Remembering David Stern’s power moves
The former NBA commissioner, who died at 77, leaves behind a legacy of growing the game of basketball
NEW YORK — It was a beautiful sunny day last August, but David Stern was inside his Manhattan office overlooking Central Park working just as hard as he did when he was commissioner of the NBA. He had retired in 2014, but stayed involved with the game. We talked about sports technology start-ups, virtual reality, player health, artificial intelligence, among many other topics.
Stern always looked toward tomorrow. As commissioner, he didn’t fear walking through an unpopular door he felt was the best for the NBA to open. He was a true basketball Hall of Famer, who was largely responsible for turning the NBA into a profitable company, netting $5.5 billion annually when he retired with a $1 billion annual television deal (which grew astronomically when it expired in 2016), and turning many basketball players into millionaires. He was not only one of basketball’s greatest ambassadors during his 30-year career as the commissioner, but sports worldwide.
While we reflected on his NBA tenure in August, Stern said, “I have no regrets. I know that sounds crazy.”
Stern passed away on Wednesday after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 while at a restaurant in New York City. In remembrance of Stern, The Undefeated highlights some of the power moves that helped define his legacy using parts of our conversation from August.
introducing The Dream Team
Stern encouraged NBA stars, such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird to play on what would be called “The Dream Team” during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was USA Basketball’s first team made up of professional players.
“The Dream Team ignited interest in basketball around the world,” Stern said in August. “I would say that prior to the ’92 Barcelona Olympics we had about 80 countries that were showing NBA basketball. Today, there are 215 countries showing NBA basketball. And you can see the chart and the graph that follows the Dream Team. You could say you saw Charles Barkley elbow the Angolan player, and then you can watch Charles play for Phoenix, or Houston, or wherever he was playing.
“And we began marketing the NBA to countries that were getting it from the Olympics. And actually, China had the Olympics in 2008, and when Yao Ming led the Chinese team against the US, I think it still is the most watched basketball game in the history of the world.”
The Dream Team made the world fall in love with the game. Several former international NBA stars, including Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki, France’s Tony Parker and Argentina’s Manu Ginobili were influenced by watching The Dream Team on television as children.
Entering this season, the NBA featured 108 international players.
growing the game globally
In 1989, Stern stood outside the Chinese Central Television offices in Beijing for four hours until he got a meeting. He next convinced CCTV to air NBA games initially for free. Today, 18 million fans are watching NBA games in China. Last July, Tencent and the NBA announced a five-year extension through the 2024-25 season paying $1.5 billion.
The rest of the world eventually followed China on NBA viewership, as the 2019 NBA Finals were shown live in 215 countries in 50 languages. The NBA also now has offices internationally in Hong Kong, Manila, Toronto, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg thanks to Stern’s influence.
“We’ve worked with cities to help them understand what they needed in buildings,” Stern said. “We’ve opened up academies there, and under Commissioner Silver there are four or five academies all over the world. In India, in China, Latin America, etc. And it’s very exciting. And now they’re about to open a league in Africa, the Basketball Africa League, which I think is a terrific opportunity.”
The NBA will debut its Basketball Africa League in March.
stern SUSPENSIONS FOR PALACE BRAWL
Stern made one of the toughest decisions in sports when he levied major penalties after “The Malice in the Palace” in Detroit on Nov. 19, 2004. The fight was one of the worst in the history of sports at the end of a game between the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons that bled into the stands. Stern suspended the Pacers’ Ron Artest for 86 games, Stephen Jackson for 30 and Jermaine O’Neal for 15, while banning the Pistons’ Ben Wallace for six games and Anthony Johnson for five.
In an NBA statement the next day, the league described the brawl as “shocking, repulsive and inexcusable – a humiliation for everyone associated with the NBA.”
“The Malice in the Palace,’ it just needed a strong reaction,” recalled Stern in August. “We couldn’t allow the barrier between players and fans to be breached, because that would have deprived us of having the most available game in the world, where you can literally sit at courtside and practically touch the players as they ran by. So, I gave out very strong punishment …
“But at the same time I was visiting with (former Pacers forward) Ron Artest. I was helping him find the right medical attention for his family members. You do what you have to do and it’s always, behind the scenes, a little bit different than it appears in front of the cameras. But no regrets there. We did what we had to do to make sure the sport was going to grow.”
implementing a dress code
On Oct. 17, 2005, Stern implemented the first league-wide dress code in major professional sports. The dress code required players to wear a sports coat on the bench during games, and business or conservative outfits when arriving to games or conducting NBA business. He also banned clothing that often was associated with hip-hop culture, like do-rags, gaudy jewelry, hats, jerseys, t-shirts and boots. NBA players that didn’t adhere to the rules could be fined and suspended for repeat offenses.
While notable NBA players, including Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby and Chauncey Billups, criticized the dress code — some people thought it was racist — the players adhered to it.
“The (players’) union said it was a good thing to do,” Stern recalled. “I did it, and then they attacked me on it. And then our players (did too). I’m not going to embarrass you by asking what the dress code is because you wouldn’t remember what the dress code was. You could wear jeans. Just wear a pair of shoes and a shirt with a collar, but our players went over the top. … And then they took it to the next level. They started designing their own fashion lines.
“I was being made fun of on every nighttime talk show in America. They’d draped me in gold chains and all kinds of stuff. Tattoos. But it’s great. It was an opportunity for our players to shine, and I’m glad.”
Today, NBA players are now known for their fashion sense and making fashion statements when they arrive to the arena or grace the cover of magazines.
Grooming Adam Silver
There is currently no commissioner in North American professional sports more popular than Adam Silver, who Stern hand-picked and groomed to be his replacement.
In 2014, two months after Stern retired, Silver quickly made his presence known by banning then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the NBA for life after racist statements Sterling had made came to light. During Silver’s five years as commissioner he has built on Stern’s foundation by securing a strong television deal and growing the brand globally. Silver also has developed a strong relationship with the players.
In August, Stern spoke on the state of the NBA under Silver.
“The summer league is electrifying. The free agent movement gives the NBA ownership of a huge chunk of calendar real estate. I like the international endeavors, with the academies and the announcement of the Basketball Africa league. Adam Silver is doing a great job of growing the sport on a global basis.
“(The NBA) couldn’t be in better shape.”