Call him a villain. A bully. A jerk. Say he’s a puppet master who mercilessly pulled the strings on the NBA for three decades, leveling enemies, dictating his own terms, molding the league with a brute force of personality so polarizing he was often loathed.
But underneath the boos and hard feelings and general sense that David Stern is not a great guy rests an undeniable fact: Stern, who announced Thursday he will step down in February 2014 as NBA commissioner, was one of the most successful sports figures of his era.
During what will be a 30-year tenure, Stern helped transform the once-struggling league into a global brand. Yes, he was dealt a winning hand, assuming his leadership post in 1984, during the Bird-Magic golden era that had reversed the league’s 1970s slide – the exact moment a bumper draft crop that included a young player named Michael Jordan was about to further infuse the league with a transformative richness of talent.
Still, Stern played that hand perfectly, riding the end of Bird-Magic and the blossoming of Jordan and his Bulls to newfound relevance. And then, just as important, he successfully transitioned the NBA from its post-Jordan lull to what today is another golden era featuring as much depth of talent and as many storylines as we’ve seen in a generation.
LeBron James and the Heat. Kevin Durant and the young and hungry Thunder. Kobe Bryant and his new team boasting one of the best starting lineups of all time. The deluge of point guards, the young stars, the rhythm of a league that seems as interesting and fun as it has since Stern took over. That’s what he’s leaving behind.
“I don’t know what else to say other than to recite what I told the owners yesterday in executive session,” Stern said at a press conference at the NBA board of governor’s meeting. “I told them it’s been a great run, it will continue for another 15 months, that the league is in, I think, terrific condition.”
Under Stern, the NBA internationalized the game, opening up markets well beyond America and luring talent like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Ricky Rubio and Pau Gasol. He navigated – or, perhaps, used to amass more power – four lockouts. He added seven teams. He leaves with the NBA perhaps as the No. 2 sport in American culture after the NFL and popular enough to host games in non-NBA cities like Raleigh, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Milan and Barcelona.
There are plenty of reasons not to like David Stern, a slew of controversies that marked his tenure as much as his successes.
But here’s the thing: American culture is a place where we desperately want to believe that to be talented you have to be a good person; to be successful you have to be likeable; to earn our praise you must first have earned our affection.
It’s a false narrative pushed by a culture that wants to be told what it wants to hear at every turn and to celebrate only those it agrees with. But the fact is that some dictatorships are successful – even necessary. Not everything is analogous to American democracy, a fact that’s particularly true of business.
The NBA is a moneymaking machine that sells a game and fame and an escape from real life, and David Stern was its suit-wearing, ambitious, hard-charging, cutthroat champion. He suffered neither fools nor adversaries nor, often, competing opinions. He was brutal to his enemies, he lorded like a king, and he was wildly successful. The endgame of that is a league that can sell the idea of LeBron, Durant, Kobe and all the rest to shoe companies, the Chinese, Europe and much of this country for millions and millions of dollars a year.
Stern will be replaced by deputy commissioner Adam Silver, a man who for 14 years, has learned from the right hand of the man who controlled it all.
“You’ll be remembered as the best of all time,” Silver told Stern, sitting to his left on a podium.
Perhaps. There are still some things to assess, including Silver himself. If Stern has indeed set up a 15-month transition to the right man that runs smoothly and keeps the NBA growing, as he argued Thursday, he will have ended his career as brilliantly as he led it.
That verdict will come later. For now, what we know for sure is that for 30 years David Stern ruled the NBA with an iron fist and under its guidance made it into the success story it is today.
“I’m not a big believer in the L word, legacy,” Stern said on a later conference call. “I just want people to say that he steered the good ship NBA through all kinds of interesting times, some choppy waters, some extraordinary opportunities, and on his watch the league grew in popularity, became a global phenomenon and the owners and the players and the fans did very well.”
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.