As news of the recent, unfortunate passing of former National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern began to intensify, many current and former athletes along with media personalities understandably became panegyric upon reflections of a man who was essential to the success of one of the best-run enterprises in North America. Stern, who was initially along the periphery of events, was an eyewitness to a professional sports league that was in transition.
Not long after the merger between the National Basketball Association and the American Basketball Association, Stern became a prominent member of the NBA’s general counsel. Although the merger was seen as a necessity in stabilizing professional basketball in the United States, the development was anything but a harbinger of health and prosperity for the NBA in the mid to late 1970s.
During the time, the prevailing attitude of media and fans alike was that the NBA was devolving into a moribund outfit with a perception that the preponderance of its athletes was illicit drug users. These rumors were pervasive to the point that fans chose sides in whether to romanticize or vilify these athletes in Wild West fashion probably due to a lack of understanding between the patrons and players resulting in a schism.
Nevertheless, the new NBA should have flourished with the infusion of talents such as Julius Erving (Dr. J.), George Gervin (The Iceman), and Artis Gilmore, but the phlegmatic public was far from enamored with professional basketball at the time. These problems resulted in the NBA Finals being aired on a tape-delay via CBS late in the decade because airing it on primetime seemed like a waste, especially when the network had the option of airing The Incredible Hulk, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Dallas on Friday nights. Thus, the 1978 and 1979 NBA Finals between the Seattle SuperSonics and Washington Bullets seemed more like a ruse than reality.
The NBA was eventually granted a stay of execution following the sensation of the 1979 NCAA Championship game between Earvin “Magic” Johnson’s Michigan State Spartans and Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores that became a fixture in basketball lore. The national championship game was so intriguing that fans eagerly followed these young men into the NBA the next season anticipating greatness.
The winds of change were afoot with the behind the scenes guidance of Stern by the early 1980s. With the NBA’s once nearly sunken vessel righted, outgoing NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien gleefully handed over governance to his apprentice, Stern, and the NBA was finally poised for prosperity and unprecedented league expansion as recruits Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton arrived.
Commissioner David Stern used his skills for jurisprudence and willingness to embrace mass media to advance public relations with the league so that average sports fans could relate to these athletes in more of an artistic fashion. The NBA players were more like skilled actors than perspiring behemoths and broadcast television could not get enough of it because they needed something to rely upon after the Super Bowl concluded.
Stern’s stewardship of the NBA from 1984-2014 will be written annals of Northern American sports history as to how effective leadership can catapult an organization from the nadir of its modern history to the apex of achievement to date. Yes, there were labor issues periodically like any other professional sport, but he was adept at maintaining professionalism and urbaneness during negotiations that ostensibly helped the owners and the Players Association be at least tolerant of each other.
Perhaps, Stern’s most notable blunder was his endorsement of the microfiber basketball during the 2006-2007 season. The players were not impressed with the tactile nature of the ball that was unfamiliar to most. Nonetheless, Stern was willing, albeit reluctantly at first, to reverse his decision and return to using the previous basketball that was in existence since circa 1970.
Stern seemed like a balance between an autocrat and ambassador depending upon what was necessary for the benefit of the NBA and the game. With billions of dollars at stake, effective governance is of the utmost importance. Stern possessed these qualities and bequeathed an organization to Commissioner Adam Silver in a much better condition than what was handed to him back in 1984. Let that be his epitaph.