David Stern was a born-and-raised New Yorker, a Manhattanite through and through. He grew up a Knicks fan and was a regular at Madison Square Garden. He attended law school at Columbia, and when it was time to find a headquarters for the NBA, the league chose 645 Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan.
When Stern died Wednesday at the age of 77, the tributes flowed in the same way they would for a former head of state. The former NBA commissioner wasn’t just a basketball executive. He was an international giant with a legacy that stretched from the United States to China and throughout South America, Europe and Africa.
The brightest, and maybe best example of Stern’s impact lies in the rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo, a potential two-time MVP with Nigerian roots who was born in Greece. Fans from around the world marvel at how he moves, how he slaloms around defenders like a skier and how he stretches the vertical limits of human ability. Antetokounmpo’s growth from bony teenager playing in tiny gyms across Greece to mammoth NBA megastar lighting up screens across the world is a glowing manifestation of what Stern envisioned decades ago. Now, Antetokounmpo and international stars like Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic dominate a global basketball landscape that was seeded and groomed by Stern’s innovative and ambitious leadership.
When Stern took over in 1984, there were 23 teams in the league. Now, there are 30, including the defending champion Toronto Raptors. The majority of those teams are worth billions of dollars, with the Houston Rockets selling for $2.2 billion two years ago. The salary cap that started at $3.6 million (now about $9 million adjusted for inflation) in 1984 has ballooned to $109.1 million for the 2019-20 season.
While Stern certainly benefited from the rise in the value of TV and media rights for professional sports leagues, the league’s domestic and international growth was spurred by the NBA’s decision to send professional players to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Alongside current Golden State Warriors president and former league office executive Rick Welts, Stern helped market the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team. The result was a global sensation that is widely known as the greatest team ever assembled and is credited with helping spur the international growth of the game.
By the time Stern left office in 2014, the league had opened offices in 15 cities outside America and had TV deals that spanned across over 200 countries in the world, according to the New York Times. Ten of the last 25 No. 1 overall picks in the NBA were born outside the continental United States, covering five of the world’s seven continents; China (Yao Ming), Australia (Andrew Bogut, Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons), Bahamas (Deandre Ayton), Canada (Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett), Italy (Andrea Bargnani), Tim Duncan (US Virgin Islands) and Michael Olowokandi (Nigeria). Contrast that with the NFL, which has zero top picks that were born outside the United States over the same time.
When the San Antonio Spurs, led by Duncan, French guard Tony Parker and Argentine guard Manu Ginobili, played against the Detroit Pistons in 2005, Stern said of the Spurs, “Our push on globality continues, and in some ways the Spurs are sort of a United Nations team.”
There were 76 international players from 34 countries that season. A decade later, in 2014-15, the NBA cracked 100 international players for the first time, doubling in size since 2000-01 (45) and nearly quintupling since 1990-91 (21). The NBA’s international players list now sits at 108 players, leveling off after a surge under Stern’s leadership.
To me, this is Stern’s legacy. Instead of closing doors and insulating himself in Manhattan, Stern opened them. Stern fashioned the NBA as its own New York City, attracting people and businesses from all corners of the world. Under his stewardship, the NBA became America’s global game. It takes a strong, but delicate hand to pull off that kind of change and growth, both things Stern had in spades.
Long-time reporters and executives alike can all tell their coming-age-of-story when Stern first chewed them out on the phone. And one only need to look back through the pair of lockouts that Stern oversaw in 1998 and 2011 to find examples of his ruthlessness when faced with an obstacle to his business objectives.
But for every tale about being on the receiving end of Stern’s wrath, there are scores of tales highlighting his compassion. Stern wanted to reach as many people around the world, but he wanted most to reach the people closest to him.
In Welts’ coming-out story in the New York Times, he told the story of how Stern, his long-time boss at the league office whom he called “Uncle Dave,” had personally called him after Welts’ long-time partner, Arnie, died of AIDS in March of 1994. Welts had grieved privately to keep his sexuality private, but the morning after Arnie’s death, he received a phone call from Stern, offering his condolences. In Arnie’s obituary, Welts, writing anonymously, had asked donations to be made to the University of Washington in honor of Arnie. Later, Welts opened up his mail and found a check written to the college. From David and his wife Dianne Stern. For the amount of $10,000. David and Welts had never explicitly talked about his sexuality.
Stern’s tenure as commissioner was marked by breaking down barriers, both globally and socially. In 1997, he gathered enough support amongst NBA owners to found the WNBA following the popularity of the 1996 U.S. women’s national team. When Magic Johnson announced in an NBA press conference that he was HIV positive, Stern sat directly to his left and the commissioner supported Johnson privately and publicly, instrumental in America’s education and awareness of the disease. When a sidelined Magic was the top vote-getter for the 1992 All-Star Game, it was Stern who rallied powerbrokers up and down the NBA to allow him to play. Magic ended up being the game’s MVP, a groundbreaking moment not just in the NBA, but across the world.
David Stern was such a history maker. When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand. When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 1, 2020
Stern also navigated some rocky waters that swirled under his watch. The NBA survived the Tim Donaghy scandal that nearly upended the league. The 2005 decision to institute a league-wide dress decorum that was seen in some circles as a coded attack on Allen Iverson and African-American culture. There were also two lockouts that disrupted labor peace between the league and the players association, leading to two shortened seasons.
But Stern, above all, was a giant among giants. The 5-foot-9 grey-haired New York lawyer commanded respect in every gym and conference room in which he stepped. And from his towering Manhattan office, he saw beyond borders and bridged countries and continents together like no other American commissioner. He made the National Basketball Association international.