David Stern (1942-2020)

Visionary who made 'the game' a truly global name

Former NBA commissioner is credited with the exponential growth of basketball league

NEW YORK • David Stern had basketball as a passion and law as a profession, one he figured he could return to if a job at the National Basketball Association (NBA) did not 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 United States and turning it into a global powerhouse.

Stern, who spent 30 years as the NBA's longest-serving commissioner, died on Wednesday at the age of 77.

The American suffered a brain haemorrhage on Dec 12 and underwent emergency surgery. The NBA said he died with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside.

"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 had been involved with the NBA for nearly two decades before he became its fourth commissioner on Feb 1, 1984.

In that year, league revenues were US$165 million (S$222.4 million) a year and average player salaries were US$290,000.

By the time he left his position in 2014, a league that fought for a foothold before him had grown to a more than US$5 billion-a-year industry and average salaries were US$5.7 million.

"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 succeeded Stern as commissioner.

NBA commissioner David Stern chatting with Michael Jordan, winner of the Most Valuable Player award in 1996. The Chicago Bulls legend was among the former and current players who paid tribute to Stern, who died on Wednesday aged 77.
NBA commissioner David Stern chatting with Michael Jordan, winner of the Most Valuable Player award in 1996. The Chicago Bulls legend was among the former and current players who paid tribute to Stern, who died on Wednesday aged 77. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The tributes

David Stern was such a history maker. When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand. When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.

MAGIC JOHNSON, five-time NBA champion and LA Lakers great.

When you think of all that he accomplished worldwide on behalf of thousands of players, so many fans, all of the jobs he created for team and arena employees and all of the people that benefited from the many layers of growth in the sport and industry that David spearheaded and then passed on to others, there is no doubt Commissioner Stern lifted the NBA to new heights.

LARRY BIRD, the Boston Celtics legend and Hall of Famer.

The game lost a leader today.

CHRIS PAUL, Oklahoma City guard and president of the National Basketball Players Association.

We lost a great visionary. Him and Dr James Naismith are the two most important people for the game of basketball. Dr Naismith because he invented the game and David for his vision, his vision to make this game global.

LEBRON JAMES, Lakers forward.

He means so much to the game. He made this game global. He gave to guys like me, like Luka (Doncic), Toni Kukoc, we can go on and on, Pau Gasol, all these international players, he gave us guys a chance. The game is going to miss him.

GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO, Milwaukee Bucks and Greece forward.

"Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David's vision, generosity and inspiration."

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, from the drug testing programme, to the implementation of the salary cap, to the creation of a dress code.

But for Stern, it was always about "the game".

"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".

One that was largely created by Stern during a three-decade run that turned countless players into celebrities who were known around the globe by one name: Magic, Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, just to name a few.

He also oversaw the birth of seven new franchises and the creation of the women's NBA and NBA Development League, now the G League, providing countless opportunities to pursue careers playing basketball in America that previously were not available.

Overlooked and ignored only a few years before he became commissioner, the NBA saw its popularity quickly surge thanks to the rebirth of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by the entrance of Michael Jordan.

Previously, it could not even get its championship round on live network TV.

But 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.

The NBA now has annual revenues of US$8 billion, Forbes magazine estimated last February, and the average player earning an annual US$7 million salary.

The league featured 108 players born outside the United States from 38 countries when the latest season tipped off last October. There were only 24 international players on opening night in 1994.

Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo from Greece is the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player. Slovenian Luka Doncic was last year's NBA Rookie of the Year. Frenchman Rudy Gobert was last season's NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Cameroon's Pascal Siakam was the NBA's Most Improved Player.

Asked what his greatest accomplishment was in 2014 at his final news conference as commissioner, Stern could not find an answer.

"I don't have a good answer for that question," he said.

"If you just look to what the modern NBA has become, my greatest accomplishment was in hiring the now 1,200 people that used to be 24 that have taken the league to where it is and... where it's going, which is higher yet."


From stem to Stern: Key events in his career


David Stern's implementation of the first salary cap in the history of American sports not only helped to limit the spending power of bigger teams, but also created a revenue-sharing system where owners and players were effectively partners in the success or failure of the National Basketball Association (NBA).


He was officially named commissioner on Feb 1. At that time, the league was struggling to market its two biggest stars in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, but Stern helped to turn the NBA into a star-driven league through his marketing proficiency.


The system he inherited awarded draft picks based on record, with the two worst teams flipping a coin for the No. 1 overall pick. Stern changed that by coming up with a lottery that gave every non-play-off team an equal chance at the top pick.


Stern knew he had to maximise the NBA's TV presence. By the 1990s, the NBA Finals, when viewed as a whole series, had viewership numbers comparable to the Super Bowl.


NBA players were not allowed at the Olympics before 1992. But Stern helped to build the Dream Team, a group of 11 NBA All-Stars as he sought to push the sport into the global market.


He led the NBA through a six-month lockout in the 1998-99 season. The settlement eventually created the rookie salary scale, the max contract and the mid-level exception.


As the then-New Orleans Hornets' interim owner, he vetoed Chris Paul's deal to the Los Angeles Lakers. The move was hailed as a league-wide rebuttal to player empowerment.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 03, 2020, with the headline 'Visionary who made 'the game' a truly global name'. Subscribe