Remembering NBA commissioner David Stern

LeBron James said no one else, only David Stern, could have created and fulfilled the vision to turn the NBA into a worldwide phenomenon. Scottie Pippen said Stern was the “smartest person in the room” — any room. Without Stern, Michael Jordan said, “The NBA would not be what is it today.”

The basketball world spoke up for Stern on Wednesday, as the first day of a new year and the first of the 2020s coincided with the former NBA commissioner’s passing at the age of 77.

Stern had been in critical condition since he suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12, five years after retiring from the job he held for three decades and in which his man-management abilities and business imagination and turned the league into a global juggernaut.

By most metrics, the NBA is not the No. 1 sport in America, but it has done a better job than any other of making its star players true celebrities of influence, and of spreading the organization to all corners of the international map.

“David Stern is the best commissioner in American sports history,” FOX NBA analyst Chris Broussard told me in a telephone conversation. “He took over with serious obstacles to overcome, and he overcame them spectacularly.”

It is difficult to imagine a time when professional basketball was not deemed to be a particularly relevant part of the national sporting psyche. Yet that’s how it was in the 1970s and into the early 1980s. Stern took the top job in 1984, back when NBA playoff games on tape delay was still a thing. Change was needed.

“Baseball was America’s pastime. The NFL had black players but was largely a corporate-driven league,” Broussard added. “The NBA was seen as a black league with a difficult reputation. When he took over, there was a racial element to get past. Basketball was viewed as too black for the mainstream; the NBA was seen as being drug infested. Stern showed his genius and it changed everything.”

Stern realized that he was sitting on a golden ticket in the fascinating personalities of his star players. Rather than fearing player power, he used it to propel the league forward, and it proved to be a more dynamic vehicle than the traditional method of team loyalty.

Having Michael Jordan turn up in Chicago when he did certainly didn’t hurt, but Stern’s dedication to allowing athletes to flourish beyond the court and generate their own following rewrote the playbook for sports marketing.

His successor, current commissioner Adam Silver, said in a statement that even aside from sports, Stern should be recognized as a business leader of the highest stature.

“He ushered in the modern global NBA,” Silver said. “He launched groundbreaking 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.”

Spurred by Stern’s energy and commitment, the NBA’s growth seemed to have no bounds. Today, players earn astonishing salaries, with the NBA having the highest average wage in sports by a distance.

The likes of Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, James and others became iconic societal figures with a reach way past athletics.

However, Stern was no pushover. He was gritty, determined and could be stubborn and ruthless. Such is the nature of positions like his, and predicaments like the one he inherited. He came to the NBA from New York corporate law and used those pit bull smarts to push basketball to fresh and unimagined heights.

“Stern was relentless in his pursuit of big, bigger and biggest for the NBA,” Adrian Wojnarowski wrote on ESPN. “This was Stern’s NBA, and Stern did almost anything he wanted for those 30 years on the job as commissioner. He was a visionary and a deal-maker and a tyrant and a revolutionist.”

Commissioners aren’t supposed to be loved by the masses — that’s not really part of the job description. But try to find anyone who thinks he did a bad job. Good luck.

Just a few days ago, I wrote a tribute column commemorating those we lost in 2019. Stern is the first prominent sports figure to pass in 2020. Sadly, there will be more … too many more, but it is hard to think there will be any whose influence spread farther, or deeper.

Kobe Bryant said there was a reason Stern demanded the best from everyone: “Because he gave it himself.”