David Stern, the commissioner who transformed the NBA from a financially troubled fringe league to a global and cultural powerhouse, died on Wednesday. He was 77.
Stern, who headed the NBA for 30 years until his retirement in 2014, had been hospitalized since Dec. 17 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
Stern replaced Larry O’Brien in February of 1984. During his three-decade tenure, the league expanded from 23 to 30 teams, increased its average player salary from $280,000 to more than $5 million and grew television revenue nearly 40 fold to almost $1.3 billion. Internationally, the NBA went from a sleepy U.S.-centric product to one that has offices in 13 markets worldwide and has its games shown in 215 countries and territories in 47 languages.
Stern revolutionized sports marketing by realizing that the key to growth was emphasizing star players and personalities. Though the play of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James contributed greatly to the league’s rise in popularity during his tenure, Stern made sure their faces and stories were known to more than sports fans. By helping to make celebrities out of his players, he married his sport to glitz and glamor.
Stern also had the league take a leadership role in issues of diversity and social justice.
The NBA was the first league to have African-American owners, general managers, coaches and league officials. The NBA was the first league to hire full-time women officials, and it gave women’s professional basketball a huge assist when it launched the WNBA in 1996 and put its marketing muscle behind it. After Johnson was diagnosed with HIV, Stern literally welcomed back into the league with open arms. In 1992, on live TV at the All-Star Game, he hugged Johnson to demonstrate that HIV wasn’t casually contagious.
David Joel Stern was born in New York City on Sept. 22, 1942. As a kid he worked in his father’s popular Manhattan deli on weekends. He was an avid Knicks fan, attending games at old Madison Square Garden. He graduated from Teaneck High School, Rutgers University and Columbia Law School.
He took a job with the law firm Proskauer Rose, where he began working with the NBA as outside counsel. He joined the NBA as general counsel in 1978 and became executive vice president in 1980 before becoming commissioner four years later at the age of 41.
When Stern took over the league, it had a perceived drug problem, a competitive balance problem and was thought of as being too urban to be readily embraced by corporate America. It’s most immediate issue, however, was financial. In 1980, the year Stern was appointed to the role of executive vice president, 16 of the league’s 23 teams lost money and the arenas were filled to only 58 percent of their capacity, according to Sports Illustrated.
Stern set about financially stabilizing and selling a new image of his league by implementing professional sports’ first antidrug, collective bargaining agreement and salary cap.
Ambitious and opinionated with a flair for theatrics, Stern ran the NBA like no other commissioner has ever ran his sport. It is often said he worked 14-hour days and expected those around him to do the same. Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf used to decline to go to league meetings of owners because he said the issues were already decided — by Stern.
Stern himself became a mini-celebrity shortly after becoming the commissioner when he invented the draft lottery and decided to televise it. Stern appointed himself to be the master of ceremonies for what essentially was a glorified drawing of straws. When the Knicks, the team Stern grew up cheering for, won the right to draft Patrick Ewing in the first lottery in 1985, Stern became the subject of a never-ending host of conspiracies.
Stern came up with another made-for-television moneymaker the year he came into the league, taking the NBA All-Star game, which had been a loser with fans and players alike, and transforming it into an All-Star weekend. The league made it an event by adding the slam dunk and three-point competitions. Borrowing a page from the Super Bowl, they threw party after party for the NBA’s corporate sponsors.
Then there was the Dream Team. Initially, it was said Stern wanted no part of the Olympics. Yet, once he saw the direction things were heading after the U.S. settled for a bronze medal in 1988, he jumped in full force. Johnson, Jordan and Bird led Team USA to a gold medal in Barcelona, and global interest in the game soared. In 1992, there were only 22 international players on NBA teams. There are currently 108 from 38 countries.
There were also tough times.
Costly labor battles led to the cancellation of games in the1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons. There was the “Malice in the Palace” in 2004 when he suspended nine players for a total of 146 games after a brawl broke out and went into the stands. Some saw the player dress code he instituted in 2004 as an over-the-top move to distance the league from hip-hop culture, though GQ magazine recently credited it for making NBA players the fashion and style leaders they are today.
Before the 2012 season, Stern announced his intentions to step down and hand the job to Adam Silver, his handpicked successor. He officially did so in February of 2014, but wouldn’t let staffers use the word retire. Instead, he took the title commissioner emeritus.
Stern stayed busy after stepping down as commissioner, taking trips overseas on the league’s behalf, doing public speaking and consulting. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Current and former players and other luminaries weighed in on David Stern's passing:
NBA commissioner Adam Silver
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action. 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.”
"Cookie and I are devastated to hear about the passing of my longtime friend and former NBA Commissioner David Stern. A great man, husband, father, friend, businessman, and visionary, I loved and respected him. For 30 years as NBA Commissioner, David grew the NBA to become one of the most popular leagues in the world with his revolutionary ideas. He took the NBA Finals from tape delay to live games & then began every Sunday on CBS highlighting Larry Bird’s Celtics & my Showtime Lakers.
"David Stern was such a history maker. When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand. When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world. I remember one of my meetings with David in his NYC office working with him to improve the overall NBA and All Star Weekend. It was very special that he asked me and we were able to collaborate and make improvements.
"Cookie and I are praying for the Stern family, his lovely wife Dianne and sons Eric and Andrew. May God comfort you during this time. Our hearts go out to you!"
""My family and I send our sincere condolences to David Stern’s family. There are no words that can really describe the far-reaching impact of Commissioner Stern's brilliance, vision, fairness and hard work over so many years. When you think of all that he accomplished worldwide on behalf of thousands of players, so many fans, all of the jobs he created for team and arena employees and all of the people that benefitted from the many layers of growth in the sport and industry that David spearheaded and then passed on to others, there is no doubt Commissioner Stern lifted the NBA to new heights and he will be greatly missed by all of us."
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today. He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before. His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed. David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him – and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I offer my deepest sympathies to Dianne and his family.”
As told to The Athletic
"I can not put into words what the friendship of David Stern has meant to me but many others. He changed so many lives. David was a great innovator and made the game we love what it is today. This is a horrible loss. Our hearts are with Dianne & their family. RIP my friend. @NBA"
"Very sad day for basketball. We saw David Stern a lot in the 90s and I found him to be kind, thoughtful and almost always the smartest person in the room. He was an innovator who helped grow our sport into a global game and his impact will never be forgotten. RIP, Commissioner."
New York Knicks
It was David Stern’s vision that created the modern NBA. He understood the incredible talent of our athletes, the passion of our fans and the extraordinary marketing opportunity of this league, and all of us are reaping the benefit of his courage, leadership and business acumen. On behalf of the entire New York Knicks organization, we mourn the passing of a truly great individual, who singularly impacted the game we all love and extend our deepest sympathies to his family.
James L. Dolan, Executive Chairman and CEO of The Madison Square Garden Company
"David Stern was not only one of the greatest commissioners in the history of sports, he was an incredible individual and friend. He was loyal and fair, patient and wise, and made all of us who had the privilege of knowing him better. The NBA will stand forever as a testament to his lasting legacy and all those who worked with him or for him, sat next to him or across the table from him are better because of it. I join with everyone in the basketball family to extend my personal condolences to Diane, Eric and Andrew."
Andy Lustgarten, President of The Madison Square Garden Company:
I was so fortunate to have David as a mentor during my time at the NBA, and I will always be grateful that I had the opportunity to see his extraordinary impact on the league firsthand. His passionate belief in the potential of basketball to become a thriving global business inspired all of us – and his belief in what each of us could contribute pushed us to accomplish more than we ever thought we could. I am deeply saddened by his passing, and my thoughts are with his family during this time.
Steve Mills, President of the New York Knicks:
"I will be forever grateful to David for giving me the opportunity to begin my career in sports in 1984. He was a true innovator, a great leader and mentor and most importantly, a valued friend. He was instrumental in building today’s NBA and will be remembered as one of sports’ greatest leaders. My condolences go out to Dianne, Eric and Andrew."
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert
“The WNBA will be forever grateful for his exemplary leadership and vision that led to the founding of our league. His steadfast commitment to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball. He will be missed.”
“RIP David. You always said you made me and you were absolutely right. You were a friend, mentor and administrator of the largest donut fund ever. You are missed.”
NHL commisioner Gary Bettman
"He was a man of great vision and energy who is responsible for the operational and business advancements that created the modern sports industry. David taught me how to be a commissioner and, more importantly, how to try to be a good person.”