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The Profound Legacy of David Stern, the NBA’s Most Consequential Off-Court Force

Stern, one of the most influential commissioners in the history of U.S. sports, died on Wednesday. While his tenure was often complicated, the league reached astronomical heights during his 30 years.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The game is the thing. It always has been, ever since nail first met peach basket over the track at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, 128 years ago last month. It’s why people lined up to watch the Black Fives, Rens, SPHAs, and Globetrotters barnstorm at the start of the last century. It’s why the greats—the ones who turn a ball and a hoop into fine art and high drama—have always become iconic figures, easily distinguishable by single names: Mikan, Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Larry, Michael, Shaq, LeBron. The game is the thing, and the players make the game; without them, there’s nothing to watch, no product to sell.

You can’t fully separate the selling from the game, though. The selling turned a modest regional attraction into a global behemoth that became one of the largest entertainment entities on the planet. The selling turned those single-name stars into crossover celebrities and eventually into capital-letter Brands, some of whom rank among the most recognizable public figures in the world, with spheres of influence that stretch far beyond the boundaries of the court. The selling fueled groundbreaking growth in just about any metric you can identify; the selling is part of the story too.

You can’t tell that story without David Stern, who reigned as the NBA’s commissioner from 1984 through 2014, a three-decade span in which the league reached new stratospheres of success, relevance, and international sporting primacy. Stern died on Wednesday, following a three-week hospitalization after suffering a sudden brain hemorrhage at a New York restaurant on December 12. He was 77 years old.

Under Stern’s leadership, the NBA expanded from 23 teams to 30, introducing new franchises that have stitched themselves into the fabric of a league that has evolved into a multibillion-dollar international enterprise and pop-cultural touchstone. With Stern, the NBA established and committed to the sustained viability of a legitimate women’s professional basketball league, began building a bona fide official minor league system, and helped find local ownership willing to keep beleaguered franchises in New Orleans and Sacramento.

Stern also let six franchises relocate, leaving several fan bases out in the cold. Businessmen were allowed to steal the SuperSonics from Seattle and abandon Vancouver, while metastasized ciphers like George Shinn and Donald Sterling got away with far too much for far too long. Under Stern’s leadership, the league’s owners locked players out four times in 16 years, with two of those forced stoppages wiping out months of games, all in favor of goosing owners’ profit margins and establishing beyond doubt who controlled the NBA.

It’s a complicated legacy, one that marks Stern—a renowned perfectionist with an iron-fisted style—as one of the most influential commissioners in the history of U.S. sports. It also presents a compelling case for him as arguably the most consequential off-court figure—for better, and in some cases for worse—the NBA has ever seen.

After graduating from Rutgers University and then Columbia Law School in 1966, Stern joined Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, the prestigious law firm that represented the NBA. He began acting as outside counsel for the league and represented it in Robertson v. National Basketball Association, a federal antitrust lawsuit filed in 1970 by superstar and National Basketball Players Association president Oscar Robertson aiming to end the “option clause” that kept players tied to a single team in perpetuity. Six years after Robertson filed suit, Stern was involved in crafting an out-of-court settlement that eliminated the option clause, established free agency for NBA players, and paved the way for a merger that would add four ABA franchises—the Nets, Spurs, Nuggets, and Pacers—to the NBA.

Stern then joined the league as its general counsel in 1978 and quickly rose through the ranks. Two years later, then-commissioner Larry O’Brien made Stern his second-in-command, naming him the NBA’s first executive vice president for business and legal affairs, which effectively put Stern in charge of marketing, television, and public relations for the league.

The NBA’s owners tapped Stern to take over for O’Brien when he stepped aside in 1984, making the son of a Manhattan deli owner just the fourth commissioner in league history. When his time came, just before the start of the 2012-13 season, Stern did the same for Adam Silver, the son of one of his former law firm colleagues, someone who’d spent more than two decades rising through the NBA’s ranks to sit at Stern’s right hand as deputy commissioner. (All three previous commissioners have a major NBA award named after them: Maurice Podoloff got the MVP trophy, J. Walter Kennedy got the Citizenship Award, and O’Brien got the NBA championship trophy. You wonder how the league will commemorate Stern’s contributions. One guess: If and when Silver manages to reorganize the NBA calendar to include an in-season tournament, maybe the winner will wind up hoisting the Stern Cup.)

Stern took over a league on unsteady footing, as detailed by Sports Illustrated’s E.M. Smith in a 1991 feature: “In the 1980-81 season, 16 of the NBA’s 23 teams lost money. Total attendance was down almost a million from the year before, and teams were playing to an average of only 10,021 fans per game, about 58 percent of the capacity of their arenas.” Public perception of the NBA had been harmed by multiple reports about widespread cocaine use. Citing “estimates by people in the game,” an August 1980 story in the Los Angeles Times suggested that between 40 percent and 75 percent of the NBA’s players were on coke. Interest lagged, even for the biggest games of the year; in the late 1970s and early ’80s, CBS famously broadcast NBA Finals games on tape delay at 11:30 p.m. ET, well after prime time on either coast.

While Stern did face challenges as he started the new gig, he also inherited the start of a solution. Some of that came from the work of his predecessor, O’Brien, and Larry Fleisher, then-head of the players association, in setting the table for several changes needed to help move the league in the right direction. A lot of it, though, came from two guys named Magic and Larry.

The 1984 Finals, the first of Stern’s tenure, pitted Johnson’s Lakers against Bird’s Celtics—two historic blue-blood franchises led by in-their-prime superstars who had battled for an NCAA championship and already each won an NBA title. It was a seven-game war won by the Celtics, with Bird winning Finals MVP. The series rekindled a rivalry that had defined the NBA throughout the 1960s, cemented Bird and Magic as opposing irresistible forces, and underscored the value of selling the NBA by highlighting its stars—a template that Stern and Co. would use for Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and scores of other future Hall of Famers in the decades to come.

Stern also set about addressing the NBA’s off-court perception problems and systemic issues. Before he took over in 1983, he led the league’s negotiations with the players union on a trailblazing collective bargaining agreement that established an artificial limit on how much teams could spend on their rosters—a “salary cap,” as it would come to be called. The new deal also included several exceptions allowing teams to go over that cap to help keep their cores intact and established a revolutionary split of finances that would see players take home 53 percent of gross revenues generated by gate receipts and television fees, while team owners got the remaining 47 percent. (That split would become an ongoing point of contention under Stern.)

He played a key role in the introduction of an antidrug policy that spoke softly (players could avoid punishment and receive help if they came forth voluntarily) but carried a big stick (those who tested positive would be banned from the NBA and eligible for reinstatement after two years). Stern wound up swinging that stick in 1986; after Micheal Ray Richardson, a four-time All-Star, tested positive for cocaine for a third time, Stern banned him from the league. “It was a shock that I had this guy’s life in my hands,” Stern said years later. “It was horrible. We agonized over it.” Richardson never played in the NBA again, finishing his career in Europe, but later credited Stern with saving his life through the ban.

Stern took aim at rejuvenating an All-Star Game that had long since lost its luster. He raided the ABA, introducing the slam dunk contest and 3-point shootout as marquee events, and turned an expanded All-Star Weekend into a sensory-overloading experience for fans of all ages and interests. When others looked at the NBA, they saw a second-tier league peddling a niche sport populated by players unlikely to ever break through into the national consciousness. Stern, on the other hand, saw Disney.

“They have theme parks,’’ he said. “And we have theme parks. Only we call them arenas. They have characters: Mickey Mouse, Goofy. Our characters are named Magic and Michael [Jordan]. Disney sells apparel; we sell apparel. They make home videos; we make home videos.”

And, like Disney, Stern’s NBA was also aimed at kids. He marketed the league’s stars as larger-than-life heroes capable of superhuman feats of athleticism—especially Jordan, whose artistry and excellence helped turn him into a ubiquitous multinational corporation, which in turn helped raise the league’s profile. He facilitated the slotting of those stars alongside the likes of the Looney Tunes on screens small and large. He paired highlight-package-heavy productions—it’s not a coincidence that NBA Inside Stuff ran after Saturday-morning cartoons; Stern specifically negotiated that time slot in the NBA’s broadcast contract with NBC—with a suite of on-the-ground community-based initiatives through the NBA Cares program. It all added up to help embed the league in the lives of generations of young people.

In 1985, Stern revolutionized the annual draft by instituting a lottery to determine which of the league’s worst teams would receive the no. 1 pick, an effort aimed at killing two birds with one stone. At that time, only two teams had a chance to land the top pick—the last-place finishers in each conference, who would take part in a coin flip to determine the first and second selections. Introducing a system that gave the five other teams who’d missed the playoffs a shot, too, with the winner selected by drawing an envelope out of a giant transparent orb, aimed to deter teams from doing their damnedest to sink to the bottom of the standings late in the season.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly: It created a made-for-TV event, just in time for the arrival of Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing, arguably the most dominant big man prospect in college basketball since Lew Alcindor. Before too long, the annual draft lottery became a signature event all its own, a spring staple that gave embattled fan bases reason to hope for better days even when their team was out of the postseason.

The Knicks won the ’85 lottery, which gave them the right to draft Ewing. It also gave the basketball world one of the truly great conspiracy theories of the last 35 years: that Stern and the league office rigged the draft to favor New York by freezing the Knicks’ envelope (and perhaps bending one corner) to ensure that it was selected for the no. 1 pick and would deliver college basketball’s biggest star to the NBA’s biggest market, thus resuscitating what had been one of the league’s marquee franchises in the early 1970s, but had sputtered since.

The envelope affair also underscored Stern’s penchant for showmanship and his combative nature. In the moment, he dismissed the idea that the league would fix the lottery: “If people want to say that, fine. As long as they spell our name right. That means they’re interested in us. That’s terrific.” As the years wore on, though, his answers on the matter began to differ in kind and tone, from joking (“We have the loot from the Brink’s robbery and the Great Train Robbery, as well”) to disdainful (“It’s crazy, ridiculous”) to venomous (like when he told Jim Rome, between games 1 and 2 of the 2012 NBA Finals, “Shame on you for asking” about whether the lottery was rigged, and followed it up with the lawyer’s rhetorical gambit, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”). Press him on the prospect that his lottery wasn’t always on the up-and-up, and Stern would parry or thrust, as needed or as he saw fit—and, seemingly always, in a manner that would keep us talking about the league’s machinations and melodramas.

One major source of drama and intrigue during Stern’s tenure: his efforts to steer the NBA into international waters. What began with exhibition competitions like the McDonald’s Open helped lead to the inclusion of NBA players on the U.S. men’s Olympic basketball team for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, a blinding flashpoint in the globalization of the game.

Stern had reservations about the NBA’s brightest stars performing on the Olympic stage. “David and I thought global basketball came with as many burdens as benefits,” longtime deputy commissioner Russ Granik told Jack McCallum. But the Dream Team spread the gospel of NBA basketball to the world in a revolutionary fashion that’s still reverberating today.

The NBA now operates more than a dozen offices around the world, staging games outside of the U.S. and Canada every year. NBA games, once unable to get broadcast stateside in real time, now go out live in 215 countries and territories and in 50 languages. NBA rosters featured 108 foreign-born players hailing from 38 different countries and territories at the start of the 2019-20 season—a season that thus far has been defined in part by a 25-year-old Greek of Nigerian descent and a 20-year-old Slovenian, the latter of whom came of age in a world where NBA players always participated in international competition.

The start of this season was defined by the NBA’s involvement in an international incident that cast a glaring spotlight on the league’s extremely fraught business relationships in China and the challenge of maintaining the league’s purported progressive principles when working in nations where “human rights defenders continue to endure arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance.” Stern saw the potential for such a conflagration from miles (and years) away. He proceeded with his full-steam-ahead push into China anyway, though, because “at the end of the day, I have a responsibility to my owners to make money.”

It was a responsibility he took seriously. Almost a half-decade after Stern stepped away from the league, Sports Illustrated’s Chris Ballard noted that the ex-commissioner still referred “to the NBA as ‘an asset’ and [that] his goal was to ‘make the asset more valuable.’”

Sometimes, the pursuit of that goal led to good-of-the-game tweaks, like eliminating illegal defense guidelines, introducing defensive-three-second violations, and cracking down on hand-checking, with an eye toward allowing offensive players to move and attack more freely, shifting the game toward talent and skill rather than strength and brute force. Whether you find the wide-open style more pleasing to watch is a matter of personal taste, but better showcases for stars and more points on the board seemed to agree with audiences.

The NBA’s television rights deals rose steadily throughout Stern’s tenure, topping the $1 billion mark with NBC before blowing that out of the water in 2002 with a multiyear, multinetwork deal that totaled $4.6 billion. As the years went by, the numbers just kept going up and up; the revenues the league raked in from TV rights fees “increased 40-fold during Stern’s tenure.” Months after Stern stepped aside in 2014, the NBA inked a new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast rights deal, a senses-shattering infusion of cash that led to the unprecedented salary cap spike of 2016, which in turn led to Kevin Durant’s joining a 73-win Warriors team, a watershed moment in basketball history. All told, the average worth of an NBA franchise when Stern retired in 2014 was $634 millionnearly 32 times the $20 million average of the early 1980s, just before he took the reins.

Sometimes, though, Stern’s choices seemed to have less to do with the good of the game than maximizing that profit motive, no matter the cost. With Stern as the tip of the spear, the NBA locked out its players in 1995, leading to the institution of the rookie pay scale, which limited salaries for first-round draft picks. It did it again in 1996, though that row over the division of profits from television contracts lasted only a few hours.

The league went to the mattresses for a third time under Stern in 1998, ostensibly in a spasmodic response to Kevin Garnett’s landmark six-year, $126 million contract—a contract, by the way, that Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor would later say was “worth every penny.” That wound up costing all parties involved the entire preseason, more than a third of the regular season, and the All-Star Game … all in service of instituting limits on maximum salaries, annual raises, and contract lengths, forcing players to pay for owners’ inability to save themselves from themselves.

After many years of labor peace, Stern (flanked by Silver) led ownership into battle again in 2011, in another brute reaction to an expression of player power: this time, LeBron James’s Decision and the choice by James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh to take less than their full market value to team up in Miami. The owners held the season hostage in an effort to slash the players’ slice of the pie from a 57 percent share of all basketball-related income down to 47 percent, to implement a hard salary cap, and to put in place much more painful penalties for teams that went over the luxury tax line.

Following a 161-day standoff that erased 16 games from the schedule, the players took a deal that guaranteed them between 49 percent and 51 percent of BRI, depending on revenue growth—a concession that effectively transferred $3 billion from labor to ownership over the course of the 10-year deal. Stern last year called the labor stoppages he presided over “terrible,” but only after saying, “I did what I had to do.”

Sometimes, Stern threw his weight around appropriately, and in response to an incident that required a swift and serious response: Latrell Sprewell’s choking of P.J. Carlesimo, or the Malice at the Palace, or—in a very different context—Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and need for support in his public announcement. Sometimes, though, his edicts elicited sharp rebukes. One example is the 2005 decision to implement a dress code that required NBA players, the lion’s share of whom were black, to wear business attire rather than street clothes—a rule viewed by many as curious at best and racist at worst.

The subject of race is unavoidable in the story of a white man running a mostly black league. Under Stern, the NBA established itself as an industry leader in its commitment to diversity in hiring, routinely outpacing the other major U.S. sports in the annual Racial and Gender Report Cards handed out by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, though representation in the coaching and executive ranks still lagged behind the majority that African Americans held in the player population. The stories of how the NBA responded to Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, black athletes whose social or political views could pose significant problems for the league, remain points of contention decades later. As Stern noted in a September interview with Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, “At every collective bargaining negotiation, I was accused of having a plantation mentality.” He also earned praise, however, as an executive who “respects the men who play in his league and the community from which they come,” and an operator who helped make it possible for black legends like Magic and Jordan to enter ownership themselves.

“You do what you have to do, and it’s always, behind the scenes, a little bit different than it appears in front of the cameras,” Stern told Spears. “We did what we had to do to make sure the sport was going to grow.”

Along the way, there were some missteps. Stern presided over the disastrous and short-lived choice to, seemingly out of nowhere, introduce a new microfiber-covered basketball that players hated, partly because it kept cutting their fingers. And the historic move to veto a 2011 trade that would have sent Chris Paul from the Hornets—a franchise operating under league control, as Stern sought a local buyer who would take the team off Shinn’s hands and keep it in New Orleans—to the Lakers for “basketball reasons,” which Stern has blamed on both Mitch Kupchak and Dell Demps in recent years.

There were other blemishes, many in the final third of Stern’s tenure: officiating controversies, most notably the Tim Donaghy gambling scandal; the institution and adherence to the “one-and-done” rule, effectively barring 18-year-old prospects from having the freedom to turn professional (until some started to get creative); the events of 2007 All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas. But Stern said that, save for the lockouts, he has no regrets.

”Each step along the way there are things you have to do, things maybe you wish you hadn’t done,” Stern told reporters in a 2012 conference call after announcing he’d be stepping away. “But I don’t keep that list.”

Views on Stern’s record and legacy differ wildly. What’s indisputable, though, is that the NBA grew exponentially during his tenure, rising to join the NFL, MLB, and English Premier League among the richest and most widely consumed sports leagues in the world. It’s also indisputable that his tenure benefited from the presence of many of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

Maybe, as a result of all that talent coupled with the onset of cable and satellite TV and broadband internet, the league would’ve exploded into a global phenomenon no matter who was at the helm. But maybe not.

”I don’t buy that argument about his being in the right place at the right time,” Alan Cohen, then part owner and vice chairman of the Celtics, told SI in 1991. “Timing is important, but with the same sequence of events, with the wrong guy in the pilot’s seat, none of this happens.”

Right or wrong, for 30 years, David Stern was the guy in the pilot’s seat, and the NBA soared. He wasn’t the guy who nailed the peach basket to the wall. He just helped knock the wall down, giving the game the chance to spread farther and wider than anybody could have dreamed.