Former National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern was a pillar of the basketball community and a genuine icon of the sport. The Teaneck High School graduate spent 30 years in the commissioner’s seat and became one of the most well-known figures in the history of the game. In his three decades as the top man in the NBA Stern’s sure-handed steering saw the league through some of its most turbulent times and cleaned up the league’s reputation. Before his guidance and direction brought the league to the absolute highest highs, it has ever seen. The world lost David Stern on January 1, 2020, but his reputation as a champion of the game of basketball will live on forever.
The best of times
David Stern stepped into the top position in the NBA’s front office in 1984, a particularly spectacular time for the game of basketball. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were just firing up their legendary rivalry, and a young shooting guard named Michael Jeffrey Jordan was entering his rookie year with the Chicago Bulls. Between the Lakers and the Celtics exhibiting some of the best team basketball in the history of the sport, and Jordan displaying feats of athleticism never seen before in the history of man, all the league needed was a top executive with the vision to expand the game to new heights. Stern cleaned up the locker rooms and enforced new rules that enticed major sponsors back into the sport and helped the league grow to the $2-billion-a-year industry it has become.
Do you believe in magic?
David Stern’s tenure as commissioner was just about anything but easy. Within just his first 6 years in the big chair, the lifelong New York Knicks fan was faced with an unbelievable challenge. His league’s brightest star was found H.I.V. positive and was preparing to announce his retirement from the game. In 1991, a time where ignorance reigned about the devastating disease, Stern didn’t shy away from the facts or join the mob forming against Magic Johnson. Stern stood by his league’s biggest star and personal friend and flew right out to Los Angeles to be present with Johnson as he told the world of his diagnosis. Stern was sitting directly to the right of Magic Johnson as he let the public know that he had to retire from the game he loved due to the human immunodeficiency virus. However, in large part because of Sterns’ efforts to spread the truth about the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, Johnson was able to return for the 1992 All-Star game, play in the 1992 Olympics, and have a short comeback run with the Lakers in 1996.
When the Olympic Committee decided to allow professional basketball players to compete in the 1992 Games, many of the NBA’s owners and coaches worried about their stars getting hurt while playing for pride. But, what David Stern saw was an opportunity to take the game he adored world-wide. With Stern’s help, the greatest basketball team ever assembled formed to travel out to Barcelona and put the NBA in the spotlight on the world’s stage. Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, Chris Mullin, and Christian Laettner marched into Spain and put on a clinic for the world. They decimated opponents en route to their gold medals and became a big reason 38 countries were represented on the court this year in the NBA.
Letter of the law
Along with being known as a savvy businessman and a true ambassador of the game, Stern was also known for being a strict disciplinarian, Stern banned All-Star point guard Michael Ray Richardson, instituted a dress code on the bench for sidelined players, and has fined Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban over 20 times in his career. But even those who have had run-ins with Stern admit he was one, fair, and two, wildly important to the growth of the NBA and the growth of the game of basketball. David Stern was never a pushover, and according to NBA player Chris Paul, Stern would always “tell it like it is for better or for worse.” But at the end of the day, Stern always did what he thought was best for the NBA and for the game.