David Stern, who during a 30-year run as commissioner of the National Basketball Association masterminded its transformation from a league in peril to a multibillion-dollar industry and the first American sports league to thrive internationally, died on Wednesday in New York City. He was 77.
His death was announced in a statement from the NBA. He suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and underwent emergency surgery.
The NBA’s fourth commissioner, serving from Feb. 1, 1984, to Feb. 1, 2014, Stern intimidated many with his domineering ways but also possessed a marketing vision and instinct that helped lift the league from its darkest period to new levels of prosperity — and popularity — both domestically and abroad. NBA stars were the first from North America to achieve global renown like their soccer counterparts, with the biggest becoming household names even in the remotest regions of the world.
The NBA was lagging behind the National Football League and Major League Baseball in both revenue and television profile when Stern took over. But by the time he stepped down — having surpassed Pete Rozelle of the NFL as the longest-tenured commissioner in the history of major North American team sports — he had overseen the league’s growth from fears of extinction in the late 1970s to a $5 billion enterprise. Television revenue increased more than 40-fold in that span, crossing the $1 billion threshold.
He succeeded largely by keeping the focus on the NBA’s biggest names — Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley — understanding that it was they who gave the sport its worldwide appeal. Stern’s tenure practically began with the launch of the Jordan era; the 1984 NBA draft, with Jordan and Barkley among its marquee players, was held soon after he started in the job.
In a 2014 interview with The New York Times, Stern said that one of his most cherished memories was seeing such stars come together to form the victorious 1992 U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team — known across the globe as the “Dream Team.” For a league that had seen hard times not many years before, he said, it was stirring to see them “being feted like a combination of the Bolshoi, the Philharmonic and the Beatles” on their march to the gold medal.
Seven new franchises were introduced during Stern’s tenure, including two in Canada in 1995: the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies. The league, headlined by new stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, reached 30 teams in 2004 with the arrival of the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets). Other Stern innovations included the creation of the Women’s NBA in 1997 and the NBA’s developmental league, known as the G League, in 2001.
In 1985, Jerry Reinsdorf bought the Chicago Bulls for $16 million. In 2014, shortly after Stern’s exit, Steve Ballmer purchased the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion. And as franchise values rose during Stern’s stewardship, so did players’ salaries.
“I think people see all the money in sports and think that it was always like that,” Charles Barkley, now a television analyst for Turner Sports, said recently on the program “Inside the NBA.” “When I got to the NBA in 1984, which was Commissioner’s first year, the average salary was $250,000. It’s almost $9 million now. And he is largely responsible for that.”
By the time Stern ceded his title to Adam Silver in 2014, the NBA had opened offices in 15 cities outside the United States and signed agreements to televise games in more than 200 countries, in more than 40 languages.
The effects of that international growth were apparent on opening night this season, when 108 players from 38 countries and territories populated NBA rosters. It was the sixth consecutive season in which the league had at least 100 international players.
Stern’s success stemmed from a relentless focus and a hands-on style that he had learned from working weekend shifts at his father’s Manhattan delicatessen. Yet he earned his share of criticism along the way for what some saw as a dictatorial manner; he was prone to scream at the owners he was purportedly working for as well as NBA employees, team officials, league partners, reporters, player agents — you name it.
A Lawyer Out of Teaneck
David Joel Stern was born on Sept. 22, 1942, in Manhattan to William and Anna Stern. His father ran Stern’s Deli in Chelsea. David grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, and graduated from Rutgers University in 1963 before attending Columbia Law School.
His affiliation with the NBA began in 1966, when, as a recent law school graduate, he was hired by Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, the prominent New York law firm, which represented the NBA.
Among the cases Stern worked on was a landmark antitrust lawsuit brought against the league by the Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson in 1970. Robertson sought to block a proposed merger with the American Basketball Association and outlaw the so-called option clause, which tied players to their teams. The lawsuit ended in 1976 with a settlement that enabled the NBA to expand by adding the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs and New York Nets of the American Basketball Association — but only after allowing NBA players to become free agents for the first time.
Stern grew up a New York Knicks fan and attended games at Madison Square Garden with his father. “Even though they didn’t have a good record, they were my Knicks,” he told The Times in 1983.
He played the sport briefly in adulthood, saying he was “without most of the cartilage in my right knee from playing basketball with my firm’s team in the New York Lawyers League.”
Professional basketball looked on the wane when Stern joined the NBA in 1978 as general counsel under Commissioner Larry O’Brien. The league was slipping into irrelevance — seven NBA finals games from 1979 to 1981 were relegated to tape-delayed broadcasts on CBS that began at 11:30 p.m. Eastern time.
The league incurred further damage to its image after a report in the Los Angeles Times in August 1980 estimated that 40% to 75% of its players used cocaine. In the ensuing 1980-81 season, 16 of 23 teams reportedly lost money.
Stern, elevated to executive vice president in November 1980, negotiated a drug-testing policy in 1983, making the NBA the first major sports league in North America to implement one. As soon as he became commissioner, the NBA sought to help disadvantaged small-market franchises by adopting a salary cap of $3.6 million per team for the 1984-85 season (about $9 million in today’s money).
Those measures helped the NBA regain stability as a business, enough for it to capitalize on the revival of the Boston Celtics-Los Angeles Lakers rivalry throughout the 1980s — fueled by Bird and Johnson — as well as Jordan’s spectacular ascendancy to six championships with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
Stern found his true niche in the game under O’Brien, who put him in charge of marketing, television and public relations in addition to business and legal affairs. When Stern walked away from the league’s day-to-day operations, Silver called him “one of the founders of modern sports marketing.”
“When I arrived at the league in the early ’90s, leagues weren’t considered brands the way they are now,” Silver told reporters in 2014. Stern, he said, was one of the first “to take modern state-of-the-art marketing practices, whatever the technology happened to be at the time, and apply them to sports leagues.”
Perhaps nothing made Stern prouder than the league’s role in supporting Magic Johnson after he disclosed on Nov. 7, 1991, that he had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
In his NBA office hung a photograph of Stern presenting Johnson with the Most Valuable Player trophy at the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando, Florida, just months after Johnson announced he had the virus and retired as a player (though he would later return for one season).
Stern supported Johnson’s desire to participate in the game as a leading All-Star vote-getter, amid a backlash in some corners over his participation and despite the fact that he was no longer an active player. Johnson’s presence transformed the league’s All-Star Weekend that year into a virtual convention for HIV and AIDS awareness.
“It sort of us helped us begin to firm up our view that there was something about the medium of sports that resonated with people,” Stern told ESPN in 2014. “We could effect change.”
Johnson told the sports writer Jackie MacMullan that without Stern, “I wouldn’t be standing here today.”
“He gave me my life back,” Johnson said.
Brickbats Were Also Tossed
Stern had no shortage of detractors and adversaries over the years. He may have labeled himself “Easy Dave” to the news media during labor talks in 1994, but behind closed doors he was known for his temper, and for an approach that some found tyrannical at times.
Throughout the 2005-06 season he was widely questioned after instituting a dress code for players before and after games that some saw as racist. The Philadelphia 76ers star guard Allen Iverson described the policy as “targeting guys who dress like me — guys who dress hip-hop.”
Entering the 2006-07 season, Stern sanctioned the introduction of a new microfiber basketball that was received so poorly by the players that the NBA abruptly went back to the traditional leather ball on Jan. 1, 2007.
Soon after, Stern was dealing with one of the most difficult challenges of his stewardship, when an FBI investigation revealed that referee Tim Donaghy had bet on games at which he had officiated. Stern also remained a pariah in Seattle for his role in allowing the SuperSonics to relocate to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season.
Some punishments that Stern handed down were seen as draconian, notably the myriad suspensions that followed an infamous Detroit-Indiana brawl in November 2004 and the yearlong suspension in 1997 of Latrell Sprewell for choking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo.
In considering his accomplishments, Stern told Sports Illustrated in 2018 that he most valued the tough assignments. “I think about Magic announcing he was HIV positive, and Latrell Sprewell deciding to choke P.J. Carlesimo, Ron Artest going into the stands, Donaghy betting on games,” he said. “Those were places I had to step up and protect the league, and that comes with the
Negative reviews began accumulating more frequently in his latter years as commissioner. In 2011, when the New Orleans franchise was placed under league control after the team owner, George Shinn, could no longer afford to operate the club, Stern refused to allow the team’s general manager, Dell Demps, to go ahead with a three-team trade. The trade would have sent the disgruntled All-Star guard Chris Paul to the Lakers.
“Basketball reasons” was the explanation given by the league office on Stern’s behalf — leading to numerous interviews in the succeeding years in which he continued to be asked for a more detailed explanation.
“I did it because I was protecting the then-Hornets,” Stern told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “No team sells or trades a future Hall of Famer without the owner signing off, and I was the owner’s rep.” He added that he “didn’t do a great job of explaining it at the time.”
Perhaps the harshest criticism Stern endured came during a labor impasse in the summer of 2011; it was just the second work stoppage in NBA history to cost the league regular-season games. (The first was in 1998.) HBO commentator Bryant Gumbel essentially blamed the NBA’s “infamously egocentric commissioner” for the lockout and responded to Stern’s hard-line negotiating tactics by likening him to “some kind of modern-day plantation overseer.”
Gumbel’s comments gained little traction; Stern’s reputation as “an honest broker” for his largely African American player pool and a figure who “respects the men who play in his league and the community from which they come,” as described by the noted sports sociologist Harry Edwards, was well established by then. But Stern made it clear how much the remarks by Gumbel still bothered him in June 2017, when he called him “an idiot” in an interview with The Washington Post.
“I’ve done more for people of color than Bryant Gumbel has,” he said.
Even after resigning as commissioner, Stern could not detach from his workaholic tendencies. He served as an adviser to Silver with the title commissioner emeritus. He also advised the investment bank PJT Partners, the venture capital firm Greycroft Partners and the technology, media and telecommunications arm of PricewaterhouseCoopers, as well as several sports-technology startup firms.
His survivors include his wife, Dianne Bock, and two sons, Eric and Andrew.
Silver has won praise as Stern’s successor in part for employing what is regarded as a more collaborative and open-minded style. But Stern’s impact on the league continues to be felt, especially in its efforts to expand its brand beyond the United States.
When the league announced that Stern had fallen ill, the Dallas Mavericks — owned by Mark Cuban, a frequent Stern antagonist — were playing the Detroit Pistons in Mexico City.
“He was incredible to me,” Cuban said, “even when he was yelling at me.”