Former NBA commissioner David Stern, a visionary who turned the pro basketball league into a popular and global multibillion-dollar business and became one of the best commissioners in pro sports, died Wednesday, the league announced.
He was 77 years old.
Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and underwent emergency brain surgery.
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action,” current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He was a mentor and one of my dearest friends. We spent countless hours in the office, at arenas and on planes wherever the game would take us. Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail, and hard work.
“David took over the NBA in 1984 with the league at a crossroads. But over the course of 30 years as commissioner, he ushered in the modern global NBA. He launched groundbreaking media and marketing partnerships, digital assets and social responsibility programs that have brought the game to billions of people around the world. 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.”
Born on Sept. 22, 1942, Stern was the son of a New York City deli owner and Stern worked at the deli as a kid. He developed a fondness for the New York Knicks and attended the Knicks games with his father who used to slip an usher a few bucks in exchange for better seats.
Stern never strayed far from the game. After college at Rutgers and law school at Columbia University, Stern began a five-decade association with the NBA, first as an attorney for Proskauer Rose, a high-powered law firm that represented the NBA. It also happened to be the firm where Silver’s father, Edward, worked as a labor attorney and chairman.
Stern, who often enjoyed a turkey sandwich with tomato and mustard on seven-grain bread, joined the NBA as general counsel in 1978, became executive vice president in 1980 and was named commissioner in 1984, beginning a 30-year run in the charge of the league until 2014 when Silver took over.
During that 30-year span, Stern altered the NBA in ways that seemed impossible in the mid-1980s, creating lucrative TV deals and corporate sponsorships, a global audience and marketable superstars, starting with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and continuing with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James.
He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in in 2014.
Today, players make millions, including some who make more than $35 million a season, and the average franchise is worth about $2 billion, including the New York Knicks who were valued at more than $4 billion by Forbes in February. Fans can watch games on their phones from just about anywhere in the world.
Stern was many things: intelligent, savvy, bold, stubborn, driven, competitive, charming, humorous, kind, biting, forceful and demanding.
“David Stern is the No. 1 force, the No. 1 reason why this league is where it is today,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley told USA TODAY in 2014. “That’s not disrespectful to any one great player in any one era or any owner. This has to do with the leadership of one man.
“Over that span of time, things don’t change because they’re coincidences. They don’t. There’s somebody at the top who is going to eliminate what is bad and market what is good. He was a very forceful, very pragmatic visionary.”
An attorney by trade, Stern also knew sports marketing. He saw the potential Bird and Johnson had and wanted to make sure basketball fans knew what players like that could do on the basketball court. Stern also had to fight an uphill battle at the time. The league didn’t have the greatest reputation, hampered by lack of exposure and high-profile drug problems.
Stern however made sure fans witnessed a great product on the court and the electric personalities who played the game via TV. He had two great ones in Bird and Magic, who defined much of the NBA in the 1980s with their Celtics-Lakers rivalry. Isiah Thomas came along, then Jordan and the mesmerizing high-flying, gravity-defying plays on the court captured the attention of fans.
“The way that he took it head on, the way he presented the game to America, he didn’t hide behind anything,” Thomas said. “This is our league. This is who we are. This is who these young men are. Once you get to know them, America will fall in love with the player and the product. He was masterful at that.”
Stern dreamed even bigger — an international audience. He helped send pro basketball players to the 1992 Olympics where the Dream Team was a major story. Not only were fans around the world drawn to the NBA, foreign-born players wanted to join the NBA. When the 2019-20 season opened, 108 international players were on NBA rosters compared to 24 in 1994-95. The league is making deeper inroads in Asia and Africa and the league on Dec. 12 announced a G League team will begin play in Mexico City in in 2020.
In 1996, he ushered in the WNBA which has been and is filled with stars.
Stern had his share of setbacks, too. He was part of two lockouts that resulted in lost games in 1998-99 and 2011-12. Sitting across the bargaining table from Stern was not fun.
“Horrible,” longtime National Basketball Players Association attorney Ron Klempner once told USA TODAY. “It’s an adversary who’s prepared and making your arguments better than you are. He never lets down his guard. He never exhibits any weakness. He’s constantly in control of himself and his own side of the table. He’s such a difference-maker when it comes to the economics, the appearance, the end product. You can’t quantify the difference he makes and has made in the growth of our game.”
The unfortunate Malice at the Palace brawl between the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and fans and the Tim Donaghy referee betting scandal also happened on his watch.
The wrath of Stern was unpleasant. Whether it was team owner, a players’ union official, a player, an NBA staffer or a reporter, Stern chided as he saw fit.
Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss said, “He didn’t waste words.”
Shortly after buying the Minnesota Timberwolves, Glen Taylor asked a question at a Board of Governors meeting and Stern told him to be quiet.
“He did have a strong personality,” Taylor said six years ago.
Stern understood how to navigate difficult times. When Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive in 1991, Stern backed Johnson and tried to educate the league and public at a time when people were frightened of the AIDS epidemic. It was another critical moment in Stern’s career, and he helped break down misconceptions and falsehoods.
The NBA wouldn’t be where it is today with David J. Stern.