David Stern — the 30-year commissioner who molded the shape of the modern NBA into a global iconic brand — has died from the brain hemorrhage he suffered three weeks ago in a New York restaurant. He was 77.
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action,” 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.
“Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration. Our deepest condolences go out to David’s wife, Dianne, their sons, Andrew and Eric, and their extended family, and we share our grief with everyone whose life was touched by him.”
The NBA players’ union released this statement:
“The entire basketball community is heartbroken. David Stern earned and deserved inclusion in our land of giants. His impact on our game and our business is immeasurable and the rewards we reap will continue to be appreciated by NBA players and their families for generations. As tough an adversary as he was across the table, he never failed to recognize the value of our players, and had the vision and courage to make them the focus of our league’s marketing efforts – building the NBA into the empire it is today. We owe him and we will miss him.”
Stern took over a fragile league with breakout stars but a lot of questions, and transformed it into an NBA that promoted the players and put them front-and-center, in front of team brands. That and other steps evolved and grew the game on-and-off the court. It is truly difficult to imagine the NBA today without Stern.
His loss has been felt around the league.
— Warriors PR (@WarriorsPR) January 1, 2020
RIP David Stern🙏🏾! Shaking your hand on June, 26, 2003 was a dream come true ❤️ pic.twitter.com/ZCT7naJPcU
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) January 1, 2020
GROWING UP IN A DELI
Stern took a long road to the top of the NBA.
Stern was a New Yorker through and through. He was born Sept. 22, 1942, in Chelsea, although his family eventually moved to New Jersey. Growing up and through young adulthood, he worked in his family’s New York City delicatessen, Stern’s Deli. He worked his way through college behind the counter of that deli, first at Rutgers for his undergrad degree then while at Columbia Law School.
Out of law school, he got a job at the New York firm of Proskauer, Rose, Goetz, and Mendelsohn, which served as outside counsel to the NBA. Stern eventually became the lead attorney for the league in Oscar Robertson’s lawsuit looking to block the merger of the NBA and ABA (which it did for six years on anti-trust grounds). That lawsuit was really about players looking to remove the “reserve clause” from contracts, which tied a player to his team in perpetuity, and Stern was arguing on behalf of the owners. Robertson’s lawsuit paved the way for modern free agency, it also won Stern a lot of fans in ownership.
In 1978, he left the firm to firm to become the NBA’s general council, and two years later became the league’s executive vice president.
BECOMING NBA COMMISSIONER
On Feb. 1, 1984, the owners voted him the fourth commissioner of the NBA.
The NBA at that time was in its ascendency, thanks to the bi-coastal rivalry of Magic Johnson’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics (plus Michael Jordan was just about to enter the league). However, that success was fragile and the league struggled to capitalize on it. Stern shifted the NBA’s focus to market star players more than teams, something that worked for the league because those elite players influenced the outcomes of games more than most other sports, and because television cameras (and fans at the games) could see the faces and expressions of the payers. Fans felt close to the players, like they knew them.
There were a couple of anchors owners at the time felt were holding the league back. One was that a lot of them were still losing money year-over-year (that does not count in the rise in value of the franchise). One of Stern’s first moves, through a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, was to put in place a salary cap so every team was playing by the same rules (complex rules, because the players forced it to be a soft cap). With those new rules Stern pushed through revenue sharing among the owners. Combine all that with increased cash flow from the new television deal Stern had quickly negotiated (then with CBS), and owners saw their bottom lines look better.
Another anchor was the drug use around the league and the perception of it. Stern pushed the NBA to become the first major American sport with drug testing. Stern made other moves focused on the perception and image of the league, including suspending players who either threw a punch or left the bench during a fight. His most controversial move to change perceptions came in 2005 with the institution of a dress code for players attending games.
That dress code policy came not long after “The Malace at the Palace” fight between the Pacers and Pistons that spilled over into players going after fans in the seats. It was a black eye for the league. Combined with the growing influence of hip-hop culture in the league, Stern felt he had to act. He came down hard with season-ending suspensions for players in the fight and the dress code.
While Stern’s style was more autocratic than collaborative, the results cannot be questioned — the NBA exploded in popularity in the 30 years David Stern was commissioner. League revenue grew more than 30-fold during his tenure, television exposure and revenue grew exponentially, he oversaw the launch of the Women’s National Basketball Association and the NBA Development League (now G-League). Closer to the end of his tenure, Stern pushed the NBA into the digital realm and social media in a way other leagues are still trying to emulate. He also focused on growing the NBA — and adding revenue — internationally.
His vision changed the game in every conceivable way.
After 30 years as commissioner, he stepped down in 2014, handing the job over to Adam Silver. In 2016, Stern was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Our thoughts are with his family and many friends. He will be missed.