I fell in love with the National Basketball Association in 1995, when the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted a gangly high schooler named Kevin Garnett. From that point on I followed the league religiously: watching Sunday afternoon doubleheaders on NBC and then ABC, catching the playoffs with friends at the youth pastor’s house, joining a fantasy league, and more. It was a league that was easy to get excited about with stars like Jordan, Hakeem, The Mailman, The Glove, Reign Man, and then later guys like Garnett, Duncan, Iverson, and Kobe. But none of that would have been possible without a short, obstinate New Yorker named David Stern.
Stern was named NBA commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, two months before my first birthday. It was a league in trouble. Yes, there were talented guys like Bird, Isaiah, Magic, and Dr. J in their heydays, but the league lacked buzz—a death knell for an entertainment-oriented business—and was in a tight spot financially. So Stern went to work.
In the decades that followed, Stern directed a complete overhaul of the league’s image. The NBA went international in its appeal to fans and in drawing the best players from around the world. Seven new teams were added. Stars became the selling point, and sell they did. Massive TV contracts were signed with major networks, which infused the league with cash. Sponsorship deals with soft drinks, fast food chains (remember those fantastic commercials with Bird and Jordan playing H-O-R-S-E for a Big Mac?), and athletic apparel companies abounded. Even the draft, a procedure for divvying up new talent, became a prime-time television event.
Stern, like so many successful executives, had his flaws. He ruled with an iron fist and was known to be acerbic and confrontational, even combative. (Google David Stern and Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, for some examples.) He stood by while owners took a team from Seattle, which had one of the most historically loyal fan bases, and moved it to Oklahoma City because the team didn’t get the new arena it wanted. And, like many long-tenured directors, Stern became stubbornly apathetic about aspects of the league that could have benefited from change such as conference alignment, playoff format, and draft lottery system.
Flaws or no flaws, David Stern has been the best commissioner in American professional sports for 30 years, and next Saturday, Feb. 1, he will retire, leaving a legacy of excellence. Stern led instead of managing. He innovated instead of stagnating. Rather than being risk-averse and seeking to do damage control, he expanded and pursued strategic growth. Stern saw the real value of the NBA was in its players and maximized their stature, creating global stars for a global brand. And now he is exiting stage right and he is leaving the league immeasurably better than when he entered. Like every good leader should.