David Stern announced that he will vacate the office of NBA Commissioner effective February 1, 2014. That date marks the 30th anniversary of the day he took office as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association. Stern has been controversial, innovative and above all else, he's been an global ambassador for the game of basketball.
David Stern's ties to the NBA go all the way back to 1966 when he served as the NBA's lead litigator in their case against Oscar Robertson's antitrust suit. The NBA lost the landmark case which eventually allowed players to become free agents for the first time. Even though David Stern lost this case, the effects of the loss would have a profound impact on the popularity of the league he represented and eventually led. In 1978 Stern became the NBA's general counsel and in 1980 he became the executive Vice President of the NBA. By 1984, David Stern was named commissioner of the NBA, replacing Larry O'Brien.
By the time Stern took office as commissioner, the league wasn't the same league that we know and love today. The NBA was on the verge of financial collapse, players were abusing hardcore drugs and the league just wasn't very popular. However, Stern turned things around in an overall positive direction that continues to this day.
For starters, Stern was able to market a budding rivalry between a young, black superstar point guard in Los Angeles named Magic Johnson and a young, white superstar forward in Boston named Larry Bird. In the same year Stern became commissioner, Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton were drafted to the NBA. The NBA implemented a revenue sharing system in the form of the salary cap. The league also started a drug testing program to combat their drug problem. In 1985, the New York Knicks won the first ever NBA Draft Lottery and won the right to draft Patrick Ewing. Very quickly, Stern had talented players playing in the top media markets in America. These players - specifically Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan - took the popularity of the NBA into the stratosphere.
Games used to be shown on tape delay; Stern negotiated television agreements with major networks such as CBS, NBC, ABC, TNT, TBS and ESPN that eventually made the league billions of dollars. The league also has its own television station, NBATV. NBA games are now broadcast in over 200 countries globally. In his tenure, Stern has added 7 teams to the NBA and relocated 6 teams. He also oversaw the creation of the Women's National Basketball Association and the National Basketball Developmental League. When Stern took office as commissioner the NBA was worth $400 million. Today, the average worth of each of the league's 30 franchises is $400 million. The NBA was the first league to have an African-American franchise majority owner when Robert Johnson purchased the Charlotte Bobcats. International players such as the late Drazen Petrovic, Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, Pau Gasol and Manu Ginobilli have also made an impact on the NBA. A new generation of stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard will carry the torch for the NBA into the 21st century. NBA players have competed in the Summer Olympic Games since 1992 and continue to spread the popularity of the NBA around the world.
The success thus far hasn't been without its share of bumps in the road and controversies. Stern hasn't exactly been the best boss to work for and tales of his use of intimidation are numerous. In spite of various mechanisms to share revenue generated through the league, teams have still cried poor. In 1991, the NBA had to face the crisis of HIV and AIDS head on when Magic Johnson announced that he had contracted HIV. There have been four lockouts in Stern's tenure as commissioner; the 1999 lockout and the 2011 lockout led to the cancellation of regular season games. Stern had to market a sport that is predominantly black to a viewing audience that is predominantly white. In response to the league's burgeoning hip hop culture led by Allen Iverson, the NBA instituted a dress code policy that prevented players from wearing jeans, jerseys, hats, du-rags, and jewelry while conducting league business. The 1985 Draft Lottery has long rumored to have been fixed in such a way to guarantee that New York would get the number 1 pick.
Players such as Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley and Richard Dumas were banned for life from the NBA due violations of the league's substance abuse policy. Len Bias, the number two pick in the 1986 NBA Draft, died from a drug overdose two days after being selected by the Boston Celtics. One of the biggest brawls in the history of North American sports occurred under Stern's watch when a spectator threw a beer at Ron Artest, provoking him and his teammates Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal to fight in the stands in Detroit. The criminal investigation of referee Tim Donaghy was a true black eye on a sport that has often had fans crying foul, saying that outcomes of some games were rigged. Fans are still skeptical that only one "rogue" official was affecting the outcomes of games. The Seattle SuperSonics were uprooted and moved to Oklahoma City, becoming the Thunder in a move that was not popular in the public eye. And most recently, David Stern blocked a blockbuster deal that would have sent Pau Gasol to the Rockets, Chris Paul to the Lakers, and Lamar Odom to the Hornets. Stern infamously declared the deal dead due to "basketball reasons."
That last bit of controversy on the heels of the end of the 2011 lockout was the straw that broke the camel's back. For all of the good that David Stern has done for the game of basketball, it has been recent missteps that have arguably tarnished his legacy among fans of the game. It is a shame, but in true Stern fashion I doubt that he cares. He's made his fair share of enemies throughout his time as commissioner. However, the work that he has done for the NBA for almost three decades as commissioner outweighs any ill will fans may have for him.
Stern is the longest serving commissioner of the four major North American sports and despite his shortcomings, he has been the best commissioner. He has helped change the way athletes are perceived domestically and internationally. Most of all, he's leaving the game in better shape than he found it. He's still got 15 months left to further alienate NBA fans, so I'll just give him his props now and say thanks for everything.
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