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N.B.A. Superstars, Growth and Lockouts: The David Stern Years

David Joel Stern was born in Manhattan on Sept. 22, 1942. It was the day after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and the Nazi march east through Europe was grinding to a halt outside Stalingrad. Closer to home, the Dodgers topped the Giants, 9-8, in extra innings at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.

The Knicks, the team Stern would root for as a boy, wouldn’t exist for another four years.

By the time Stern died on Wednesday, at the age of 77, basketball had become inexorably woven into the narratives of African-Americans and Jewish-Americans, of fans growing up in rural Indiana and in America’s cities. It had been exported to the farthest reaches of the globe and then back again; the N.B.A.’s most valuable player last year was a Greek born to Nigerian immigrants and its champion a Canadian team with contributors from three continents.

Basketball owes its ascendance to its players — to their dunks and their blocks, their 3-pointers and their air balls — but it also owes it to Stern, the son of a delicatessen owner. Stern’s nearly five-decade association with the N.B.A. drove it from a sleepy league to one with nearly unmatched global and cultural might.

Stern had many detractors, especially later in his tenure as commissioner, but his influence is clear. The story of the N.B.A. is the story of David Stern’s life.

Upon graduating from Columbia Law School in 1966, Stern joined Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, which was then — and still is — the N.B.A.’s law firm. He first garnered public attention for his work on the Oscar Robertson antitrust case in 1976, which resulted in both the creation of free agency and the transfer of four teams from the upstart American Basketball Association to the N.B.A.

As executive vice president of the N.B.A. in 1983, he led the league in agreeing to revenue sharing — the players would get 53 percent of gross revenue — and a salary cap. Aligning the incentives for players and owners to work together to increase revenue became the economic foundation of today’s N.B.A., and ushered in 15 years of relative labor peace.

In the early years, players seemed not to view Stern as an antagonist, and respected his work on behalf of the league.

When Stern was appointed to succeed Larry O’Brien as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, the N.B.A. wasn’t in great shape. Stern’s big solution to the N.B.A.’s financial and reputational problems was to relentlessly market star players more than the teams. The rivalry of the 1960s and early 1980s between the Celtics and Lakers ultimately became the rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Stern benefited greatly from a historic convergence of great players. Bird and Johnson were already stars, and Stern’s first draft as commissioner saw Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton all chosen. Though Jordan was selected third, some were already envisioning greatness for him.

Few could have seen, however, how Jordan’s effortless style, boundless athleticism and vicious competitiveness — not to mention his and Nike’s marketing savvy — would captivate the public.

The 1985 draft would add to the rich talent pool, as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars were all chosen. The players who would lead the league toward the new millennium had arrived.

In 1980, The Los Angeles Times reported that cocaine use was widespread in the N.B.A. It was a problem that repeatedly plagued the league.

In February 1986, Stern banned Micheal Ray Richardson, an All-Star guard for the Nets, from the N.B.A. for life after three positive drug tests. Later that year, Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose just two days after being selected by the Celtics with the second pick of the draft.

The next year three Suns players, and two former players, were charged as part of a wide-ranging investigation into cocaine trafficking. But the case eventually fell apart and nobody went to trial.

Upon becoming commissioner, Stern immediately set out to increase the N.B.A.’s international presence. Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis and other Europeans debuted in 1989, a trickle of foreign players that would soon become a flood, in part because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and along with it the Eastern Bloc’s state-sponsored sports model.

Overseas exhibition tours increased in frequency, and in 1990 the league held its first regular season game abroad, in Japan.

“David will never be happy until he’s able to walk down the street in Peking and see on every kid’s head an N.B.A. cap,” said Pat Williams, the general manager of the Orlando Magic, in 1990. “And don’t think he won’t do it.”

Magic Johnson suddenly retired before the 1991-92 season, announcing he had received a diagnosis of H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. But as major symptoms failed to manifest, Johnson decided he wanted to play again. Because All-Star ballots needed to be printed well in advance, he was the leading vote-getter that season. He asked Stern if he could play in the game in Orlando, and Stern said yes.

Stern campaigned to make it happen, having doctors visit each team to educate players on the disease and telling wary owners they could be subject to a lawsuit if they barred Johnson from playing.

After starting lineups were announced in Orlando, each member of the East team walked over to Johnson and hugged him. He scored 25 points, leading the West to a 40-point victory, and was named the game’s most valuable player.

Nothing catapulted the N.B.A. to world attention like the 1992 Dream Team, the first group of basketball professionals to compete at the Olympics. The United States brought 11 future Hall of Famers (and Christian Laettner) to the Barcelona Games, where they won by an average of 44 points and didn’t call a single timeout. The stories about that team — like the vicious practices in Monte Carlo where Jordan and Johnson would go at each other — have become basketball folklore.

Usually the visionary, Stern didn’t see this coming. The United States voted against allowing professionals to play in the Olympics. “We said to FIBA that we weren’t gung ho to play in the Olympics, but we would try to be good soldiers to support basketball,” Stern told GQ Magazine.

After the decline of Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics, and a brief interlude by Detroit’s Bad Boys, the N.B.A. belonged to Jordan. His Bulls won three straight championships and look primed for more, and then the unthinkable happened: Jordan retired from basketball in 1993, at age 30.

Jordan, tired of the toil of being a superstar, had publicly contemplated retirement before, but he ultimately made the decision two months after the murder of his father.

“Five years down the road, if the urge comes back, if the Bulls will have me, if David Stern lets me back in the league, I may come back,” he said in announcing his retirement.

The wait would be less than two years. After playing minor league baseball for a season, the pull of basketball lured Jordan back. He retired for a second time in 1998, after winning three more championships with the Bulls, then came back to play for the Washington Wizards from 2001-03.

The good feelings from the 1983 collective bargaining agreement could only last so long. Disputes in 1995 and 1996 were a prelude for what was to come: The owners locking the players out for seven months in 1998 and 1999, with an abbreviated 50-game schedule finally played.

It ended with a win for the owners, who established the first maximum salary limit in American pro sports, largely because of Stern’s tactics. “You’ve got to give David Stern a lot of credit,” said Will Perdue in an oral history of the lockout. “He did a good job of dividing players, dividing agents, and dividing players from agents. Players didn’t know who to believe.”

But it came at a cost. Fan interest in the game plummeted, and the early-to-mid 2000s were down years for the N.B.A. before LeBron James and a new generation of stars revitalized the league.

The most famous brawl in N.B.A. history started routinely enough. With 45.9 seconds remaining in an early-season game between the Pistons and the Pacers at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Detroit’s arena, Ben Wallace and Ron Artest got into an altercation following a heavy foul. Artest went to lie down on the scorer’s table while the referees huddled to discuss punishment when a fan hit Artest in the chest with a cup of Diet Coke.

Artest charged into the stands and mistakenly grabbed at a different fan, and his teammate Stephen Jackson joined him. Brawls began in the stands and fans ran onto the court. Jermaine O’Neal slipped on the floor while unleashing a wild haymaker.

Players were suspended for a total of 146 games, including 86 for Artest.

In an echo of 20 years before, some news media commenters and white fans had begun to see the league, through racist eyes, as too black. They groused that players had corn rows and diamond studs in their ears, and wore baggy clothes. After the Pistons-Pacers brawl in 2004, they said the players were out of control. Allen Iverson received as much attention for his off-court style as for his on-court transcendence.

In response, before the 2005 season, Stern unveiled a dress code that required players to wear business casual clothing at team and league events. The racial subtext was glaring, especially when people like Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said the quiet part out loud:

“I think it’s important that the players take their end of it, get out of the prison garb and the thuggery aspect of basketball that has come along with hip-hop music in the last seven or eight years.”

In an interview with ESPN, Stern defended the implementation of the dress code and said it didn’t bother him when he was called racist:

Race is always an issue, and that’s just the way it is. And the N.B.A. has always been on the edge of discussions of race. At every collective bargaining negotiation, I was accused of having a plantation mentality.

The worst on-court scandal in Stern’s tenure kicked off on July 20, 2007, when The New York Post reported that an unnamed N.B.A. referee was under investigation for betting on basketball games he officiated. A month later, the referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to two felony charges, and admitted to passing information to bookies.

Stern called it the “worst situation that I have ever experienced,” but insisted it was an isolated incident, while over the years Donaghy has said fellow referees and the league itself were complicit in improperly influencing the outcome of games. A decade later, debate still rages as to whether Donaghy was the only rogue referee or the N.B.A. had missed or ignored more evidence of misconduct.

When the Sonics owner Howard Schultz couldn’t get as much public financing as he wanted for a new arena in Seattle, he sold the team to Clay Bennett and a group from Oklahoma City in 2006. The buyers had recently helped the Hornets temporarily relocate from New Orleans to Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina. So while the new Sonics owners said all the right things about respecting Seattle, it was clear their eventual plan was to move the team to Oklahoma.

After settling a protracted court battle, Bennett did just that in 2008, leaving Seattle without an N.B.A. team after 41 seasons. Stern’s lack of effort to prevent the move — and his years of saber-rattling in an effort to get Seattle to pay for a new Sonics arena — left him persona non grata in Seattle.

Thirteen years after the 1998 lockout, the owners did it again. Claiming a majority of teams were losing money, the owners demanded more of the revenue pot, and eventually got it, winning an increase in their share from 43 percent to 50 percent. So what if they had to skip 16 regular season games to achieve it?

Unlike the 1998 lockout, the 2011 version didn’t put a damper on the N.B.A.’s popularity. Fans wanted to watch the Heat superteam, the talented Lakers, Celtics and Bulls, and the upstart Thunder.

Stern retired in 2014 after 30 years, turning the job over to his longtime deputy, Adam Silver. In his first eight months Silver banned Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, for making racist remarks, and signed a landmark $24 billion television deal.

The N.B.A. is now firmly Silver’s league.