On Feb. 1, 1984, David Stern became the NBA’s fourth commissioner. At the time, the league was suffering through the darkest period in its history. Drug use was commonplace, in-game fighting was normal, and the league’s championship round was televised on tape delay.
Stern, whose vision helped transform the NBA from a league on the verge of extinction to a multibillion-dollar international phenomenon, died on New Year’s Day three weeks after undergoing surgery for a brain hemorrhage in New York City. He was 77.
David Joel Stern was born Sept. 22, 1942 in Manhattan. He grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey where his father owned a Jewish delicatessen. Stern graduated from Rutgers University in 1963 and attended Columbia Law School.
He began his affiliation with the NBA in 1966 when he was hired by the law firm of Proskauer, Rose, Goetz, & Mendelsohn (currently known as Proskauer Rose), which has long represented the league. Stern was the lead attorney on a landmark antitrust lawsuit brought by Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson in 1970.
Robertson sought to block a proposed merger with the American Basketball Association (ABA) and eliminate the outlaw clause which prevented player movement by tying them to their teams. The 1976 settlement paved the way for the ABA/NBA merger in which the ABA’s Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets, and San Antonio Spurs joined the NBA and players were allowed to become free agents for the first time.
Stern joined the NBA in 1978 as general counsel under commissioner Larry O’Brien. At the time, the NBA was already slipping into darkness.
NBA World Championship Series (the championship round wouldn’t be called the NBA Finals until 1986) games were tape delay broadcasts at 11:30 PM EDT. A 1980 Los Angeles Times article estimated between 40 and 75 percent of the NBA’s players used cocaine. Sixteen of the league’s then-23 franchises were losing money by the start of the 1980-81 season.
O’Brien promoted Stern to executive vice president in November 1980. In 1983, Stern negotiated a drug testing policy, the first of its kind in the four major North American sports. After Stern succeeded O’Brien as commissioner, one of his first acts was institute a salary cap to assist small market franchises. The salary cap for the 1984-85 season was $3.6 million (about $9 million in 2020 money).
The drug testing policy helped boost fan confidence in the league while the salary cap helped from a business perspective. Stern’s ascension to commissioner coincided with four of the greatest players in NBA history entering the league: Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton. The league had already begun to take advantage of a renewal of its greatest rivalry: the Boston Celtics/Los Angeles Lakers led by future Hall of Famers Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
Stern made his name in marketing before he became commissioner. He sought to market the game’s star players in a way that no other league had done before.
Although Olajuwon was selected first overall in the 1984 Draft, no player captured the public’s imagination (or embodied Stern’s vision) more than Jordan. The 6-foot-6 guard out of North Carolina’s blend of athleticism, skill, and competitive fire was marketed by Nike (and Jordan himself) in such a way that it set the template for every star athlete who followed him regardless of sport.
Stern also wanted to expand the NBA’s reach beyond the United States of America. In 1989, the first wave European players began play including Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis, and Drazen Petrovic. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the former Eastern Bloc nations only increased the number of players from that part of the world. The first regular season game was played in Japan at the start of the 1990-91 season.
No entity put the NBA into the international spotlight more than the Dream Team, the first American group of professionals to compete at the Olympics. At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the United States brought a team comprised of 11 NBA and future Hall of Fame players (as well as two-time National College Player of the Year Christian Laettner). The Dream Team never called a single timeout in Barcelona, winning each game in Olympic competition by an average of 44 points.
Seven franchises were introduced during Stern’s tenure, including two in Canada: the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies. Five franchises have relocated and 28 new NBA arenas have been built. The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was created in 1997 while the NBA’s developmental league (known as the NBA G League) began in 2001.
“I think people see all the money in sports and think it was always like that,” Barkley, who is now an analyst for TNT, said. “When I got the NBA in 1984, which was Commissioner’s first year, the average salary was $250,000. It’s almost $9 million now. And he is largely responsible for that.”
After Magic Johnson announced he tested positive for the HIV virus that causes AIDS in 1991, he abruptly retired from the NBA. He didn’t show any symptoms and wished to play in that season’s All-Star Game. Stern was Johnson’s biggest champion. He had doctors visit each NBA team to educate players and coaches as well as tell owners that they could be subject to a lawsuit if they attempted to prevent Johnson from playing.
Everything during Stern’s tenure as commissioner wasn’t all positive.
In February 1986, Stern hit Michael Ray Richardson, a four-time All-Star for the Nets, with a lifetime ban after three positive tests for cocaine. Richardson continued his career in the United States Basketball League (USBL) and Continental Basketball Association (CBA) before playing 14 seasons in Europe.
Four months after Richardson’s lifetime ban, Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose two days after the Celtics selected him with the second overall pick in the NBA Draft. The following season, three Phoenix Suns players (James Edwards, Grant Gondrezick, Jay Humphries) and two former players (Mike Bratz, Garfield Heard) were indicted as part of an investigation into cocaine trafficking. None of the players ever went to trial.
Stern was known for his explosive temper just as much as he was for his business acumen. The punishments he handed out were viewed as authoritarian. The year-long suspension of former Golden State Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell for choking his head coach, P.J. Carlesimo, in 1997 and the suspensions of the players involved in the 2004 Pacers-Pistons brawl are seen as examples of Stern’s iron fisted rule. (Sprewell’s suspension was later reduced to 68 games by an arbitrator).
Stern instituted a dress code for players before and after games that many viewed as racist. Players were required to wear business casual attire at team and league functions. Many of the prohibited items are most often associated with hip-hop culture. The Philadelphia 76ers’ Allen Iverson, the player most synonymous with the dress code, described it as “targeting guys like me”.
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Phil Jackson, then-Lakers head coach, echoed the sentiments of those who felt the league was alienating its Caucasian fan base.
“I think it’s important that the players take their end of it, get out of the prison garb and the thuggery aspect of basketball that has come along with hip-hop music in the last seven or eight years,” Jackson said.
Stern, for his part, didn’t care about the racial connotations of the dress code or being referred to as a racist himself.
“Race is always an issue, and that’s just the way it is. And the NBA has always been on the edge of discussions of race. At every collective bargaining negotiation, I was accused of having a plantation mentality,” Stern said.
Some of Stern’s harshest criticism came during the two labor impasses that cost the league regular season games during his tenure as commissioner.
In 1998, the owners locked the players out for seven months. The lockout ended with a huge victory for the owners: establishment of the first maximum salary limit in the four major North American sports. This wouldn’t have been accomplished without, what some players felt, were the underhanded tactics of Stern.
“You’ve got to give David Stern a lot of credit,” former center Will Perdue said in an oral history of the ’98 lockout. “He did a good job of dividing players, dividing agents, and dividing players from agents. Players didn’t know who to believe.”
An abbreviated 50-game schedule was played but the damage was done. Fan interest declined sharply until a new generation of superstars (led by LeBron James) regenerated the NBA.
In 2011, the owners locked the players out again. This time, they claimed a majority of the league’s teams were losing money. They demanded a bigger share of revenue and eventually got it. Their share increased from 43 percent to 50 percent. This time, only 16 games were lost and fan interest didn’t decrease.
HBO’s Bryant Gumbel blamed the 2011 lockout on the NBA’s “infamously egocentric commissioner” and referred to Stern’s negotiating stance with the league’s players as “some kind of modern-day plantation overseer”. Gumbel’s comments were rebuked by well-known sports sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, who referred to Stern as an “honest broker” who “respects the men who play in his league and the community from which they come”.
Nonetheless, Stern fired back at Gumbel as recently as 2017 in a Washington Post article, calling him “an idiot”.
“I’ve done more for people of color than Bryant Gumbel has,” Stern said.
Although the Dream Team proved to be great international ambassadors for basketball, initially Stern wasn’t thrilled with the idea of professionals in the Olympics.
“We said to FIFA that we weren’t gung-ho to play in the Olympics, but we would try to be good soldiers to support basketball,” Stern said in a 2012 interview commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Dream Team.
Prior to 2006, players could “jump” straight from high school to the NBA. Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, and James are among those who decided to forego college and experience sustained success in the NBA. At the same time, Stern expressed concern about young players and their development.
“If these kids have the ability to get a little more maturity, a little more coaching, a little bit more life experience overall, that’s good,” Stern said in 2001.
Stern referring to these NBA players as “kids” was problematic to some. 18-year-olds are adults. They are allowed to join Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the PGA Tour, and the International Tennis Federation. In addition, 18-year-olds can vote and serve in the military. Stern’s use of the word “kids” was exacerbated by the fact that many of the players he was referring to were African American.
Nonetheless, Stern convinced the National Basketball Players’ Association to accept a revised eligibility rule. Beginning with the 2006 NBA Draft, an American player has to be at least 19 years of age and at least one NBA season has elapsed since his graduation from high school. If the player didn’t graduate from high school, it’s when they would have graduated. This is referred to as the “One and Done” rule and it is blamed in some circles for the decline of interest in college basketball.
At the start of the 2006-07 season, Stern unilaterally introduced a microfiber basketball. Players and coaches didn’t like the ball from the start, saying it caused abrasions on hands. Referees were instructed to be more punitive towards players who complained to them about the ball. In the end, it took a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board to get Stern to back down and for the NBA to return to the more familiar leather ball.
The worst on-court scandal of Stern’s tenure as commissioner occurred when a July 2007 New York Post article reported an unnamed NBA referee was under FBI investigation for allegedly betting on games he was officiating. Tim Donaghy pled guilty to two felony charges a month after the New York Post article was published. Stern said Donaghy operated alone but Donaghy has insisted other referees and the NBA itself are complicit in influencing the outcome of games.
Howard Schultz sold the former Seattle SuperSonics to Clay Bennett and a group from Oklahoma City in 2006 after failing to secure enough public funding. This group had recently assisted the then-New Orleans Hornets relocation to OKC after the Crescent City was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Bennett and his ownership group had no intentions of keeping the team in Seattle despite saying all the right things in front of the media. After a two-year court battle, the Seattle SuperSonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder. Stern did very little to help keep the team in Seattle and has been a pariah in the Emerald City ever since.
Speaking of the Hornets, the franchise was placed under league control in 2011 after owner George Shinn couldn’t afford to operate the team. Stern refused to allow then-general manager Dell Demps to go ahead with a three-team, six player trade that would have sent disgruntled perennial All-Star Chris Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to the Houston Rockets, and Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and Kevin Martin to the Hornets. “Basketball reasons” was the explanation given by the league office on Stern’s behalf at the time.
“I did it because I was protecting the then-Hornets,” Stern said in a 2018 Sports Illustrated interview. “No team sells or trades a future Hall of Famer without the owner signing off and I was the owner’s rep.” He also acknowledged he didn’t do a good job of explaining his rationale at the time.
Stern retired as commissioner in 2014, turning the reins over to his longtime deputy commissioner, Adam Silver. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later that year.
Stern continued to serve as an advisor to Silver as commissioner emeritus. One of Silver’s first major duties as commissioner was the ouster of longtime Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was insubordinate and ran his team in a manner that was questionable at best and illegal at worst. The way Stern handled Sterling (whose ouster was ultimately because of a racist tirade) is a head scratcher considering the punishment he meted out punishment towards players.
Stern also served as an advisor to investment bank PJT Partners, venture capital firm Greycroft Partners, the technology, media, and telecommunications arm of PriceWaterhouseCooper, and several sports technology start-up companies.
Stern is survived by his wife, Dianne, and sons, Andrew and Eric.