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David Stern, the basketball-loving lawyer who took the NBA around the world during 30 years as its longest-serving commissioner and oversaw its growth into a global powerhouse, died Wednesday. He was 77.
Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and underwent emergency surgery. The league said he died with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside.
Stern had been involved with the NBA for nearly two decades before he became its fourth commissioner on Feb. 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 $5 billion a year industry and made NBA basketball perhaps the world’s most popular sport after soccer.
According to The New York Times, the NBA was behind both the NFL and Major League Baseball in terms of revenue and TV presence when Stern took over.
By the time Stern left his position in 2014, a league that had struggled for a foothold had grown into a more than $5 billion a year industry and made NBA basketball perhaps the world’s most popular sport after soccer. The trained lawyer helped the league become televised in more than 200 countries and territories, and in more than 40 languages. TV revenue also had increased more than 40-fold during his tenure, surpassing $1 billion, the Times reported.
Stern had a hand in nearly every initiative to do that, including drug testing, the salary cap and implementation of a dress code.
“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,” Adam Silver, who followed Stern as commissioner, said in a statement. “Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver statement regarding the passing of NBA Commissioner Emeritus David J. Stern pic.twitter.com/aW4WbxFQED
— NBA (@NBA) January 1, 2020
On Thursday, former president Barack Obama tweeted, ” With David Stern’s passing, I’m reflecting on everything he did to take the NBA global, creating entire new generations of fans pretending to be like Mike or any of their favorite players on driveways and playgrounds around the world.”
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 program, 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.”
That age 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 U.S. 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 1966-78 and spent two years as its 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.
He never did.
After serving as the NBA’s executive vp business and legal affairs from 1980-84, Stern 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’s popularity would quickly surge thanks to the rebirth of the Los Angeles Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by the entrance of the Chicago Bulls’ Michael Jordan just a few months after Stern became commissioner.
Under Stern, the NBA would play nearly 150 international games and be televised in more than 200 countries and territories, and in more than 40 languages, and the NBA Finals and All-Star weekend would grow into international spectacles. The 2010 All-Star game drew more than 108,000 fans to Dallas Cowboys Stadium, a record to watch a basketball game.
“It was David Stern being a marketing genius who turned the league around. That’s why our brand is so strong,” said Johnson, who announced he was retiring because of HIV in 1991 but returned the following year at the All-Star Game with Stern’s backing. “It was David Stern who took this league worldwide.”
Stern was fiercely protective of his players and referees when he felt they were unfairly criticized, such as when members of the Indiana Pacers brawled with Detroit Pistons fans in 2004, or when an FBI investigation in 2007 found that Tim Donaghy had bet on games he officiated, throwing the entire referee operations department into turmoil. With his voice rising and spit flying, Stern would publicly rebuke media outlets, even individual writers, if he felt they had taken cheap shots.
But Stern was also a relentless negotiator against those same employees in collective bargaining, and his loyalty to his owners and commitment to getting them favorable deals led to his greatest failures, lockouts in 1998 and 2011 that were the only times the NBA lost games to work stoppages. Though he had already passed off the heavy lifting to Silver by the latter one, it was Stern who faced the greatest criticism, as well as the damage to a legacy that had otherwise rarely been tarnished.
David Joel Stern was born on Sept. 22, 1942, in New York. A graduate of Rutgers University and Columbia Law School, he was dedicated to public service, launching the NBA Cares program in 2005 that donated more than $100 million to charity in five years.
He would begin looking internationally soon after becoming commissioner and the globalization of the game got an enormous boost in 1992, when Jordan, Johnson and Bird played on the U.S. Olympic Dream Team that would bring the sport a new burst of popularity while storming to the gold medal in Barcelona.
Stern capitalized on that by sending NBA teams to play preseason games against other NBA or international clubs, and opened offices in other countries. The league staged regular-season games in Japan in 1991 and devoted significant resources to China, and Stern’s work there would pay off in 2008 when basketball was perhaps the most popular sport in the Beijing Olympics.
Growth slowed near the end of his tenure. The worldwide economic downturn in the late 2000s all but wrecked his longtime hopes of expanding overseas and led to the second lockout, with owners wanting massive changes to the salary structure after losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year on their basketball teams, on top of losses in their personal businesses.
Stern helped get them, and the league was thriving again by the time he left office. He said he felt the time was right, confident that he had groomed a worthy successor in Silver, who had worked at the league for more than two decades.
Stern stayed busy, taking trips overseas on the league’s behalf, doing public speaking and consulting various companies. He was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
Many sports figures took to social media to pay tribute:
RIP David Stern! Shaking your hand on June, 26, 2003 was a dream come true pic.twitter.com/ZCT7naJPcU
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) January 1, 2020
Prayers up for David Stern and his family!!
— Isaiah Thomas (@isaiahthomas) January 1, 2020
Damn. RIP Commissioner. https://t.co/r5xtwpvJIO
— Kevin Love (@kevinlove) January 1, 2020
RIP to David Stern. Condolences to his family, friends & the entire @NBA family!
— Quentin Richardson (@QRich) January 1, 2020
Our thoughts and prayers are with the NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern’s family.
— Orlando Magic (@OrlandoMagic) January 1, 2020
Prayers up for David Stern and his family!
Rest In Peace pic.twitter.com/iCM8e5iL9n
— Enes Kanter (@EnesKanter) January 1, 2020
RIP David Stern…..
— Mario Chalmers (@mchalmers15) January 1, 2020
Steve Kerr on the legacy of Commissioner Emeritus David Stern. pic.twitter.com/kUWpEbfBr2
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) January 1, 2020
Very sad day for basketball. We saw David Stern a lot in the 90s and I found him to be kind, thoughtful and almost always the smartest person in the room. He was an innovator who helped grow our sport into a global game and his impact will never be forgotten. RIP, Commissioner. pic.twitter.com/FzlJwnJmrK
— Scottie Pippen (@ScottiePippen) January 1, 2020
I can not put into words what the friendship of David Stern has meant to me but many others. He changed so many lives. David was a great innovator and made the game we love what it is today. This is a horrible loss. Our hearts are with Dianne & their family. RIP my friend. @NBA pic.twitter.com/mbnneqm18s
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) January 1, 2020
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert released the following statement: pic.twitter.com/ePwLIRfvzo
— WNBA (@WNBA) January 1, 2020
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman statement after the passing of NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern. pic.twitter.com/NM2bXz0tJa
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) January 1, 2020
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