David Stern had basketball as a passion and law as a profession, one he figured he could return to if a job at the NBA didn’t work out.
He never did. Instead he went to Europe, Asia and plenty of other places around the world, bringing with him a league that was previously an afterthought in the U.S. and turning it into a global powerhouse.
Stern, who spent 30 years as the NBA’s longest-serving commissioner and one of the best in sports history, died Wednesday.
The 77-year-old suffered a brain hemorrhage on December 12 and underwent emergency surgery. He died with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside. Stern had been involved with the NBA for nearly two decades before he became its fourth commissioner in 1984.
By the time he left his position in 2014 a league that fought for a foothold before him had grown to a more than $US5 billion ($A7.1 billion) a year industry. “Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,”
Hall of Famer Michael Jordan said. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.” Stern would often say one of his greatest achievements was guiding a league of mostly black players that was plagued by drug problems in the 1970s to popularity with mainstream America. He had a hand in nearly every initiative to do that, from the drug testing program, to the implementation of the salary cap, to the creation of a dress code.
During Stern’s tenure countless players transformed into celebrities who were known around the globe by one name: Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron, to name just a few. He oversaw the birth of seven new franchises and the creation of the WNBA and NBA Development League, providing countless opportunities to pursue careers playing basketball in the United States that previously weren’t available.
“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,” said former Celtics star Larry Bird. Not bad for a guy who once thought his job might be a temporary one. Stern had been the league’s outside counsel from 1966 to 1978 and spent two years as the NBA’s general counsel, figuring he could always go back to his legal career if he found things weren’t working out. Instead, after serving as the NBA’s executive vice president of business and legal affairs from 1980-84, he replaced Larry O’Brien as commissioner.
Overlooked and ignored only a few years earlier, when it couldn’t even get its championship round on live network TV, the NBA saw its popularity quickly surge thanks to the rebirth of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry behind Magic Johnson and Bird, followed by the entrance of Jordan just a few months after Stern became commissioner. Stern looked internationally soon after becoming commissioner and the globalisation of the game got an enormous boost in 1992, when Jordan, Johnson and Bird played on the U.S. Olympic Dream Team that would bring the sport a new burst of popularity while storming to the gold medal in Barcelona.
Under Stern, the NBA would play nearly 150 international games and be televised in more than 200 countries and territories, and in more than 40 languages, and the NBA Finals and All-Star weekend would grow into international spectacles. Stern was fiercely protective of his players but he was also a relentless negotiator against those same employees in collective bargaining. His loyalty to team owners led to his greatest failures, lockouts in 1998 and 2011 – the only times the NBA lost games to work stoppages.