David Stern, who served as NBA commissioner for three decades and was instrumental in the league’s growth into an international power, died on New Year’s Day. He was 77.
Stern was hospitalized last month after he suffered a brain hemorrhage Dec. 12.
He was the longest-serving commissioner the NBA has ever had, and he did a tremendous amount for the league and the entire sport of basketball in his life. Not many people in history have had the level of impact on the sport that Stern has.
While in power, Stern wasn’t always the most popular figure. The NBA wasn’t without drama under his guise. The moving of the Seattle SuperSonics, the 2007 referee scandal and various conspiracies that swirled around him all come to mind.
But when Stern became the league’s commissioner in 1984, the NBA was struggling. It had a negative image in the public eye, and viewership and dollars were down.
“We had the drug issue,” Alex English, who played in the league in the 1980s, told Time, referring to cocaine usage among players at the time. “Our image was rough. We were on tape delay. People thought the league was too black.”
The NBA needed a visionary like David Stern to survive, and under him, it thrived.
With the help of some transcendent superstars – namely Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan – who captured the attention of America and beyond, the NBA exploded in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. Things have continued to go well for the Association as it is was the fourth-highest grossing sports league in the world in 2018, collecting $4.8 billion in revenue.
“With all due respect to Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, we would not have the NBA that we have today without his genius,” Golden State president Rick Welts, who worked for Stern in the league office from 1982 to 1999, told Time. “We see the results today and assume that the NBA was always like this, which of course it wasn’t.”
It’s not about the money, though. The financials are merely a sign of the ultimate success: spreading the sport and turning basketball into a truly international game. The prominence hoops hold throughout the world now compared to before Stern came to power cannot be compared. It can be seen in roster makeups in the NBA and outcomes in international competitions. Other countries are slowly catching up to the United States, and the top league in the world is littered with foreigners. Every year, basketball is becoming more and more of a global game, and the rousing success of the NBA in the last few decades is a major factor.
But let’s not limit Stern’s impact to only the NBA. He oversaw the creation of the WNBA, which now roughly 20 years into its life is coming into its own, gaining popularity and building more stability for itself and its teams. The WNBA has inspired thousands of young girls to pick up a basketball and otherwise do whatever it is they believe in, and that’s an incredible thing that was allowed through Stern’s achievements.
Stern had his enemies. He had a notorious relationship with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whom the commissioner fined 20 times for around $1.9 million, but the owner had positive words about Stern.
“David had a global vision that recognized that technology would make the world a smaller place and the NBA was better suited to reach every continent than any other sport,” Cuban said to Time. “Some executives only have vision, David knew how to execute on that vision. What made it ever more amazing was that he never wavered no matter what other struggles the league had to address. He took them on, took total responsibility, resolved them as best he could and always kept moving the NBA forward.
“All that said, what I liked best about David is that we could have knock down drag out arguments about anything and still have respect for each other and still be friends. I really loved the man and learned so much from him. It’s a sad day.”
There are criticisms that can be, and have been, aimed at David Stern. But the incredible work he did for the sport of basketball should never be forgotten, and his name will go down as one of the greatest game growers any athletics have ever seen.