It was 1978 and David Stern was just hired as the NBA’s General Counsel under then Commissioner Larry O’Brien. He had spent the past 12 years working with the NBA as an outside counsel and was now tasked with assisting O’Brien in cleaning up the league and solidifying its financial security.
You see the NBA was very different back then. It was in the middle of an era it would sooner forget. There was a very large and very real substance abuse problem amongst the players (primarily Cocaine use). The league was seen as violent where fighting was commonplace and very serious, especially following the Kermit Washington/Rudy Tomjanovich incident a year earlier. However the biggest problem in terms of its revenue base was that the NBA was seen as too black. This prevented large marketing and advertising dollars from being spent to promote NBA athletes into mainstream America.
In 1980, as Executive Vice President of the NBA, Stern orchestrated two landmark decisions in the NBA’s history which were agreed upon with the NBA Players’ Association; drug testing and team salary cap. Drug testing allowed the league to admit there was a problem and proactively work to clean it up, along with cleaning up that perception of the league. The salary cap created a revenue sharing system between owners and players. These decisions put the NBA back on course towards financial and social viability and people started to take notice of David Stern.
In 1984, he succeeded Larry O’Brien as Commissioner of the 23 team league, which was already in a better state than when Stern joined 6 years prior. It had two very marketable superstars in Magic Johnson and Larry Bird who appealed to all demographics. They had already formed a rivalry from their College days which now extended to the NBA, each having won 2 titles since joining the league.
The USA Men’s basketball team regained Gold at the 1984 Olympic Games which peaked interest in the sport, plus there was a crop of young talent entering the league at that time including Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Chris Mullin, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, Brad Daugherty, Sam Perkins and John Stockton.
In addition, the NBA ramped up its global reach by reinstating the Global Games for the first time since 1979. 3 teams played a total of 19 games in Israel, Germany, Italy and Switzerland versus each other and local European/Israeli teams. This was designed to showcase the talent of the NBA to other continents. At the time Stern was quoted as saying: “the NBA has no plans to launch teams outside of the States, though ultimately we may be seeing NBA teams play regular-season games in foreign countries.” This would become reality in 1990 in Tokyo.
However, there was still a lot more change to follow for Stern and the NBA.
The first salary cap was set for the 1984/85 season at $3.6 million per team. By comparison, the average salary in the NBA today is over $4 million per player with the salary cap at $58.7 million per team.
The first ever draft lottery was held in 1985, resulting in the #1 pick falling to the New York Knicks who selected franchise center Patrick Ewing. There are still conspiracy theorists today who believe Stern rigged that lottery although it’s never been proven or disproven conclusively.
In 1988 the David Stern NBA expansion era began with two teams added (Charlotte and Miami) followed by another two a year later (Minnesota and Orlando) and two more in 1995 in Canada (Toronto and Vancouver).
International marketing continued with the advent of the McDonald’s Open in 1988, however it was Stern’s role in convincing FIBA to do away with their restriction on NBA players competing in FIBA events including the Olympic Games and World Championships which was the real breakthrough.
This culminated in the now legendary Dream Team representing USA at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as Michael Jordan’s global brand was peaking and the torch had been well and truly passed from Magic and Bird. The Dream Team steamrolled through the competition in Barcelona, showcasing the immense talent difference between the NBA and the rest of the world. New NBA fans were born overnight and Jordan, Barkley, Pippen and Malone became household names globally. Following this accomplishment, you could see David Stern’s smile in Barcelona all the way from the NBA Head Office in New York City.
Stern had a vision for the NBA and it was in no way constrained to North America. Despite constant speculation about the possibility of having an NBA franchise located overseas, Stern knew the key to growing the NBA’s global reach was not to put a team in a foreign city, but to put the NBA into foreign living rooms. TV rights are the biggest revenue generator for any major sport and Stern was instrumental in getting the NBA onto screens via multiple mediums.
He was always interested in the latest technology but screen time was of utmost importance. Games were broadcast locally, nationally, internationally; highlights were available nightly on ESPN and other sports networks; and the NBA would promote itself with catchy campaigns such as “I Love This Game” and “Where Amazing Happens”.
Today the NBA broadcasts games into all four corners of the globe via NBA League Pass which can be purchased to stream games live or on demand in practically any country on earth.
Stern’s tenure was not without controversy though. Aside from the Ewing draft lottery, there were two lockouts stemming from failed negotiations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, both which threatened to lose an entire season before resulting in shortened seasons.
Shortened seasons were also the result of suspensions handed out to several Indiana Pacers players after the Malice at the Palace between the Pacers and Detroit Pistons in November 2004. Ron Artest was suspended for the remaining 73 games plus the playoffs of that season.
There was the infamous dress code implemented to clean up the hip-hop perception of players’ images in 2005 which is still discussed today.
The Tim Donaghy scandal in 2007 – a referee caught fixing games which may have impacted playoff games the season before.
The much maligned relocation of the Seattle Supersonics to Oklahoma City for the 2008/09 season. Stern was accused of sitting idly by and allowing Clay Bennett to effectively purchase the team with the plan of relocation, leaving Seattle without an NBA franchise to this day.
And of course the veto of the trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers.
But the good clearly outweighs the bad. Stern has accomplished an incredible amount of change, growth, awareness, brand recognition and of course revenue. He has done this by being unafraid of taking a hard line or a stance on issues and doing what he feels is right, no matter how he is perceived as a result. When asked about this once he responded honestly;
“I actually don’t hope for a legacy. I think that it impedes your ability to make the hard decisions if you sit around saying, ‘How will this affect my legacy?’”
The fact that he has for years embraced the boos he receives on NBA Draft night to the point that it is now a running gag which new Commissioner Adam Silver will surely carry on, exemplifies the stance that Stern decided to take long ago. The league has benefited from that immensely.
To put into perspective the magnitude of the growth achieved under Stern, let’s take a look at some key metrics from 1984 to 2014;
|Metric||1984 level||2014 level|
|# of NBA Franchises||23||30|
|Salary Cap||$3.6 million||$58.7 million|
|Average Player Salary||$330,000||$4,156,255|
|Highest Paid Player Salary||$2,500,000 (Magic Johnson)||$30,453,805 (Kobe Bryant)|
|Collective worth of NBA Franchises||$400 million||$19 billion|
|TV Rights Value||$22 million||$930 million|
When Stern announced that he would retire back in October 2012, he was quoted as saying: “I’d like to think I did an adequate job.” Looking at those metrics above, I think we’d all agree it was more than adequate.
The fact is, Stern has been not only the longest tenured, but the most successful professional sports Commissioner in the history of professional sports. He transformed a struggling league and product that fans, sponsors and media were shying away from into a global success.
30 years is a long time for anyone to spend in a single job. Stern made the most of his time and we, as fans, are the biggest beneficiaries.
We salute you David Stern and say, thanks.
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 As chronicled in ‘The Punch’ by John Feinstein. A very interesting read and illustrative of the many issues with the NBA at that time.