David Stern spent 30 years as the NBA’s longest-serving commissioner. (AP: Matt Sayles, file)
David Stern, the basketball-loving lawyer who took America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) around the world during 30 years as its longest-serving commissioner and oversaw its growth into a global powerhouse, has died aged 77.
- Stern transformed the NBA from a struggling domestic league into a $US5 billion a year global sporting industry
- He took over as commissioner in 1984 before leaving the position in 2014
- NBA superstar Magic Johnson credited Stern with taking the NBA worldwide
Stern suffered a brain haemorrhage on December 12 and underwent emergency surgery. The league said he died on Wednesday with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside.
Taking over as the US professional basketball league’s fourth commissioner in 1984, Stern transformed the NBA from a domestic league that fought for a foothold in the US sports industry dominated by Major League Baseball and the National Football League into a $US5 billion ($7.13 billion) a year industry.
By the time he left his position in 2014 he had overseen NBA basketball’s rise to arguably the world’s most popular sport after soccer.
Only a few years before Stern took charge of the league, the NBA couldn’t even get its championship round on live network TV.
“Because of David, the NBA is a truly global brand — making him not only one of the greatest sports commissioners of all time, but also one of the most influential business leaders of his generation,” said Adam Silver, who followed Stern as commissioner.
“Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration.”
Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan was one of the NBA superstars who helped Stern rocket the game to worldwide popularity. (AP Photo: Charles Bennett, file)
Superstars spark surge in popularity
During Stern’s three-decade run at the helm of the NBA he turned countless ballplayers into celebrities who were known around the globe by one name: such as Magic, Michael, Kobe and LeBron.
In the 1980s the NBA’s popularity would quickly surge thanks to the rebirth of the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry behind Earvin Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by the entrance of Michael Jordan just a few months after Stern became commissioner.
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.
David Stern (second from left) backed Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson’s (second from right) return to the NBA after his HIV diagnosis. (Reuters: Jim Ruymen jr)
The 2010 All-Star game drew more than 108,000 fans to Dallas Cowboys Stadium, a record to watch a basketball game.
“It was David Stern being a marketing genius who turned the league around. That’s why our brand is so strong,” said Johnson, who announced he was retiring because of HIV in 1991 but returned the following year at the All-Star Game with Stern’s backing.
“It was David Stern who took this league worldwide.”
Johnson was among the NBA greats who responded to the news of Stern’s passing on social media:
Advocate and opponent for players
Stern would say one of his greatest achievements was guiding a league of mostly black players, and one plagued by drug problems in the 1970s, to popularity with mainstream America.
He had a hand in nearly every initiative, from the drug testing program to the implementation of the salary cap to the creation of a dress code.
Stern was fiercely protective of his players and referees when he felt they were unfairly criticised.
He would publicly rebuke media outlets, even individual writers, if he felt they had taken cheap shots.
But the league’s former general counsel and executive vice-president of business and legal affairs was also a relentless negotiator against those same employees in collective bargaining.
His loyalty to his owners and commitment to getting them favourable deals led to his greatest failures — lockouts in 1998 and 2011 that were the only times the NBA lost games to work stoppages.
Stern oversaw the birth of seven new franchises and the creation of the WNBA and NBA Development League, now the G League, providing countless opportunities to pursue careers playing basketball in the US that previously weren’t available.
Despite the league becoming synonymous with the high-profile athletes of the modern era, Stern credited the sport of basketball for the league’s continual success.
“The game is what brought us here. It’s always about the game and everything else we do is about making the stage or the presentation of the game even stronger, and the game itself is in the best shape that it’s ever been in,” he said on the eve of the 2009-10 season, calling it “a new golden age for the NBA.”