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David Stern Made the NBA Larger Than Life, but Kept It Small Enough to Touch

The former commissioner, who died Wednesday, turned the NBA into a cultural and commercial behemoth. He had a knack for subtle showmanship, which he used to keep the league feeling smaller, weirder, and more accessible than its counterparts.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA draft lottery may be an international media sensation and the focus of obsessive fan interest in multiple countries; it’s still a phenomenally goofy event. Every year, it’s preceded by weeks of hype, previewed from all conceivable angles, and followed by millions of people around the world. Every year, it remains a TV spectacular during which nothing happens except that several awkward-looking executives stand around waiting for the results of a semi-random-outcome generator. It’s hard to think of another event that’s so breathlessly covered in which so little actually takes place. The vibe is approximately the vibe that would result if Michael Bay decided to supplement the Transformers franchise with short nonfiction films about people waiting to be told which Transformers they would be allowed to buy, and then these short films turned out to be almost as popular as the Transformers movies. Will Benji get Grimlock this year? Maybe!

The strangest thing about the draft lottery, though, is that there’s no contradiction between the perceived significance of the event and its extreme, even slightly disorienting, silliness. It’s riveting because it’s so goofy. Well, it’s riveting because it shapes the future of the league, but that’s part of the point. What other American sports institution would continually remake its own destiny via an annual TV show announcing the results of ping-pong balls being drawn from a hopper? What other American sports institution would ever even have the idea that men in wide suits waiting to find out which balls had been drawn would be something fans might want to watch?

The NBA draft lottery was introduced in 1985, early in the 30-year tenure of former commissioner David Stern, who died this week at the age of 77. Stern led the NBA through its period of greatest expansion, from 1984 to 2014, so it’s not surprising that much of the coverage in the aftermath of his death has focused on how big the league became on his watch. As my colleague Dan Devine wrote earlier this week, the NBA that Stern inherited in 1984 was still a second-class league; as recently as the early ’80s, CBS was still broadcasting the Finals on tape delay. Three decades later, the NBA that Stern left to his successor, Adam Silver, was a global megalith, one whose stars’ images were worth billions of dollars, one with more fans outside the United States than inside it, one whose every development was watched and tracked in real time—and sometimes slightly faster than that, depending on who you follow on Twitter. Without David Stern, Daryl Morey’s take on the Hong Kong protests would have been regional news at best; hugeness may have downsides, but at least these days everyone is paying attention.

Still, to my mind, all the talk about Stern and bigness misses something essential—the bottom of the peach basket, let’s say—about his legacy. Sure, you can measure his influence by examining the NBA’s supersized television contract or LeBron’s Q score in Taipei. But you can also trace his influence in all the ways the NBA remains small—that is, all the ways the NBA is funnier, jankier, weirder, more local, and less crushingly self-serious than, say, every American sports league with outdoor stadiums. (I’m not counting MLS here, which I regard less as a sports league than as a loose affiliation of cool supporter clubs with an optional sports component.) Balance-sheet growth might have been the result of Stern’s leadership, but his style was more visible in innovations like the draft lottery: a kind of genius for quick fixes, a knack for knowing what the people really wanted, and a willingness to follow his instincts down whatever ping-pong-laden path they pointed to, without a ton of anxiety about the league’s sacred dignity.

Consider the Slam Dunk Contest. Verily since the dawn of basketball had there been solemn voices within the game droning on and on about how dunks were defiling the sport. John Wooden, the former UCLA coach who became the closest thing to a saint the church of basketball ever produced, huffed righteously when the NCAA finally legalized dunking in 1976. Dunks were selfish, they were unsportsmanlike, and they taught all the wrong lessons. Won’t someone please, please bounce-pass for the children! After the NBA-ABA merger in the mid-’70s, the NBA slipped on its fatherly sweater vest and quashed the ABA’s upstart dunk contest, which had been held all of once in its history.

What do people actually like, though? They like Vegas: hence the draft lottery. They also really, really like dunking, not because it supports the troops or teaches Billy not to swear but because it’s awesome and fun and exhilarating to watch. The dunk contest was revived for All-Star Weekend in 1984, and under Stern it flourished into a freewheeling circus act, complete with props and costumes and sedans on the court. The gatekeepers of basketball purity could seethe in their woolen knee socks, and the NFL could pump out praetorian legions of faceless robo-supermen, but Stern’s NBA was going to be fun above all else. He wasn’t the sole architect of the fun; many of the ideas came from other people, and the preexisting (and heavily African American) culture of the league shaped both its tone and its creativity. But his natural gift for laid-back showmanship helped him foster what was already there, where a different sort of commissioner would have resisted it. When I heard about Stern’s death on Wednesday, I thought of something G.K. Chesterton said about Charles Dickens, another overseer of spectacularly popular entertainments. Chesterton said: “Dickens did not write what the people wanted. Dickens wanted what the people wanted.” What we wanted from basketball, Stern wanted too.

We who would honor the dead must acknowledge that they also fucked up a lot and were sometimes jerks—that is, that they were as human as we are. Stern put plenty of feet wrong during his three decades in charge. He was a charming talker, quick with a quip, deft with a funny anecdote, the avuncular ringmaster who famously nicknamed himself (in the middle of a lockout, no less) “Easy Dave.” But he could also be petty, tyrannical, and ruthless. Toward the end of his reign, after the Palace brawl in 2004, he increasingly mishandled the NBA’s anxious-white-fans problem, approving ludicrous rules coded to reassure skittish We Built It types that the league was serious about keeping black stars in their place. These included not only the infamous dress code, but also vengeful little micro-quibbles that seemed to serve no practical purpose, stuff like “no wearing a headband upside down,” as if headband-uprightness were the only thing keeping torches out of the suburbs. Stern did the owners’ work with merciless efficiency during multiple periods of labor unrest. Months of games were wiped off the schedule by his attempts to break the players union. He could be mean. Life is complicated, and David Stern wasn’t a saint, in the church of basketball or anywhere else. Take this for what it’s worth, then, but I would still rather have grown up watching his NBA than the one I’m pretty sure John Wooden would have built.

Football is a branch of the military at this point; baseball is IBM. For more or less my whole life, basketball has been the only American professional sport that seemed to take place on a human scale. It happened in small arenas. It revolves around a manageable number of identifiable stars. These stars do not wear complex body armor or grow neurotic mountain-man beards (well … mostly) or work out until they are square-shaped or psychologically maim themselves in order to conform to a warrior code of unflinching violence. They do not tell you that you have to wade through hell to reach the heights of greatness or offer themselves up as conduits for national nostalgia. They play a game you can play with your friends, and the way they play it looks really fun. They do cool stuff like heave half-court shots at the buzzer and dribble through their legs and throw no-look alley-oop passes. When you go to a football game, entering the vast arena is like passing into some alternate world, a floodlit TV-zone connected to nothing but other football arenas. NBA games—this is still true—feel local. Weird stuff is constantly happening in the spaces football devotes to loyalty oaths and collective missile worship. The halftime act is a dude who stacks chairs and balances on them. Other nights it might be a dog on a trampoline. If you’re in Memphis, maybe famed professional wrestler and Memphis native Jerry Lawler will come running out and pretend to hit somebody with a chair. You’re watching some of the most recognizable faces in the country, stars universally known by their first names—Michael, Kobe, LeBron—inhabit this kind of roadside troubadour milieu, and you’re close enough to really see them. There might be famous fans milling around in python-skin tuxedo jackets. The referees can hear you when you shout at them. Relative to any comparable sporting experience (including international soccer, which does at least share the NBA’s love of ping-pong balls), it feels cheap and intimate and unfussy and slightly absurd. All it asks of you is that you relax and have fun with it. And when you combine this environment with sublime athletic talent, it turns out—who would have guessed—to be a place where all sorts of beautiful and wonderful things can happen.

Again, David Stern didn’t single-handedly create this version of the NBA. But this is the version he helped encourage into being. It got to be big, yes, probably bigger than anyone foresaw in 1984. But it got big in part by remaining approachably small in a sports scene dominated by grim leviathans. And that smallness had as much to do with Stern’s style as the success it eventually obtained. While we’re assessing his legacy, let’s remember to include that too.