David Stern, who transformed the National Basketball Association into a global, multibillion-dollar powerhouse while serving as the longest-tenured commissioner of any professional sport, has died. He was 77.
Stern died Wednesday after suffering a brain hemorrhage approximately three weeks ago, the league said in a statement. His wife, Dianne, and their family were with him at his bedside.
Stern, a lawyer by training, took the NBA from tape-delay broadcasts to must-see prime-time programs. He boosted NBA revenue from $118 million in the season before he took over to $5.5 billion in 2014, the year he retired after 30 years at the helm.
“I think he is the greatest person in NBA history,” Yao Ming, the former star Houston Rockets center from China, said when Stern retired. “He made everything happen.” Yao was one of the most important international players recruited during Stern’s tenure, helping to boost basketball in the huge Chinese market.
The NBA that Stern took over in 1984 was a glorified 23-city circus. As late as 1981, NBA Finals games aired on tape delay on CBS to make room for more desirable programming such as “The Waltons.” He ran the league like a startup, with improvisation and bluff.
“The financial planning was, ‘What was last year’s budget? Let’s increase it by 5% and hey, we got our new budget,’” he said in an interview after retiring.
The year he retired, Stern was voted into the basketball Hall of Fame. In 2007, he was named one of the most influential people in sports by BusinessWeek, now Bloomberg Businessweek.
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action,” current Commissioner Adam Silver said in the statement. “Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals — preparation, attention to detail, and hard work.“
His leadership tenure started with a lucky break when superstar Michael Jordan was drafted. Stern seized on Jordan’s spectacular play to advertise the league and was able to continue that marketing approach to capitalize on existing stars like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, as well as later phenoms like Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James.
As a boost to his strategy, these star players got their own marketing contracts for products like Nike shoes, bringing the NBA to the attention of many non-fans.
“He reinvented himself in my mind,” former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo said when Stern retired. “He was a young, very highly thought-of lawyer when he came into basketball. And he made himself a marketing guy.”
Colangelo credited Stern with being technology-savvy, including seeing the early potential of cable television and pay-for-view broadcasts. He acquired the nickname Digital Dave.
Stern gave such broadcast markets more content, arranging for the NBA to add seven teams, including the Miami Heat and the Minnesota Timberwolves, that brought league membership to 30 during his time.
He also contracted to televise games widely overseas, exploiting the increased appeal of the game after the so-called Dream Team of NBA All-Stars won the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics, the first games that allowed professionals to compete.
Perhaps the most pressing issue of Stern’s NBA tenure was the league’s image. At a time when black athletes weren’t embraced by corporate sponsors, and drug use also stigmatized the league, Stern worked to convince major brands that America was ready to admire NBA players.
He implemented a strict drug-testing program and, later, a controversial dress code for players at team or league activities. He drew a hard line for conduct that threatened the league image, including swift suspensions when a player refused to stand during the national anthem, went into the stands to fight a fan, or choked his coach.
As the league’s fortunes grew, so did player salaries, rising to an average of more than $5 million in Stern’s tenure, up from $1 million in 1992 as television revenue grew to almost a billion dollars annually by 2007.
“I don’t see how you can make the NBA more successful than David Stern has,” Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said in commenting on the Stern era, which included a pioneering salary cap backed by players and owners, a revamped All-Star game that became a TV hit and a popular televised draft lottery.
Stern persuaded long-bickering team owners to coordinate marketing and other business strategies and even share business secrets that helped all.
“All the teams were islands unto themselves,” Bob King, the former chief of the NBA’s team services unit, told Sports Illustrated in 1991. “What Stern did was take the islands and turn them into a continent.”
Stern’s most enduring impact on the NBA may be its growth and popularity overseas, particularly in China. Long before every major U.S. sports league prioritized international growth, Stern brokered a deal with CCTV in China — he mailed videotapes overseas in return for a portion of advertising revenue.
The NBA was the first league to open an office in China, and the first league to play exhibition games there. Today it has offices in a handful of Chinese cities, and 800 million people in China watch NBA programming on an annual basis. The league’s opportunity in the country is likely worth billions.
Stern was also instrumental in starting the Women’s National Basketball Association in 1997, muscling out a rival league to establish a 12-team organization.
He got credit for encouraging diversity in the hiring of NBA coaches. But he wasn’t without critics for some of his policies. He acknowledged an error in introducing a microfiber composite ball for the 2006-07 season to replace the traditional leather one. After months of player complaints about the ball’s lower bounce performance, Stern switched back to the traditional sphere, saying the new one hadn’t been properly tested.
After he retired, Stern remained active in basketball-related affairs, serving as an adviser to Paul Taubman’s PJT partners on sports investments such as Whoop Inc.’s high-end wearable fitness tracker.
David Joel Stern was born on Sept. 22, 1942, in New York, to William Stern and the former Anna Bronstein. His father owned a deli, and Stern grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he went to high school. He was a fan of the New York Knicks, cheering on the likes of Harry “The Horse” Gallatin.
He got a bachelor’s degree in 1963 from Rutgers University and a law degree from Columbia University in 1966.
After school, he went to work for Proskauer Rose Goetz & Mendelsohn, which represented the NBA. He was assigned to work on league matters. After he made partner, he became the NBA’s general counsel in 1978 and executive vice president in 1980. In 1984 he was named commissioner, replacing Larry O’Brien.
Stern is survived by his wife, Dianne Bock, and two children, Eric and Andrew.
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