The late David Stern took professional basketball from an afterthought to a global behemoth.
David Stern: The Man, The Myth, The Legend
What can one say about former NBA commissioner, David Stern?
All of the aforementioned adjectives and nouns describe Stern, who passed away at 77 years old on Jan. 1 after suffering a brain hemorrhage last month.
Stern took the National Basketball Association (NBA) from afterthought to the top of pop culture during his tenure.
He became the blueprint of what a commissioner of sports should look like.
Furthermore, his vision of where sports, business and entertainment would go in the future remains something that aspiring businesspeople look to for inspiration over 35 years after he took the podium at his first NBA Draft in 1984 to announce Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon from University of Houston as the first overall pick by the Houston Rockets.
Rockets CEO Tad Brown said, “There is nobody that made a greater impact on the history of the NBA than David Stern. It’s undeniable that the 30 years he oversaw the development of the game, the expansion of the league, the globalization of the game, the enhancements in how the game is viewed and consumed.
“One of the things that is not given enough credit is the number of executives in David’s tenure that he developed and mentored that have made amazing contributions to the world of sport all over the world, and that’s all races, genders and beliefs. It’s amazing the impact he made in every single component of the NBA and the world of sport. He was an amazing guy.”
Arguably, the most amazing thing that Stern did after he took over from Larry O’Brien in 1984 was market individual NBA superstars to fans all over the world.
When Earvin “Magic” Johnson entered the NBA in the 1979-80 season, the NBA Finals appeared on tape delay and not live television.
Although Johnson of Michigan State and his college rival Larry Bird from Indiana State carried their fandom from the NCAA to the NBA, the league had still not reaped the benefits of the influx of new talent into the NBA.
So when Johnson led the Los Angeles Lakers to a game six victory over the Philadelphia 76ers for the title in 1980, the world slept while Johnson put on a remarkable performance as a rookie in the absence of superstar center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
However, later that decade Stern and the NBA finally truly capitalized on the growing rivalry between the Lakers and the Celtics.
Although the Lakers and the Celtics had been bitter rivals since the days of Bill Russell and Elgin Baylor, the Bird and Johnson rivalry came at the perfect time for a league that many White fans considered too Black in the 1970s.
The flashy Black guy for the Lakers and the blue collar White hick from the Celtics made for a perfect rivalry for the NBA, and Stern took full advantage.
On weekend nationally televised games, it seemed the league always featured a Celtics game and then a Lakers game.
Stern also saw the emergence of cable as the future for the league.
With cable, no longer did players have to play for big market teams to become household brands.
LeBron James could flourish in Cleveland.
The last decade also saw stars like James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant become household names in Oklahoma City before moving to bigger markets like Houston and New York.
And now, players like Giannis Antetokounmpo can shine in cities like Milwaukee.
That is because of the genius of Stern and his colleagues with the NBA during his tenure that saw the star power of the 1980s pop culture as something they could emulate with professional basketball.
Major League Baseball still struggles to market its current stars like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and Alex Bregman to the casual sports fan.
While casual sports fans might not recognize a professional baseball or hockey star, people who do not even like basketball know who Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans is thanks to the groundwork of those who came before the talented rookie.
The basketball/business genius of Stern can find its origin in the NBA-ABA merger of 1976.
Possibly, the only other people that might have shared Stern’s vision for professional basketball might have been Ozzie Silna and Daniel Silna, former owners of the Spirits of St. Louis of the old American Basketball Association (ABA).
While former ABA teams not invited to join the NBA like the Kentucky Colonels took a $3.3 million settlement to go not join the NBA, the Silna brothers instead took a nearly two percent deal of all television revenue from each NBA team in perpetuity.
The word perpetuity means forever!
Before the NBA reached a recent agreement with the Silna brothers, the deal had netted the former owners of the Spirits hundreds of millions of dollars, although the deal has since gone through renegotiation.
Forty years after the ABA ceased to operate; the NBA still has to cut checks from television revenue for a team that had not suited up since 1976.
But who knew that cable television would become such a huge source of revenue back in 1976?
Those with vision definitely could see it.
And Stern definitely deserves his credit as a visionary.
“Mr. Stern’s contribution to the NBA and the game of basketball are immeasurable. We are forever grateful for the impact Mr. Stern had on not only the NBA’s development, but for the incredible growth of our organization,” the Rockets said in a statement.
The NBA eventually accepted the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers and New York Nets into the league after the ABA folded.