David Stern, who died Wednesday at age 77, faced many crises as NBA commissioner.
A player brought guns into the locker room. A brawl between teams spilled into the stands and involved fans. A referee gambled on NBA games. Lockouts resulted the cancellation of regular-season games. Those situations revealed a commissioner resolute in protecting the league.
But Stern’s most humane, poignant act as commissioner came when he stood by Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson when Johnson announced he was HIV-positive on Nov. 7, 1991.
Nearly 30 years ago, most of the public didn’t have a clear understanding of AIDS and HIV. A diagnosis was perceived by many as a death sentence. Stern’s initial reaction upon learning Johnson’s condition was standard at the time. He thought Johnson was going to die.
“Everyone did,” Stern told amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, in 2016. “That was the nature of HIV/AIDS in this country at the time. I didn’t think about what next steps to take until I hung up.”
Johnson was one of the game’s most popular and marketable players who helped rescue the NBA in the 1980s.
Stern could have distanced himself and the league from Johnson.
He did the opposite. He embraced Johnson, figuratively and literally, and took heat for it. Stern hired Dr. David Rogers, one of the leaders in AIDS research and education, so he and the league could learn more.
“I learned things that I never thought I would have to know, such as the possibility of HIV passing through fluids, open sores, to get confident that we were proceeding in an intelligent way,” Stern said. “Somewhere along the line, we realized that this was an opportunity to educate the world and to calm down the fear that anyone with HIV should be treated like a leper.”
Johnson’s health was paramount to Stern, who told amfAR, “I remember I became more fascinated by Magic’s T-cell count than the score of any game that was being played.”
Johnson, who had decided to retire, was healthy in the months after his announcement and considered playing again. Fans voted for him to play in the 1992 All-Star Game.
That generated another concern. Players — even his friends and teammates — didn’t want to play with or against him, afraid they could contract the virus. Owners didn’t want Johnson to play, fearful for their players. Doctors began visiting teams and educating players. The league’s business partners also had concerns. It had the potential to become a financial and PR nightmare for the league.
“I work for what I believe is in the best interest of all the owners,” Stern told ESPN. “There are times when a particular owner or team has a different view. When events are fast-moving, I have to do what is best for the league. For the most part, the owners took our lead.”
Johnson played in that All-Star Game. He had 25 points, nine assists, five rebounds, two steals and earned MVP. He played for the U.S. Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but when he considered rejoining the NBA in 1992, opposing players still voiced concern. Johnson chose not to play because of the controversy. But by 1995, players, owners, trainers and executives were more educated. Johnson played 32 games and retired for good.
“I am going out on my own terms, something I couldn’t say when I aborted a comeback in 1992,” Johnson said at the time.
He left on his terms because of Stern. Stern cared deeply about the league, and that manifested itself in several ways. We often saw Stern the negotiator, marketer and salesman. He was also a humanitarian, and never was that more apparent than when he supported Magic Johnson.
“It confirmed to me the power of sports to educate and to change people’s minds on issues,” Stern told amfAR. “It was a huge, huge opportunity, and I think that Magic, with a little help from us, changed the debate on AIDS in this country and possibly around the world.”