David Stern is stepping down as Commissioner of the NBA tonight, exactly 30 years to the date since he took the role in 1984. To put that into perspective, it is probable that most people reading this article have never known an NBA without Stern at the helm, but they are about to as Adam Silver takes charge of the league.
Assessing Stern´s tenure as commissioner is a tough task after all 30 years is a long time. Enough time to get a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong, and during that time David Stern oversaw the biggest transition in the NBA´s history. Stern has been involved with the NBA one way or another since 1966 and became commissioner during a rocky period for the sport.
TV ratings had fallen in the years before 1984 and the NBA was viewed as a disorganized league with ill-disciplined players, while reports of serious drug abuse in the league were rife. David Stern has never been shy about taking credit for things, even if there are other factors involved, and he has on occasion taken huge credit for turning the NBA around. Of course, with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson establishing themselves around the time of Stern´s arrival, one could argue that the league was on course for a popularity hike anyway.
Nevertheless, Stern surely played his part in fixing the broken reputation of the NBA. The New York native helmed the NBA has it became a global phenomenon, largely on the back of Michael Jordan´s heroics. Stern was happy to go along for the ride and it cannot be argued that he marketed and positioned the NBA to become a dominant sport even outside of the US. However, the flipside of that is the feeling that he did not do enough to bridge the popularity gap that exists between Basketball and the NFL in the United States. Even now, the NFL is vastly more popular than Basketball in the US and it would not be unkind to say Stern failed to take full advantage of the superstars he had at his disposal to market Basketball, which is a more accessible sport than American Football.
David Stern has of course been present through some of the biggest events in NBA history, including six NBA franchise relocations*, the addition of 7 new teams**, and four NBA lockouts***. Through his tenure, he has had his fair share of controversy, including question marks over his disciplinary actions and accusations of fixing the 1985 Draft Lottery. Stern also had to deal with the fallout of the mass brawl that erupted between fans and players during the infamous Pacers-Pistons brawl. The Commissioner handed out $11 million worth of salary fines and 146 games worth of bans to the players involved.
A noted stickler for discipline, Stern controversially created an NBA dress code in 2005, which stated that all players must dress in business attire when on official franchise or NBA business, and while also entering and leaving an arena for a game. Some accused Stern of attacking black culture, but the truth is he has been a staunch supporter of race rights during his time in the NBA.
He may be accused of arrogance, and certainly, he is painting himself as the savior of the NBA during his attention-grabbing mid-season retirement. However, David Stern has undoubtedly done a lot for the NBA and while he has had a few misses he has surely had a few hits too. Just don´t let him tell you that he did it all himself.
*Clippers, Grizzlies, Hornets, Kings, Nets, and Sonics
**Bobcats, Grizzlies, Heat, Hornets, Magic, Raptors, and Timberwolves
***1995, 1996, 1998/99, 2011