“I think he is the greatest person in NBA history,” Yao Ming, the former star Houston Rockets center from China, said when David Stern retired. LeBron James shared a similar thought concerning the former commissioner. “Thank you for your commitment to the beautiful game of basketball that has changed so many young adult/kids lives, and more importantly, your vision to make our game become WORLDWIDE was a vision only you could make happen!” To say he accomplished a lot wouldn’t do him justice. Please, continue reading to learn about the man who took a shot on the NBA and made it everything it is today.
A Manhattan Native
For those who aren’t aware, David Stern was born to a Jewish family in Manhattan, New York City. The youngster became a New York Knicks fan and would attend games at Madison Square Garden with his father, William Stern.
Shockingly, the future commissioner would only play basketball briefly in his adult years thanks to sustaining a severe knee injury while playing in a New York Lawyers League contest. He attended Rutgers University after high school before transitioning to Columbia University.
Stern The Law Student
After graduating from Rutgers as a member of Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity in 1963 with a B.A. in history, Stern took his talents to law school at Columbia University. He earned a J.D. in 1966 and would go on to join a law firm that represented the NBA.
While there, he was the lead attorney for the case of Robertson vs National Basketball Association, the massive lawsuit that legend Oscar Robertson brought against the league. It was Stern who helped this case settle and bring forth the NBA/ABA merger, a pivotal point in the NBA’s history. Stern also help establish allowing players to become free agents for the first time.
Becoming The Man
After doing such an incredible job in his first position in the NBA, Larry O’Brien quickly promoted Stern to the role of Executive Vice President for Business and Legal Affairs. It was in that role he became in charge of marketing, and where his special talent blossomed.
Under Stern’s direction, he brought forth drug testing and a team salary cap. The latter helped eliminate the perception that the NBA had a narcotics issue. Stern did such an immaculate job, on February 1, 1984, he succeeded O’Brien and became the Commissioner.
A New Era
Ironically, the year Stern became the commissioner would be the same year game-changing stars like Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Michael Jordan would enter the league. Jordan would prove to have the most tremendous value for all that Stern would soon accomplish thanks to his electric play that appealed to the world.
Jordan, of course, received a shoe deal with Nike, and that was the ball to got things rolling, bringing greater national attention to the NBA.
A Master Of Marketing
Stern employed a multitude of advanced marketing tactics early on in his tenure as the NBA commissioner. For example, in his first year, he offered the Argentina Channel 9 the rights to show weekly NBA highlights for $2000 a year.
In 1987, Stern began shipping VHS tapes from his office to China’s state-run television station so that others beyond North America could enjoy the sport. Those were only two of the clever strategies that you could look at as him planting seeds that would soon become giant Redwoods.
Implementing The Draft Lottery
The first draft Stern would oversee as the new commissioner was a big one and everyone knew it. With Jordan, Barkley, and Stockton all entering the league, teams began purposely trying to lose games so they could get a top spot in the drafting order.
With Stern gaining knowledge of these teams trying to fail, he was quick to get rid of the problem. The system he inherited gave picks based on record while the worst two teams would flip a coin for the number one choice. His response to that was placing a lottery for non-playoff teams which gave them all an equal shot at the number one player.
Increases Viewership Through NBC
Sadly, in the ’80s, fans would have to watch the NBA Finals on tape delay. When the ’90s came around, and total viewership numbers of the whole series were looked at, the NBA Finals were comparable to the Super Bowl.
Stern, the clever man that he was, maximized this by making NBC the first successful television partner. That would be the case for 12 years before he brought the NBA to ABC, ESPN, and Turner in 2002. If it weren’t for Stern, the NBA wouldn’t be the TV juggernaut it is today.
Bringing About The Dream Team
There was a period when NBA stars wouldn’t compete in the Olympics, as that duty fell on the rising stars of college. Before 1992, NBA players weren’t allowed to step foot on an Olympic floor, but after an embarrassing loss to the Soviet Union in 1988, things would change.
It was David Stern who assisted in assembling the perennial players who would later become the Dream Team. The plan was a success as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and the rest went on to secure the gold for America. Their heightened success also helped intice worldwide interest in the NBA.
The Effects Of The Salary Cap
Implementing the salary cap might be one of Stern’s greatest steps as the commissioner. Think about this, before 1984, teams were able to spend however much they wanted on a player. That meant teams in larger markets with more money could get whoever they wanted, while smaller, less profitable teams watched from a distance.
This tactic made it a level playing field and created a competitive balance. The salary cap also made a system where players and owners became “partners” as they shared the same revenue essentially. The first mandated cap was $3.6 million.
What Drug Testing Meant For The NBA
Before putting in place drug testing, the NBA had an image no one would be proud of, thanks to a report from The Los Angeles Times. “The league incurred further damage to its image after a report in The Los Angeles Times in August 1980 estimated that 40 to 75 percent of its players used [a white substance]. In the ensuing 1980-81 season, 16 of 23 teams reportedly lost money.”
Stern didn’t want that to be what people knew the NBA to be, so he put testing in action. The NBA would effectively become the first major sports league in North America to have it.
The New Dress Code
Once the NBA made it to the various different networks in 2002, viewers began to see how players would dress as the camera shot them walking through the tunnel. With hip-hop being a major influence on many of the stars, many of them would dress in such a manner (baggy clothes, sunglasses, jerseys, etc…).
Ahead of the 2005-06 season, Stern approved the league’s decision to change the dress code policy. They banned chains, sleeveless shirts, shorts and many more things that superstar Allen Iverson wasn’t fond of. “They’re targeting guys who dress like me, guys who dress hip-hop … I think they went way overboard,” Iverson said.
Stern Adds More Teams To The League
Eleven years after taking the job, Stern would make another move that would prove to be vital in increasing awareness and the overall popularity of the league. In 1995, Stern expanded the NBA to Canada by introducing the future 2019 NBA champions, Toronto Raptors.
He didn’t stop there, as the former commissioner also brought about the Timberwolves, Heat, Magic, Hornets, Bobcats and the then Vancouver Grizzlies (now Memphis). By 2004 the NBA grew to 30 teams from 10.
Stern Gets Rid Of Crucial Rule
Before 2004, defensive players were able to put their hands on the ball-handler and not receive a foul. This allowed bigger and stronger players to play through contact easier, while smaller athletes had a tougher time.
Scoring in the NBA began trending down in the ’80s and ’90s, so Stern wanted to fix that. He tried many things but the one that worked most was eliminating hand-checking. This notion allowed the shorter players to move around freely. Sure enough, the next two MVP’s went to Steve Nash, a guard under 6’6″. Only two players in history ever won the award being shorter than that before him. The rule started a shift from size-based basketball to skill-based basketball.
Stern Gives Out The Longest Suspension Ever
Its something the NBA wants to move past and for the most part, they have. The Malice at the Palace was the single-worst thing to happen to the league. The Pistons and the Pacers lost all control and it forced Stern to lay down the law.
After Ron Artest broke free into the stands and began swinging on fans, Stern acted fast with what his punishment would be. He issued out a season-long suspension, which was the longest in history.
Stern’s Global Impact Is Undeniable
Probably one of the most lasting impacts Stern contributed was making the NBA a global game, but specifically, leading the NBA into the Chinese market. Shipping the VHS tapes was only the first step for him, as the NBA became the first league to open an office in China (and the first to play a game there).
Now, there are dozens of offices and around 800 million people in China watch the NBA annually. The value of bridging the gap between America and China is more than likely worth billions.
There Is No WNBA Without Stern
Stern was a visionary plain and simple. He suggested that women be apart of the 1996 Olympics in basketball and that was how the WNBA began to gain traction. Val Ackerman was the first WNBA president who helped launch the league in 1997 alongside Stern.
“Without his vision and engagement, the league wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Ackerman told ESPN after Stern retired in 2014. “He was the mastermind, and the WNBA was really in line with his vision about how sports and society are intertwined.”
Stern Made The NBA SO MUCH MONEY
After decades of making decisions that would only benefit the NBA and having only a few minor hiccups along the way, Stern would end up leaving the league in sensational shape. His career is the epitome of leaving something better off than how you received it.
Jeff Zilgitt of USA Today Sports wrote, “Stern leaves the NBA in fantastic shape: a profitable business generating more than $5.5 billion annually; average player salary of more than $4 million; rising franchise valuations; millions of fans worldwide; and a $1-billion-a-year TV rights deal [that since increased].” If you would have told Stern that would be his doing when he first signed on, he wouldn’t have believed you.
He Retired In 2014
All good things must come to an end and that was the case for Stern as the NBA’s commissioner. Stern would officially give his title to Adam Silver on January 31, 2014, making his tenure last for exactly three decades.
That makes him the longest-running commissioner the league ever had and in the history of American sports. Even after retiring he held the position of commissioner emeritus. Many can say he chose the right person to succeed him, as Silver came into the role and immediately made an impact by banning the former NBA owner, Donald Sterling as his first decision.
A Fatal Emergency
On December 12, 2019, Stern shocked the NBA world when word surfaced that he suffered a brain hemorrhage. The former commissioner was in critical condition and many didn’t know the severity of the case.
“NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage earlier today for which he underwent emergency surgery,” the league said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with David and his family.” It was a hectic time for the NBA family, who keep close.
The Passing Of David Stern
“RIP Mr. David Stern. The best commissioner to ever do it,” Shaquille O’Neal tweeted on January 1, 2020. The passing of the longest-running commissioner shocked many, not only in the sports community but in the world at large.
He passed away at 77 from a brain hemorrhage that forced him into critical condition not long before. He’s survived by his two sons Eric and Andrew and his wife, Dianne. The NBA will never forget all that he did.