The year is 1984. An unfamiliar face stands at the podium of the Felt Forum in New York City, ready to usher in the newest class of talent to the NBA. This new Commissioner of the NBA would shake the hands of future legends Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Hakeem Olajuwon, and, of course, Michael Jordan. Little did anyone know, but the man that shook those hands would go on to change the game more than those four players and many more ever could.
That man was David Stern.
David Stern went on to be league Commissioner for 30 years. He institutionalized most of what we take for granted within the NBA, making the game of professional basketball a true American pastime rather than a mere fan’s alternative once football season was over. He expanded the league from twenty-three to thirty teams, adding economic growth and league exposure to a new demographic of America.
Many say that the appearance of Michael Jordan saved the NBA, but it was David Stern that grew its popularity on a broader scale than most realize.
In his tenure as Commissioner, Stern grew the sport much more globally than he did nationally. The NBA is now broadcast in 215 countries around the world and was the first American sports league to play a game abroad.
David Stern paved the way for global marketing in sports, but his impact on the world is much greater than a simple business venture for better ratings. The growth of the NBA worldwide led to the appearance of foreign-born players throughout the league.
Even in regions where Civil War devastated countries like Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Serbia; the tragic death of NBA star Drazen Petrovic brought peace and community to a place where death and chaos was the cultural norm. Basketball began to serve as more than a game to much of the world under Stern’s tenure. It became a cultural phenomenon, displaying pure, individual athleticism to the world through the simple process of throwing a large, round ball into a slightly larger, round hoop.
David Stern helped basketball become beautiful.
With that beauty of the game came the desire to perfect the art, to become better than the best, giving way to some of the greatest rivalries and debates in all of sports. Lakers vs. Celtics, Bulls vs. The Field, and Pacers vs. Knicks highlighted the tenacious battles of the 90s, the golden age of the NBA. The GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate highlights our current era as Kobe and LeBron fight to be spoken as the same sentence as Michael Jordan. Basketball has brought out the highest form of both individual and team competition in the world, and one man started it all.
The game evolved into what it is today, from its flashy sneakers and trademarked facial hair. David Stern built an encompassing brand that allowed players to then brand themselves, adding to the global exposure of the NBA through jersey and sneaker sales alike.
And then the reign of supreme growth and diversification came to an end, exactly 30 years after its genesis.
Adam Silver, a relatively ironic name for a successor to a legend, plans to pick up where his long-time boss left off. Well… kind of.
Upon being asked about the future of the NBA, Silver said, “As much as we talk about international [...] I still think there’s an enormous opportunity in the United States. [...] I think this game should be a rival to football. In the United States, it’s the No. 1 participatory sport. We’ve all played it. I want to focus on the game. The business is going well, but this is a beautiful game.”
The NBA may never rival football in the United States like Silver wishes, but his point about it being a great participatory sport makes a strong point. In no other sport can you get nine people together and, with the help of a few lines, a ball, and a hoop, play the exact sport that the pros play. It really is a beautiful thing.
The game of basketball has proved to be a worldwide art form that transcends all cultural and economic boundaries. But it would may have never been the game it is today without a visionary like David Stern.
So here’s to you, Mr. Stern. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the game you have helped grow and flourish. You’ve done a hell of a job.