It’s almost impossible to remember what the NBA was like before David Stern became its commissioner in 1984. But one thing is for certain. It was unrecognizable.
Struggling for attention and revenue, without a major television contract, the league lacked direction and leadership.
Then Stern arrived – in the same season Michael Jordan was drafted – with his legal expertise, unyielding determination and vision. And over the next three decades, the league transformed into a global success.
Stern, 77, died Tuesday from complications relating to a cerebral hemorrhage he’d suffered in December.
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action. He was a mentor and one of my dearest friends,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “We spent countless hours in the office, at arenas and on planes wherever the game would take us. Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail, and hard work.”
Stern was determined to find a way to market the game nationally (and internationally), to turn its stars in sports icons, and to recycle its popularity into the media and marketing relationships he knew would help enrich the game.
“Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration,” Silver said.
Not only did the league grow financially, it grew in size. Seven teams joined the league during Stern’s reign. And with each, a new regional market joined forces to help turn the game into a national sensation.
Stern did not suffer fools. He was a relentless negotiator, one who not only commanded the respect of the owners he worked for, but required it. And Stern got what he asked for because it was impossible for the owners to deny that Stern was responsible for their new-found wealth.
Much of what the league is today has its roots in the 1992 Olympics when the Dream Team of USA superstars captivated a world audience. Stern knew how to pounce on that team’s popularity to help turn greats like Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson into celebrities.
In turn, the fascination in those players resulting in the endorsement deals that made the players household names. And with the interest growing, Stern capitalized by negotiating what eventually morphed into billion-dollar rights fees with the major television and cable networks that grew the game.
During Stern’s time, the NBA increased television revenue from $10 million per year to approximately $900 million per year.
“David Stern was a brilliant leader whose vision was instrumental in creating the global success the NBA enjoys today,” ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro said in a statement. “ESPN is deeply grateful for his tremendous partnership through the years.”
Still, Stern’s influence was not limited to the NBA. He was the major force is the creation of the WNBA, now the most successful women’s professional league in American sports history.
“We are deeply saddened by the passing of NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern. The WNBA will be forever grateful for his exemplary leadership and vision that led to the founding of our league,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball. He will be missed.”
The NBA Development League, now the G League, was created on his watch. And through that, players who weren’t immediately able to crack the NBA job market found work both domestically and eventually internationally.
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today. He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before,” Jordan said in a statement. “His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed. David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him – and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Stern’s tenure was not without its difficulties. The NBA endured four labor lockouts. The first two, in 1995 and 1996, did not result in any lost games. But those which followed in 1998 and 2011 truncated those season’s regular season schedules.
“As tough an adversary as he was across the table, he never failed to recognize the value of our players and had the vision and courage to make them the focus of our league’s marketing efforts – building the NBA into the empire it is today. We owe him and we will miss him,” NBA’s Players Association said in a statement.
While Stern was commissioner, the NBA began to play games internationally and began to be televised in more than 200 countries. The NBA Finals is now one of the most watched events on the television calendar. Even the league’s All-Star Game attracted attention: The 2010 game at the home of the Dallas Cowboys drew the largest crowd (108,000) every to see a basketball game.
Stern was born in New York City. He received his law degree from Columbia and initially became affiliated with the league through his association with a law firm which represented the league.
In terms of his ascension, ESPN’s obituary pointed to a lawsuit filed against the NBA in 1970 by Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Stern played a big role in negotiating a settlement that facilitated the merger with the ABA and helped create free agency.
From there, Stern joined the NBA as the league’s general counsel in 1978 and took over from Larry O’Brien as commissioner in 1984 after serving as the league’s executive vice president of business and legal affairs.
“There are no words that can really describe the far-reaching impact of Commissioner Stern’s brilliance, vision, fairness and hard work over so many years,” Bird said. “When you think of all that he accomplished worldwide on behalf of thousands of players, so many fans, all of the jobs he created for team and arena employees and all of the people that benefitted from the many layers of growth in the sport and industry that David spearheaded and then passed on to others, there is no doubt Commissioner Stern lifted the NBA to new heights and he will be greatly missed by all of us.”