David Stern, who spent 30 years as NBA commissioner and oversaw its growth into a global power, died on New Year’s Day. He was 77.
The league said its longest-serving commissioner died with his family by his side. He suffered a brain hemorrhage on 12 December and underwent emergency surgery.
“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.”
Stern was involved with the NBA for nearly two decades before he became its fourth commissioner on 1 February 1984. By the time he left in 2014, a league that once struggled had grown into a more than $5bn-a-year industry and perhaps the world’s most popular sport after soccer.
Thriving on debate in the boardroom and good games in the arena, Stern would 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, including drug testing, the salary cap and implementation of a dress code. He also helped the league become televised in more than 200 countries and territories, and in more than 40 languages. But for Stern, it was always about “the game”.
“The game is what brought us here,” he said in 2009. “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.”
Stern’s three-decade run saw countless ballplayers become celebrities known around the globe by one name: Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron. He oversaw seven new franchises and the creation of the WNBA and the NBA Development League, now the G League.
In a statement on Wednesday, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the women’s league would be “forever grateful” for Stern’s “exemplary leadership and vision that led to the founding of our league.
“His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball. He will be missed.”
David Joel Stern was born on 22 September 1942, in New York, and graduated from Rutgers University and Columbia Law School. He was NBA outside counsel from 1966 to 1978 and then spent two years as general counsel. After being executive vice-president of business and legal affairs from 1980 to 1984, he replaced Larry O’Brien as commissioner.
Only a few years earlier, the NBA couldn’t get its championship round on live network TV. But its popularity surged thanks to the rebirth of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by the entrance of Michael Jordan.
Under Stern, the NBA played nearly 150 international games and the NBA Finals and All-Star weekend grew into international spectacles. The 2010 All-Star game drew more than 108,000 fans to Dallas Cowboys Stadium, a record.
“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.”
Stern was fiercely protective of his players and referees when he felt they were unfairly criticized, such as when members of the Indiana Pacers brawled with Detroit fans in 2004, or when an FBI investigation in 2007 found Tim Donaghy had bet on games he officiated, throwing the refereeing department into turmoil. His voice rising and spit flying, Stern would publicly rebuke media outlets, even individual writers, if he felt they had taken cheap shots.
But he was also a relentless negotiator against those same employees in collective bargaining, and his loyalty to team owners led to his greatest failures, lockouts in 1998 and 2011 that were the only times the NBA lost games to work stoppages. Though he had passed off the heavy lifting to Silver by 2011, it was Stern who faced the greatest criticism, as well as the damage to a legacy that was otherwise rarely tarnished.
When he left office, Stern said he felt the time was right, confident he had groomed a worthy successor in Silver, who had worked at the league for more than two decades.
Stern stayed busy, taking trips overseas on the league’s behalf, doing public speaking and consulting various companies. He was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.