ICON SERIES: DAVID STERN
Updated: Feb 5
This article was originally published on January 8th, 2020.
Just short of six years ago David Stern passed stewardship of the NBA onto his longtime deputy, Adam Silver, after overseeing a period of growth that turned the NBA into the international behemoth we see today.
A lot has happened in the league since Stern stepped down, including former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling being banned from the league for racist statements; to the Golden State Warriors winning three titles to LeBron James and other NBA stars making their voices known on social issues and calling shots as to where they want to play to women joining coaching staffs and front offices.
However, David Stern is who basketball fans around the world need to thank for reshaping the NBA by presiding over its three-decades-long growth boom.
The much-beloved commissioner passed away on New Year's Day at the age of 77. The direct result of a brain hemorrhage he suffered approximately three weeks prior.
Born in Manhattan, New York City, on September 22, 1942, son to a Jewish deli owner. He would grow up in Teaneck, New Jersey, often attending New York Knicks games with his dad.
He then graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in history and then would go on to attend Columbia Law School, receiving a J.D in 1966.
Stern's affiliation with the NBA began in the same year when he was hired by the prominent New York law firm Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, which represented the league.
Among the cases Stern worked on was a landmark antitrust lawsuit brought against the NBA by Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson, in 1970. Robertson was seeking to block the proposed merger between the NBA and the American Basketball Association while outlawing the so-called option clause, which tied players to their teams. The lawsuit would come to an end in 1976 with a settlement that enabled the NBA to expand by adding the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and New York Nets of the American Basketball Association, but only after allowing NBA players to become free agents for the first time.
In 1980, Stern was selected to become executive vice president of the NBA, before becoming the league's fourth commissioner in 1984.
When Stern took over as NBA commissioner in 1984, the league was at a crossroads. The NBA lagged behind the NFL and MLB in both revenue and broadcasting profile.
The NBA languished a distant third in popularity and was slipping into irrelevance, and at the time could barely pay its bills. The league only brought in less than $25 million annually from network revenue. Even finals games had been relegated to tape-delayed broadcasts, that would begin at 11:30 p.m. ET.
The NBA's image had been further damaged due to a report in The L.A. Times which claimed widespread drug use among players, estimating that 40 to 75 percent of its players used cocaine.
From day one Stern set out to redevelop the league's media and marketing partnerships.
Stern made the decision to change the league's marketing focus, by moving away from teams and towards the league's star players. The 1984 draft would see Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley join the league to add to the star power of Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) and Larry Bird. This new star power brought about a new era of flair and talent in the league.
To combat the league's dwindling viewership at the time Stern began offering NBA highlights, at cut-price rates, to broadcasters around the world. This included shipping VHS tapes to China's state-run broadcaster.
By the time Stern was looking to hand over control of the NBA in February 2014, more than 200 countries were broadcasting NBA games, in more than 40 languages.
Under Stern's leadership, the league's popularity skyrocketed. Adding seven new franchises, including two in Canada in 1995, the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies, and reached 30 teams in 2004 with the arrival of the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets).
As the league's brand popularity spread around the world team revenue's soared and saw a rapid increase in player salaries.
The average NBA team is now worth $1.9 billion. The New York Knicks lead the way, worth $4 billion by Forbes' count, up 11% from a year ago. The club is tied with the New York Yankees as the second-most-valuable US sports franchises after the Dallas Cowboys, which is worth $5 billion.
When Stern was appointed commissioner in 1984, the entire league's salary cap was $3.6 million. According to Basketball-Reference, the average NBA player's salary this season is $7.6 million, up from an average salary of almost $6.4 million in 2018-19. The league's median salary currently sits at $3.5 million.
In addition to developing the NBA Stern was an innovator and was a major driving force behind the creation of the WNBA, in 1996. Providing countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball. Furthermore, he would launch the NBA’s developmental league, known as the G League, in 2001.
One decision that proved Stern's effectiveness as a leader came in 1991, during his handling of Magic Johnson announcing that he was HIV positive.
During his announcement, Johnson also told the world he was retiring from professional basketball, and that could have been the end of his basketball career were it not for Stern, whose support managed to dispel much of the ignorance surrounding HIV and AIDS.
Despite his retirement, Johnson was among the leading vote-getters on fan ballots to play in the 1992 All-Star Game and he was eager to take part.
However, some of Johnson's fellow NBA players were apprehensive, fearing they might contract AIDS from sharing the floor with the HIV-infected Johnson. The easy decision for Stern would have been to rule Johnson ineligible since he wasn’t an active player.
Stern decided to read the medical literature, talk to experts, and dispatched doctors to NBA teams, some of whom were nervous that Johnson wanted to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, and in that summer’s Olympics. Stern helped enlighten owners, players, sponsors, and the world, about the defining public health crisis of that era. Finally, encouraging Johnson to play, in part to educate the world.
“When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand,” Magic wrote on Twitter after learning of Stern's death. “When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.”
Johnson not only played, but he was also the star. If some fans thought they’d see a terminally ill man on the court, Johnson shattered expectations, finishing with 25 points and nine assists, and was named the game’s MVP. A game some dreaded turned into a celebration.
Stern's development of the NBA into the global brand we see today may have made him beloved. However, there is one notable exception, the city of Seattle, where he is seen as largely responsible for allowing and maybe even pushing the SuperSonics to relocate to Oklahoma City, in 2008.
In Seattle, Stern is seen as the villain, as being the NBA Commissioner he had the ability to stop the team's relocation and find another solution for his friends in Oklahoma City. Especially since there has been precedent for the NBA to help in future relocation sagas, including in New Orleans and Sacramento.
Stern claimed that the city of Seattle refused to commit to working with the NBA or the team on public arena subsidies. Despite KeyArena receiving a $74.5 million renovation in the '90s, and the team being owned by Starbucks billionaire Howard Schultz.
Later as the Sacramento Kings spent a decade failing to get arena subsidies and there was a chance that the Kings would be sold to a Seattle-based group, Stern chose to bail the Kings out.
The SuperSonics are the last NBA team to be relocated. The saga remains important not just because it’s a memory of a time when Stern failed certain NBA fans. It was important because it totally changed how the NBA and its cities dealt with each other, for better or worse.
Life After the NBA
After retiring from the NBA three decades to the day after accepting the Commissioner position, Stern would continue to affect the sports world.
He would choose to involve himself with multiple sports technology startups. He would focus on technologies that would benefit the future of how to televise the game of basketball, using technology such as streaming, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence. Furthermore, he has been researching technologies that could improve player health and potentially extend their careers. All of these developments could be priceless for the NBA moving forward.