David Stern, who in his 30 year run as NBA commissioner transformed the game from a league in jeopardy of failing into a multibillion dollar industry thriving across the U.S and beyond into the international markets, died at the age of 77 on Wednesday after suffering from a brain hemorrhage back in December. Those that knew Stern would describe him as caring but tough, intimidating but a visionary, and a true icon. But Stern had quite the project ahead of him when it came to fixing the NBA.
Prior to Stern taking office, the NBA was in its darkest times during the 1970’s and early 80’s. The league was battling the serious drug problem running ramped throughout the league as and estimated 40-75% of the players were using cocaine according to and LA Times article. Stern, before becoming the commissioner, implemented mandatory drug testing, quickly fixing the drug use. But that was just one glaring issue as in the 1980-81 season, 16 of the 23 franchise were losing money. NBA Finals games were on taped delay, you couldn’t even watch the biggest NBA games of the year live on television. You had to wait until 11:30 pm eastern time to see the game which had already been over for hours.
By the time Stern took office as NBA commissioner on February 1st, 1984, there was so much that needed to change to turn the league around. Stern immediately went to work on changing the way the league was perceived.
While Stern had an intimidating demeanor, he also possessed a brilliant marketing vision instinct, always pressing the right button to move the NBA in the right direction. He understood that the league needed to be “cleaned up” so that it could be marketable to sponsors, television networks, and ultimately taken to the next level. Stern became the first commissioner to market the athlete and the name on the back of the jersey as opposed to the other sports who solely marketed the name on the front of the jerseys. Think about the brand that is Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley, and the biggest, Jordan. While all were naturally gifted and entertaining, the NBA and Stern’s willingness to market the individual allowed them to grow brands beyond the game of basketball. He understood that the appeal to the sport was indeed the athletes, and MJ, Magic and Bird proved him right.
Today’s NBA players are also reaping the benefits of Stern’s vision to market the player over the team as sponsorship money, shoe deals, tv commercials, are all available to the athletes, giving them wealth beyond the money they can make on the hardwood. Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry and James Harden are all house hold names across the world in China thanks to their shoe deals and the marketing of the game beyond the US borders, a vision Stern had many years ago.
Unlike his counter parts, Stern also focused his attention on not only growing the game domestically but also internationally. The single most important event to lead to the NBA becoming an international sport was the 1992 Olympics. For the first time the USA sent “The Dream Team” a group of the very best talent the NBA had to offer over to Greece to compete and dominate the Olympic Games, all while spreading their game to a whole new demographic, taking the NBA’s popularity to new heights.
As a result, we see the benefits of Stern’s vision as of opening night this season, 108 players from 38 different countries, were on an active roster. These are not some marginal NBA talent just sitting on the end of the bench either, some of the very best players the NBA has to offer are foreign born. Giannis Antetokounmpo fro Greece, is the reigning MVP. Luka Doncic, born in Slovenia, is a 20 year old phenom set to run the league for years to come.
As for the finances of the game, the growth from the time Stern took office, til today has been remarkable. In the early days of his leadership of the league, there were real fears that the league would collapse and end rather quickly. Under Stern’s guidance and overview the NBA is now a $5 billion company. The television revenue increased more than 40 times since he took control, now passing the billions dollar threshold. As of Stern’s departure, the NBA televises NBA games in more than 200 countries, and in 40 languages.
The value for NBA franchises has sky rocketed since Stern took over. Back in 1985, the Chicago Bulls, with young MJ on the roster, sold for $16 million. Shortly after Stern’s retirement in 2014, the Los Angeles Clippers, bottom feeders for years, sold for $2 billion. As the value of the franchises rose, so did the salaries of the players.
“When I entered the league in 1984, which was the commissioners first year, the average salary was $250,000. It’s almost $9 million. And he is largely responsible for that.”- Charles Barkley said on Inside The NBA
The league figuratively and literally as seven franchises were introduced during Stern’s 30 year tenure. The Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Bobcats, all were introduced into the league under Stern’s watch. There were even two franchises created in Canada the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzles, who now reside in Memphis.
Stern’s impact on basketball is felt beyond the NBA game. He also innovated the WNBA in 1997, which has grown to new heights of popularity today, and implemented the NBA development league in 2001, currently known as the G League today.
However Stern did have his fair share of scandals and bad publicity over the years. He caught heat from the players and the public when he implemented a dress code for players in the 2005-06 season. People called it a racist act, and NBA legend Allen Iverson famously said the policy is “targeting guys who dress like me- guys who dress hip-hop.”
Then possible the most famous of the scandals under Stern’s watch was the F.B.I investigation of NBA referee Tim Donaghy. The investigation revealed that Donaghy was gambling on games in which he was officiating, and impacting the games so that he would win his bets.
Stern would catch grief over the years for decisions like relocating the Seattle Supersonics to OKC, and vetoing the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers for “basketball reason” we are yet to understand, but all in all Stern’s accomplishments heavily outweigh his missteps.
Prior to his resignation, 30 years to the day he took the role of NBA commissioner, Stern was grooming his successor and current commissioner Adam Silver to smoothly transition into the role and continue to take the league to greater heights.
The death of Stern is a great loss to the NBA and the sport of basketball globally, and his presence sure will be missed.