Then-NBA Commissioner David Stern addresses the media before Game One of the 2013 NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena on June 6, 2013 in Miami.
Mike Ehrmann | Getty Images
David Stern, the lawyer who became the head of the National Basketball Association and had been the longest-serving commissioner of any major U.S. sport, died on New Year’s Day. He was 77.
Stern died three weeks after being hospitalized for a sudden brain hemorrhage. His wife, Dianne, and their family were at his bedside when he died, the NBA said.
During his 30-year tenure from 1984 to 2014, he took the NBA from a 23-team organization struggling to make a profit to a 30-team operation whose revenue increased by 30 times to a reported $5 billion. He helped boost its attraction by expanding its presence outside the United States through marketing and television broadcasts in more than 200 countries and regions in 49 languages.
He also presided over four NBA lockouts and led efforts to create two new leagues, the Women’s National Basketball Association and the NBA Development League; implemented the first dress code and first anti-drug agreement in professional sports; and introduced salary caps and revenue sharing to the league.
“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,” Commissioner Adam Silver said in the statement announcing Stern’s death. “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.”
Former “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons player Isaiah Thomas and former NBA commissioner David Stern attend a game against the Miami Heat to honor the 1989 NBA Championship team and to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of their first NBA Championship at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan, on April 2, 2014.
Allen Einstein | NBAE | Getty Images
“When you talk about the NBA family, David Stern is kind of the father of the family who really brought us all together and really had owners and players thinking as one to move the game forward,” former NBA star Isiah Thomas said on NBA.com after Stern was hospitalized in December. “Without his stubbornness, without his intellect, without his love and care, and sometimes disciplinarian hard hand, the league would not be where it’s at today.”
“He fought for the game of basketball,” Grant Hill, another former star player and co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks, said on NBA.com. “He had a style about him, he had a passion, but he had a vision that this league could really transcend. It could reach all people. It could become a global game.”
David Joel Stern was born in New York on Sept. 22, 1942, and grew up in suburban Teaneck, New Jersey. After graduating from Rutgers University in 1963 and Columbia Law School in 1966, he was hired by the Proskauer Rose law firm, which represented the NBA.
Stern led the league’s legal defense in the antitrust lawsuit filed by superstar Oscar Robertson and the NBA Players Association in 1970. The lawsuit sought to block any merger of the NBA with the American Basketball Association and to end the option clause and college draft rules that bound a player to a team. It was settled in 1976 with free agency for the players and approval of the merger with the ABA.
Stern became the NBA’s general counsel two years later and succeed Larry O’Brien as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984.
He had to overcome some of the league’s image problems.
“I remember it was ’81 or ’82, cover of Sports Illustrated, ‘Will white America’ — these were the headlines — ‘Will white America accept or come to an arena to watch African-Americans play basketball?’ And will corporate America support it?” recalled Thomas. “And David Stern at that time said, ‘I’m going to make the bet that it will,’ and he pushed it, and he forced it. And corporate America for a long time wasn’t supporting it. But you know, through his marketing genius and his understanding of how to package and put it out on display, and then TV came along, I mean he was the pioneer of that movement.”
NBA legends Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and NBA Commissioner David Stern on the red carpet of the premiere of Magic Bird on Broadway on April 11, 2012 at the Longacre Theatre in New York.
Steven Freeman | NBAE | Getty Images
Stern also had fortuitous timing. His first season ended with the classic championship matchup in which Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics defeated Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers in the seventh game. Then a few months later, he presided over his first draft, considered one of the greatest in NBA history. The players selected included four future Hall of Famers — Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. The next year, the lowly New York Knicks got the first draft pick — Patrick Ewing — in a drawing in which Stern was suspected of rigging to get the best college player to the league’s biggest TV market.
In 2005, he instituted a dress code in which players were banned from wearing headphones, chains, indoor sunglasses and other urban-type attire at NBA-related public appearances. It was the first dress code imposed by a profession sports league, and it elicited criticism from some players, including Allen Iverson, who said: “The dress code is not who I am and doesn’t allow me to express myself.” The rules were later eased into requiring inactive players to wear a sport coat if they sat on the bench.
Stern also presided over four NBA lockouts, in 1995, 1996, 1998-99 and 2011. The latter two lasted 204 days and 161 days, respectively.
Stern showed his harsh side at times during negotiations to end the 75-day lockout in 1995, said former NBA guard Terry Porter, who was a union representative and spent most of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers.
“He was a very shrewd businessman,” Porter recalled in an interview with CNBC. “He will get his thoughts across, whether you like it or not. He’s very opinionated, I can tell you that much. He made sure his point of view was received.”
But, Porter added, “he had a great feel for the game, a good feel for players’ issues — our concerns. And he was always willing to have conversations about those concerns.”
During a tense time in the 2011 lockout, which stemmed from a dispute over the league’s salary cap and how to divide revenue and resulted in the cancellation of 16 of 82 regular season games, HBO commentator Bryant Gumbel dropped a racial bomb. On his show, he likened Stern to a “modern plantation overseer treating NBA men as if they were his boys.”
“It’s part of Stern’s M.O.,” Gumbel continued. “Like his past self-serving edicts on dress code or the questioning of officials, his moves are intended to do little more than show how he’s the one keeping the hired hands in their place.”
Six years later, Stern still felt the pain of the black journalist’s remarks.
“My reaction was that Bryant Gumbel is an idiot and that I considered it a badge of honor,” Stern told former Washington Post sportswriter Nunyo Demasio in a 2017 podcast. “He was repeating something that the players’ representatives had said in the middle of a lockout. He was just regurgitating something. … My response was, ‘I have done more for people of color than he has.'”
To Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, Stern was a “commanding leader.”
“I remember the first time I went to the NBA head coaches’ meetings; I didn’t want to say a word,” Spoelstra told CNBC. “He could really command a room, lead a room and explain his vision for the league so clearly and concisely that we all would walk out of that room understanding exactly the direction that we were supposed to go on behalf of the league.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern and Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets laugh during a news conference for the NBA China Games, part of the 2004 Jam Session located in the China Palace at the Los Angeles Convention Center February 14, 2004 in Los Angeles, California.
David Sherman | NBAE | Getty Images
Stern is also credited for growing the league internationally, forming partnerships with countries like China. Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil, who worked for Stern in the league office, recalled traveling with Stern and observing him reading “stacks of newspaper articles” to study international affairs as he attempted to reach a bigger audience for the NBA.
“It wasn’t sports,” O’Neil told CNBC. “He wasn’t reading about the Atlanta Hawks versus Milwaukee game. He was reading about life science, and politics, the emerging economy in Brazil and India, and the incredible market that Africa is today. He understood the geopolitical impact and influence that it would have on this game.”
Exactly 30 years after he became commissioner, Stern was succeeded by Silver. Not only was Stern the longest-serving NBA commissioner, his tenure was the longest for any major U.S. sport, outlasting the National Football League’s Pete Rozelle by two months.
The same year Stern left the NBA, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He also was CEO of DJS Global Advisors and became a senior advisor to the league, investment bank PJT Partners, venture capital firm Greycroft Partners and PWC’s Entertainment and Media Advisory Practice.
Five years after Stern’s departure from the NBA, Spoelstra said: “We’re a leaving, breathing legacy of what he created in the last 20 to 30 years. It’s really amazing.”
In addition to his wife, Stern’s survivors include his two sons.
“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,” Silver said.
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