Former NBA Commissioner David Stern passes at 77

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern

He oversaw the growth of the NBA from “just a league” into a global marketing juggernaut during his 30-year tenure. David Stern, the former commissioner of the National Basketball Association, died Wednesday. He was 77.

According to a statement from the NBA, Stern died from a brain hemorrhage he suffered several weeks ago, according to the NBA. Stern suffered the brain hemorrhage December 12 while dining in a Manhattan restaurant.

“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “He was a mentor and one of my dearest friends.  We spent countless hours in the office, at arenas and on planes wherever the game would take us.  Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail, and hard work.”

Early Life

David Joel Stern was born Sept. 22, 1942, in New York, where he grew up a Knicks fan and worked in his fathers’ deli. 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.

Stern graduated from Teaneck High School and went on to attend Rutgers University. After completing his undergraduate studies, Stern went on to Columbia Law School, graduating in 1966.

Stern would become the league’s outside counsel from 1966 to ’78, then becoming the league’s general counsel. Instead, after serving as the NBA’s executive vice president of business and legal affairs from 1980-84, he replaced Larry O’Brien as commissioner.

The Golden Age of the NBA

As commissioner, Stern oversaw the considerable expansion of the league, which was airing games in over 200 countries by the time he stepped down. During Stern’s tenure, the NBA added seven new teams and saw six other teams relocate, including the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets, coincidentally, played their inaugural 1967 season in the American Basketball Association, which would merge with the NBA in 1976, in Stern’s hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey.

“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,” Silver added. “Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration. Our deepest condolences go out to David’s wife, Dianne, their sons, Andrew and Eric, and their extended family, and we share our grief with everyone whose life was touched by him.”

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.

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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.

“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Hall of Famer Michael Jordan said. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.”

Stern would be remembered mostly for the global expansion of the league, both on TV and live.

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 Lakers-Celtics rivalry behind Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, followed by the entrance of Michael Jordan just a few months after Stern became commissioner.

During his three-decade run, Stern turned countless ballplayers into celebrities who were known around the globe by one name: Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron, just to name a few. Their growth spurred the growth of sports brands such as Nike, Adidas, Gatorade and more.

Stern also 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 United States that previously weren’t available.

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of NBA Commissioner Emeritus David Stern,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “The WNBA will be forever grateful for for his exemplary leadership and and vision that led to the founding of our league. His steadfast commitment to to women’s sports was ahead of its time and has provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball. He will be missed.” 

Stern 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.

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.

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.

In 2012, Stern announced he would step down in February 2014, and tapped Adam Silver as his replacement. At the time of his retirement, Stern was the longest serving NBA commissioner, having held the position for exactly 30 years.

After stepping down, Stern remained affiliated with the league with the title of commissioner emeritus, and has remained active in his other interests, such as sports technology. 

“There are no words that can really describe the far-reaching impact of Commissioner Stern’s brilliance, vision, fairness and hard work over so many years,” Larry Bird said. “When you think of all that he accomplished worldwide on behalf of thousands of players, so many fans, all of the jobs he created for team and arena employees and all of the people that benefitted from the many layers of growth in the sport and industry that David spearheaded and then passed on to others, there is no doubt Commissioner Stern lifted the NBA to new heights and he will be greatly missed by all of us.”

Stern is survived by his wife, Dianne, and their two sons, Eric and Andrew.