBA in early 1984 to shepherd through the full adoption of his salary cap, about to take it to the global heights it could never have imagined just a few years before. Though at the time he mentioned to Seddon that the VFL's model had ended up better because they didn't have a coherent players union to deal with.

While that was the end of Stern's unlikely influence on VFL/AFL rules, it was the start of a friendship between Stern and Seddon that blossomed when Seddon left Australia and the VFL in 1988 to take up a government position as Australian Investment Commissioner in New York.

"I got to know David a lot better when we went to live in New York in 1988. David used to invite me to all the prestigious NBA events such as the All-Star Weekend. It meant the Australian government had an entree to all the biggest companies in America that would naturally be there as under his stewardship the NBA took off. It was very good of him to do that for me," Seddon says.

"In-spite of the numerous high-level invitations to games with him and other prestigious events, he could not convert me to be a basketball fan, because to his horror, I preferred baseball and gridiron! "A few times I saw him holding meetings in his offices in full flight. I saw him stride on to the board table once as he exhorted the merits of some new idea. It was inspirational.

"I saw a lot of David and his wife Dianne over those five years in New York, and we became firm friends, corresponding regularly over the years right up until recently."

Today, the retired Seddon has long been back in Melbourne but remains a fountain of information on a turbulent time in Australian sporting history. A few years back he published his own book of his time in football 'It's More Than A Game'. He's now also the only living keeper of the memory of this unlikely NBA-AFL connection.

"I was shocked to hear David had passed away, he was a very important man in world sport and a great friend. His salary cap concept kicked off the recovery of our league."

And what of the late Don Lane, who, once his star had faded a little, could be found hosting American Sports late at night on Australian television?

"Years later I looked him up and went to see him. I said 'you know how this league is going from strength to strength, going national? Well, it almost went belly up. The guy that really saved it is you - you told me about the aggregate team salary being introduced in America by the NBA," Seddon laughs.