On February 1, David Stern will step down from his role as NBA commissioner after 30 years. The NBA and the game of basketball has changed enormously in 30 years and a lot of that change came from the direction of the 71-year-old commissioner.
It is interesting that the same year Stern became the NBA Commissioner, 1984, that Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton all entered the league. If that wasn’t enough, the NBA’s dreams came true when the Celtics would fight the Lakers in the Finals – the ultimate rivalry. Time has shown it to be one of the greatest playoff battles in history, going to Game 7, with the Celtics coming up on top.
Stern did not waste any time making changes where he saw fit. In the 1985 NBA Draft, the league instituted a lottery system, which would give the seven worst teams a shot at the No. 1 pick. In a highly televised event, Stern picked the New York Knicks’ envelope from the drum. Conspiracy theories sprouted immediately, given Stern’s New York roots. The leading theory is that the NBA stuck the Knicks’ envelope in a freezer before the lottery so that Stern would be able to locate it easily and select it as the No. 1 pick.
The moment Stern become Commissioner, he was determined to expand league, and he did so on the shoulders of stars like Larry Bird, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and Michael Jordan. Stern struck a deal with TV network, TNT, to air multiple games a week. He also began expanding into new markets by awarding 4 new franchises in early 1987. In 1995 he would join Major League Baseball and the NHL as international leagues, by allowing the Vancouver Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors to join.
The decision to allow professional basketball players into the Olympics was one that Commissioner fought against. But when it became apparent that the rest of the world desperately wanted the best players to participate, NBA obliged. And so the Dream Team was formed and the rest, as they say, is history.
A major milestone in basketball history was the creation of an 8-team women’s league in 1996. While pro women’s basketball certainly hasn’t become a major sport in the United States, the league has grown and now is stable with 12 teams. Stern also encouraged the league to create the NBA Development League in 2001, for players that just couldn’t quite make it in the NBA Draft.
NBA fans have always loved open, high-scoring games. And in order to deliver more entertainment, the NBA banned hand checks outside the post in 2004. This gave faster and more talented players the freedom to operate against defenders that may be stronger than them.
Changing the leather balls to new “microfiber” basketball in 2006 was a change that was not welcomed by players. Shaquille O’Neal compared them to “…one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store.” Despite the player’s disapproval, Stern refused to go back to the original ball. It took two months into the season before Stern stated that the new ball may have been a poor choice and poorly tested and “we could’ve done a better job”.
Stern certainly had his fair share of disputes with players. He faced NBA lockouts 4 different times (1995, 1996, 1998–99, and 2011).
The 1998 lockout is definitely a dark mark on Stern’s career. The main issue was that of player salaries, which owners sought to limit. A salary cap had been in place since 1983, but it included loopholes that allowed teams to exceed the payroll limit. Owners also desired a modified pay scale for rookie players that would prevent them from gaining unrestricted free agency after three seasons, and wanted to ban the use of marijuana and performance-enhancing drugs. The players union, wanting to avoid a decline in salaries, opposed changes to the salary cap system.
Relations continued to deteriorate after negotiations between the sides broke off on Jun. 22. The negotiations cost the league 32 games and All-Star Weekend. On Dec. 23, Stern announced that he would recommend canceling the season if there was no deal by Jan. 7, 1999. With this ultimatum, both sides came back to the table. An agreement was reached on Jan. 20, ending a 204-day lockout. Players’ salaries were capped between $9 million and $14 million, a rookie pay scale was introduced, and the NBA’s drug policy was expanded to cover performance-enhancing drugs and marijuana, with once-yearly testing.
Stern was never afraid to throw his authority around and seemed not to care what the fans thought of him. In December 2011, Stern vetoed a three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers, Lamar Odom to the league-owned Hornets, and Pau Gasol to the Rockets for what were stated as “basketball reasons”. Around the league, fans, and media there was a feeling that the league owners, who shared collective ownership of the Hornets, pressured Stern to block a trade in which the Lakers would receive a star player of Chris Paul’s caliber.
This would not be the last time the Stern’s integrity would be questioned when involving the Hornets. In 2012, during an interview with sports talk show host Jim Rome, Rome asked Stern about the conspiracy theories that the NBA Draft Lottery was fixed in favor of the New Orleans Hornets, and he asked, “Was the fix in for the lottery?” Stern replied with two answers: “Number one, no; and a statement, shame on you for asking.” Stern then asked Rome, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” and accused Rome of “making a career out of cheap thrills”. After a heated exchange, Stern said he had “to go call someone important like Stephen A. Smith (another talk show host)”.
One has to suspect that after 30 years Stern has become quite accustomed to being criticized and at times booed. At his last NBA draft as commissioner, Stern, upon hearing a lone boo, paused and with his right hand encouraged fans to chime in. Then again, just before announcing the third pick, Stern taunted fans: “I can’t hear you.” The boos grew louder and Stern, smiling, gave a thumbs-up. But Stern wasn’t quite done, when later in the first round, Stern told the crowd and TV audience, “We’ve had to explain to our international audience that the boo is an American sign of respect.”
At that point, he received applause, the crowd recognizing his career that influenced the course not only of the NBA but all pro sports. Deputy Commissioner, Adam Silver said, “David [Stern] is the one who turned sport leagues into brands.” Silver was announced as Stern’s successor. Stern said. “I consider that succession plan to be one of the best things that I’ve done in the job.”
The NBA’s revenue increased 30-fold and is a multibillion-dollar business with a global reach. Whether the game of basketball improved under his leadership, is up to you, but one cannot glance over a 30-year career and not at least respect the man that had to deal with some of the biggest egos in the world on a regular basis. His job is not one that I would have wanted, and for that he certainly has my respect.