NEW YORK (AP) — David Stern had basketball as a passion and law as a profession, one he figured he could return to if a job at the NBA didn’t work out.
He never did.
Instead he went to Europe, Asia and plenty of other places around the world, bringing with him a league that was previously an afterthought in the United States (US) and turning it into a global powerhouse.
Stern, who spent 30 years as the NBA’s longest-serving commissioner and one of the best in sports history, died on Wednesday. He was 77.
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Hall of Famer Michael Jordan said. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.”
Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage last December 12 and underwent emergency surgery. The league said he died with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside.
“The entire basketball community is heartbroken,” the National Basketball Players Association said. “David Stern earned and deserved inclusion in our land of giants.”
Stern had been involved with the NBA for nearly two decades before he became its fourth commissioner on February 1, 1984. By the time he left his position in 2014 — he wouldn’t say or let league staffers say “retire”, because he never stopped working — a league that fought for a foothold before him had grown to a more than USD5 billion a year industry and made NBA basketball perhaps the world’s most popular sport after soccer.
“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,” said Adam Silver, who followed Stern as commissioner. “Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration.”
Lakers forward LeBron James echoed Silver.
“We lost a great visionary,” James said. “Him and Dr James Naismith are the two most important people for the game of basketball. Dr Naismith because he invented the game and David for his vision, his vision to make this game global.”
Thriving on good debate in the boardroom and good games in the arena, Stern would say one of his greatest achievements was guiding a league of mostly black players that was plagued by drug problems in the 1970s to popularity with mainstream America.
He had a hand in nearly every initiative to do that, from the drug testing programme, to the implementation of the salary cap, to the creation of a dress code.
But for Stern, it was always about “the game”, and his morning often included reading about the previous night’s results in the newspaper — even after technological advances he embraced made reading NBA.com easier than ever.
“The game is what brought us here. It’s always about the game and everything else we do is about making the stage or the presentation of the game even stronger, and the game itself is in the best shape that it’s ever been in,” he said on the eve of the 2009-10 season, calling it “a new golden age for the NBA”.
One that was largely created by Stern during a three-decade run that turned countless ballplayers into celebrities who were known around the globe by one name: Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron, just to name a few.
Stern oversaw the birth of seven new franchises and the creation of the WNBA and NBA Development League, now the G League, providing countless opportunities to pursue careers playing basketball in the US that previously weren’t available.
Not bad for a guy who once thought his job might be a temporary one.
Stern had been the league’s outside counsel from 1966 to ‘78 and spent two years as the NBA’s general counsel, figuring he could always go back to his legal career if he found things weren’t working out after a couple of years.
Instead, after serving as the NBA’s executive vice president of business and legal affairs from 1980-84, he replaced Larry O’Brien as commissioner.
Overlooked and ignored only a few years earlier, when it couldn’t even get its championship round on live network TV, the NBA saw its popularity quickly surge thanks to the rebirth of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by the entrance of Jordan just a few months after Stern became commissioner.
“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,” Bird said. “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.”