When David Stern took over the reins of the NBA in 1984, the league only had 23 teams. Postseason games aired on tape delay. Not a single American professional sports league had ever played a game outside of the United States. The National Basketball Association was nowhere near a global power. It was more regional than it was international...and it was in danger of dying.
Now, the NBA is a truly worldwide brand. The game has more influence from other nations than ever before, and players from all areas of our globe are impacting basketball at a level never seen before. The NBA isn’t worried about tape delay anymore...not after the gigantic television deal signed years ago which dramatically changed the economics of professional basketball in the United States. The league now boasts 30 squads, one of which is in Canada, and a minor league system that is growing yearly - including the recent announcement of a team in Mexico. China, London, here there and everywhere...the NBA, despite recent ratings concerns, is thriving.
A professional sport that was arguably on life support in 1984 today is arguably the 2nd most popular game in America, overtaking baseball for runner-up to the juggernaut that is football.
David Stern, American business and sports innovator, did that.
It was Stern who pushed for international growth, both in terms of expansion (the Toronto Raptors, who won the 2019 NBA Finals, and the Vancouver - now Memphis - Grizzlies). It was Stern who took no prisoners behind the scenes or in the media, driving his league forward at times through his sheer will and a willingness to be the “bad guy” if it was in the greater interest of the NBA. It was Stern who staged professional basketball games outside the U.S., a first for any American pro league, and it was Stern who allowed professionals to play in the Olympic Games starting with the 1992 “Dream Team”.
So when you see Luka Doncic dominate the NBA so early in his career, or watch the NBA play games in Asia or Europe, that process began with David Stern. When you watch a parade in Toronto for an NBA Championship, that was because of, in large part, David Stern.
When you attend a game at FedExForum to watch the Memphis (formerly Vancouver) Grizzlies play, or if you watch it on League Pass via your cable provider or streaming service, that all has the fingerprints of David Stern all over it. This month, if you are fortunate enough to experience the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Game in Memphis, you have David Stern to thank for being an invaluable partner in the creation of the important yearly civic event thank has expanded to a league-wide day of service and remembrance.
David Stern is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, one of the most influential non-players in the history of the National Basketball Association. Even with that distinction, you must understand - without Stern, Michael Jordan likely doesn’t get the platform to become a global icon. Without David Stern, the game overseas almost certainly does not become a rival (a very far-reaching one, but still closer than American Football) to soccer worldwide. From Magic Johnson to Giannis Antetokounmpo and every man and woman (of the WNBA, which started under Stern’s watch) inbetween, the growth of professional basketball owes a great debt to David Stern.
Stern died on New Year’s Day at the age of 77 after being hospitalized for several weeks following a brain hemorrhage, and while his passing is certainly devastating for NBA fans and all connected to the league it is almost fitting. For as the game he helped save flourishes and looks to the new decade ahead, we all can take a moment to appreciate the man that made it possible. He is arguably the most consequential commissioner of a professional sports league of the television era. The NFL has grown tremendously, but was not in the dire straits that the NBA was in the 1980’s. The end of the Association was a real possibility. David Stern, who joined the NBA as outside counsel in 1966 and worked his way to the very top of the basketball world, rescued it from the scrap heap of sports history.
We’ve lost a titan of American sport. Rest in peace.