The late David Stern built the NBA from struggling leag…

The late David Stern built the NBA from struggling league to lucrative global juggernaut during a three-decade tenure as commissioner that ranks among the most impactful examples of executive leadership in the history of U.S. professional sports. Stern inherited a league in 1984 that earned roughly $100 million in annual revenue and little to show for its business beyond its on-court product. When he stepped down in 2014, the NBA was earning more than $5.5 billion per year, with a profitable international footprint, massive media rights deals, larger player contracts and several new franchises.

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Once a distant competitor to the NFL and MLB, Stern also built the NBA into a sought-after media property. The league signed its record-setting nine-year, $24 billion rights deal with ESPN and TNT just months after Stern stepped down as commissioner. As NBA revenue grew, players saw a sharp increase in salaries. The average player earned just $330,000 in 1985 but nearly $8 million as of this season.
Tomer Azarly: Kawhi Leonard recalls a favorite memory of his with the late Commissioner Emeritus David Stern - “Just knowing that if I really wanted to get here, I would have to shake his hand to be able to enter the league... I got the opportunity to do that and meet him.”
“He’s definitely the reason why our league is in the state it is in today,” said Bulls forward Thaddeus Young. “Adam Silver has done a great job of taking on that head seat and making sure that the game continues to go on and keeps getting better and better. But David Stern is the one who introduced everything to the league, from these contracts that we have now to the TV (rights and revenue) to dealing with both sides, the NBPA and the NBA, to forming this great fraternity that we have.
In two-plus decades covering Stern's league—first in L.A., later for the New York Times and Bleacher Report—I experienced the full gamut, his passion, his humor and his wrath. At his best, he was funny, glib and thoughtful; at his worst, vicious. If he liked a story, he said so. If I crossed him up, he cursed me out.
In 2005, the Knicks signed Eddy Curry to a $60 million contract, despite well-documented concerns over a potentially life-threatening heart condition. It was a serious issue for the NBA, one we covered extensively at the Times. But Stern felt we'd overdramatized it, and he called to let me know, employing a creative mix of F-bombs to make his point. "I heard David really let you have it," one of Stern's lieutenants told me the next day, chuckling. "He said he might have gone a little overboard."
At a breakfast in Manhattan, years ago, one of Stern’s longtime close advisers and friends pointed out the business talent around Stern. People who once worked in the NBA’s league office on Fifth Avenue are now making waves in Silicon Valley, healthcare, or finance. Others were his former deputies Rick Welts and Russ Granik, each of whom was once seen as Stern’s potential successor before some kind of falling out. The official version of this history: Stern cultivated all this talent, a coaching tree to rival Gregg Popovich’s. The truer version: The NBA attracted a who’s who of young talent because it’s famous—and the real news is that all but the most hardy loyalists left because working with Stern can be overwhelming.
The first time I ever spoke to Stern one-on-one, he had my call transferred to a low-quality 2003 speakerphone. Who knows what he was really doing on his end, but it sounded like he might have been repairing a lawn mower. For the first many seconds of our call, I attempted various hello hello hellos and heard back nothing but clanking and scraping. So, what was supposed to be a softball conversation about the impending retirement of David Robinson opened, instead, with the commissioner bellowing: “Do you have a real fucking question?”
Somewhere in there, Stern and his team were on a private jet to China. Much of the way, according to someone who was there, a consultant schooled Stern and his team in the etiquette of Chinese business. Things like: Present the business card with two hands. Study the card you have been given with interest. Do all of this while standing. (One website says breaking these rules is “tantamount to refusing to shake hands.”) They rehearsed, they landed, and they took a car to a conference room where … Stern, the witness says, took a seat, threw a pile of cards on the table, and bellowed that it was time to start the meeting.
By the end of Donaghy’s scandal, the betting was so heavy on his games that half the gambling world figured it out; reportedly, in many cases, bettors who weren’t even on the inside were able to bet along with the conspirators. And yet the NBA was clueless. The FBI was involved, there was talk of fixed games, allegations other referees might be involved, and really just an incredible stench of mismanagement. I’ve never met anyone who knows a lot about sports gambling who believes the NBA did anything particularly well in the Donaghy case.
That same year, 2011, Stern told a room full of journalists that he knew where the bodies were buried because he helped bury them. Was it hilarious? A threat? Both? Nobody knew then, nobody knows now. But to me it was certainly designed, like many Stern comments, to intimidate. It was all both marvelous and terrible. Before long, I got a phone call from a lawyer who spent a career working with and for NBA team investors, including many on the board of governors. He said this was precisely their experience of Stern. He was a never-ending blur of harsh curses and lavish charm, with all signals pushing toward whatever agenda he sought at the time.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: David Stern enabled the surge in the NBA’s worldwide popularity as much as any player on the court & sent the game around the world. He had a passion for the game, for the league, & for the players that we’ve all loved & enjoyed. He will be missed,but not forgotten @NBA
But in the final months of his life, Stern stood tall over every staggering thing he had accomplished. Thorn and his wife Peggy joined Stern and his wife Dianne for dinner a few weeks before the commissioner suffered his December brain hemorrhage at a Manhattan restaurant. "He seemed in such good spirits and health," Thorn said. "He just had a great look about him. David was always so proud of the league, and of what [his successor] Adam Silver had done. Some of these guys that leave big jobs have a hard time staying away, but I think David did a good job of not trying to take away from what Adam was doing.
Tom Orsborn: Pop: “David Stern was an iconic figure, but that’s quite an understatement. What he was, was a force of nature, an amazing businessman, leader, manager, a man who took over in the mid-eighties as commissioner at a difficult time...(He's) why we are all here and doing well."
Tom Orsborn: Rudy Gay said David Stern “revolutionized” the NBA: “He made us players marketable. He signed some of the biggest deals in this sport’s history. He made basketball the global phenomenon it is today. We owe him a lot for that.” #Spurs
LeBron James eulogized David Stern for his global vision and shrewd negotiating tactics. But with Stern passing away on Wednesday at age 77, the Lakers star suggested another way to honor the late NBA Commissioner. “He definitely should have something named after him,” James said following the Lakers’ 117-107 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. “Either if it’s an award, or, I don’t know, a day? During the course of an NBA season, there’s a ‘David Stern Day.’ I don’t know. We can figure it out.”
One of the many things Stern accomplished before leaving the NBA in 2014 was getting an iconic player — Michael Jordan — into ownership control of a team. The then-Charlotte Bobcats were losing value by tens of millions when Bob Johnson sold control to Jordan in 2010. Jordan appreciated Stern’s style of leadership. “Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Jordan said Wednesday in a statement released by the Hornets. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before ... “I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
Williams recalled a meeting in 2014 when Stern talked openly about where the NBA was when he started. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Commissioner Stern running tapes from games to CBS back in the day because we were in tape delay,” Williams said. “And getting companies to buy in to the NBA because they wouldn’t even sponsor black athletes on TV. People have no idea what he did for the game and African-Americans in general.”
As her late father and former Lakers owner Jerry Buss groomed her to have a larger role with the franchise, he counseled Jeanie on how to ease that transition. At some point during those conversations, Jerry Buss offered advice that involved former NBA Commissioner David Stern. “My dad told me that if I ever needed help in the future that David would be somebody I could count on,” Jeanie Buss told USA TODAY Sports. “He always was there for me.”
“He stood up when everybody else didn’t know what to do,” Buss said of Stern. “We were all scared, concerned and uninformed because it was all happening in real time. But he didn’t flinch. He stood up and allowed Magic to come back into the league. He squashed the fears of spreading the virus through hugging and shaking hands, He really led us into an area that nobody really knew we were going. But he never blinked an eye. He stayed as a leader.”
So Jerry, how did this hit you? And how do you think you’ll look back on the part he played in building the NBA? Jerry West: He led this league through some turbulent times, and had a great idea about how the league should be in terms of players’ responsibilities to the public — his ability to work with the players (and) The Players Association was pretty remarkable when the league was not (succeeding). He had an incredible 30-year career in the NBA. I had a great relationship with him. We didn’t always agree on things. … I would call him from time to time and (share) things I saw that maybe needed to be addressed. And he was very courteous about listening to them, even if he may not believe what you were saying. But he was a great leader for a lot of years. And some of the things that you see in the NBA today, obviously, is part of his thought process, and the ability to get owners to acquiesce to what he thought was important for the growth of this league.
I’ll leave you with this, Jerry. If you had one word to describe his impact on the league, what would it be? Jerry West: Well, there’s probably — leadership, in a time of need. His unique leadership in a time of need, when this league was really undergoing a lot of stuff that wasn’t always privy to the newspaper. The drugs, the declining attendance, every bit of turmoil that this league has had was under his leadership, every bit of it. And he handled that so beautifully, I can’t tell you. He was strong-willed, and his leadership through those times got this league back up and running at the highest level that we had ever seen it.
Kyle Goon: LeBron compared David Stern's basketball stature to James Naismith -- a "visionary" who "made the game global". "We had our battles, that's for sure, trying to figure it out. But at the end of day we wanted to do whatever it takes to help grow the game."
Jeremy Lin: RIP David Stern. Condolences to your family. Thanks for pouring so much into making the NBA an amazing league that I could play in for 9 years as well as growing the beautiful game of basketball to the world!
Stern screamed and cursed and pounded boardroom tables, treating the commissioner's seat like an emperor's throne. It's hard to imagine Stern at rest, but he has died at 77. The former commissioner suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and was in critical condition until his death on New Year's Day. For most of his life, Stern kept coming and coming and coming. Privately, owners talked tough about how Stern worked for them. In his presence, many of them cowered. At once, owners, management and players were grateful to Stern for franchise valuations and salaries growing exponentially -- and fearful that failing to submit to his will could result in legitimate retribution, including unfavorable referee assignments in the playoffs.
In every elevator shaft, every room, Stern was a force of nature. For all the volatility and blunt force, there was an incredibly progressive, generous and compassionate side to Stern. The NBA played a leading role in HIV and AIDS awareness. Stern refused to let the league become overrun with irrational fears in the wake of Magic Johnson's diagnosis in 1991. Minorities and women were elevated into prominent positions in larger numbers and greater frequency than in other professional leagues. There are stories of NBA employees with family crises that credit Stern with remarkable acts of kindness and generosity. In his pre-NBA days as an attorney, Stern took on and won a massive housing discrimination case for African Americans in Northern New Jersey, and did so pro bono.
The past really is a foreign country, as L.P. Hartley once wrote, and David was one of its best correspondents. In retirement, he had the biggest backlog of the history I cared about, both recent and ancient. He could regale me with tales of how New York Knicks centers continually came up short against Bill Russell, and clue me in to how recent CBA fights shaped the modern salary cap. It started when I reached out for a story, roughly two years ago. I said in my email that he could call me at any hour, not expecting a response. One day, I checked my phone and saw I had a message. An annoyed-sounding voice said, “Hi Ethan, this is David Stern, calling you, at any hour. But this is obviously not a good hour.”
Really, the stakes for a fight were never too small. In our last conversation, I used the word “solipsistic” to describe the worldview of celebrities in a social media era. He expressed doubt that I was using the word correctly. I fought back, taking his momentary silence as a victory. “Ah ha! I finally got one on you!” I triumphantly crowed. Five minutes later, I was talking about something totally different, when Stern interrupted, blurting, “THE VIEW OR THEORY THAT THE SELF IS U-ALL THAT CAN BE KNOWN TO EXIST??” “Ach,” he said with another sigh. “That’s hardly what you were saying. Hardly.” I had to meet him halfway and say another word might have been slightly better, just so we could finally move on.
The response from those in hockey was positive. They certainly didn’t close any doors on the idea and, 17 years later, Las Vegas received its expansion team. Things were entirely different down the street. “(Stern) looked at me and said, ‘Over my dead body will Las Vegas ever get a team with legalized sports betting there,’ ” Goodman recalled Wednesday. “He was a curmudgeon. He was brilliant. He was a very, very nice man. Over the years, I became the little dog nipping at his ankles about Las Vegas. Wherever he went, I went. I imposed myself on him. “I told him all the time he was wrong about Las Vegas. He was always very nice in the way he said, ‘No.’ We disagreed in the beginning but became good friends. He was a decent person. I really liked the guy.”

https://twitter.com/townbrad/status/1212555514019758081
Larry Bird: "My family and I send our sincere condolences to David Stern’s family. 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. 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."
Stephen Curry: Will never forget the words you spoke this day! "With the 7th pick" changed my life forever. Thank you and your family for your leadership and commitment to growing the game of basketball around the World. Forever grateful. RIP Commisoner Stern!

https://twitter.com/StephenCurry30/status/1212522376631443457
Liz Mullen: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: "All of us at the National Football League are deeply saddened by the passing of David Stern. David was a driving force in sports for decades and helped the NBA soar to new heights around the world." Full Statement:

https://twitter.com/SBJLizMullen/status/1212520497096744961
Jared Weiss: Statement from Celtics on passing of David Stern: "David was a towering figure whose accomplishments in building the NBA will never be forgotten. His leadership brought the game of basketball to people all over the world and helped change what the NBA could mean to people..."
Christian Clark: Pelicans call David Stern a "catalyst in professional basketball returning to New Orleans in 2002" in a statement on his passing. "His commitment...was further shown when he guided the franchise through an ownership transition to Tom Benson in 2012."

https://twitter.com/JHarden13/status/1212510323762253829
Michael Jordan: “Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today. He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before. His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed. David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him – and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him. I offer my deepest sympathies to Dianne and his family.”
Chris Paul: The game lost a leader today. Extending my prayers to David’s family and loved ones in this time of grief 🙏🏾

https://twitter.com/CP3/status/1212503667527573511

https://twitter.com/rudygobert27/status/1212504164368027648

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Candace Buckner: #Wizards Coach Scott Brooks starts his pregame availability by expressing his thoughts on the passing of David Stern: "We've lost a legend, an icon. Someone I had a great deal of respect for as a player... and when I became a coach."
Pau Gasol: Today the #NBAFamily lost a legend, a leader that changed our game for the better. A father, a husband, a friend. RIP #DavidStern, you will forever be missed. 🙏🏼 pic.twitter.com/0dColRyTOT
Enes Kanter: Prayers up for David Stern and his family! Rest In Peace 🙏 pic.twitter.com/iCM8e5iL9n

http://twitter.com/mcten/status/1212479351230517248
Adrian Wojnarowski: David Stern — the Hall of Fame ex-NBA Commissioner — has died at 77 years old. He oversaw tremendous growth in his 30 years as commissioner, retiring in 2014. Stern had been hospitalized since a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 17.
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