LeBron James leads tributes to David Stern

The man who transformed the NBA into a global brand, helped create the WNBA, and advanced rights for players of colour has died aged 77

By Rory Jiwani

Former NBA commissioner David Stern, the driving force behind the growth of basketball as a global sport, has died at the age of 77.

Stern needed emergency surgery after suffering a brain haemorrhage on 12 December.

He passed away on New Year's Day.

New Yorker Stern became the NBA's fourth commissioner in February 1984 and held the position for 30 years.

In that time, he transformed a struggling league into a worldwide brand and helped convince NBA owners that their players should take part in the Olympics starting with the Dream Team at Barcelona 1992.

That platform enabled the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to become household names around the world.

James led the tributes to Stern who he met when he was picked first by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 draft.

Bryant also paid his respects on social media.

In a statement, Michael Jordan said, "Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today. He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon."

Magic Johnson, who was diagnosed with HIV months before Barcelona 1992, also praised the man who helped save his career and - in doing so - removed some of the stigma surrounding the condition.

The man who built the NBA

A law school graduate, Stern worked for Proskauer Rose - a firm which had long represented the NBA - for 14 years before joining the sports organisation as its general counsel in 1978.

As executive vice president in 1983, he negotiated a salary cap agreement which helped save some of the smaller franchises who were experiencing financial difficulty.

A year later, he took over as commissioner of a league suffering from an image problem with matches shown on tape delay as opposed to live.

It also had a drug problem with several players using cocaine.

Stern brought in anti-drug initiatives, and made the most of three Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals with Johnson and Larry Bird, two of the league's best and most marketable stars, going head to head.

The pair were part of that first Dream Team at Barcelona 1992 with the USA beaten just once in Olympic competition since then, at Athens 2004.

Argentina's run to gold, including their seismic semi-final victory over the United States, was immortalised in the Olympic Channel film 'The Golden Generation'.

Stern was interviewed for that film and, in his typical no-nonsense style, said, "There was nothing to apologise for. We had a good team and we got our asses kicked."

Despite the odd setback, including lockouts in 1999 and 2011, Stern managed to stablilise the league's finances before turning the NBA into a truly global brand.

Canada had its first two franchises in 1995 with the foundation of the Vancouver Grizzlies (who relocated to Memphis in 2001) and current NBA champions the Toronto Raptors.

But as significant were Stern's forays further afield with the NBA becoming the first American pro league to stage a competitive game outside North America in 1990 when the Phoenix Suns played the Utah Jazz in Japan.

The NBA now has 13 global offices and is a major force in China where Stern initially gave TV rights away for free before reaping the dividends as Yao Ming became a superstar.

There was another surge in Chinese attention as American-born Jeremy Lin led the New York Knicks on a winning streak in the 2011-12 season with the phenomenon known as 'Linsanity'.

In establishing the NBA's presence in China, Stern would regularly hand-deliver tapes of matches to the main Chinese broadcaster to get them on air, something he did previously back at home as Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams recounts:

"We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Commissioner Stern running tapes from games to CBS back in the day because we were in tape delay. And getting companies to buy into the NBA because they wouldn't even sponsor black athletes on TV.

"People have no idea what he did for the game and African-Americans in general. He literally built the NBA." - Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams

Williams also reflected on working with Stern when the NBA took over ownership of his New Orleans Hornets in 2011.

"I always looked at him when I was younger as a guy sitting in an office, pushing buttons and shaking hands on draft day. I did not realise how much work he put into it until he took over the team."

Stern's abrasive nature put him at odds with people at times, not least during the 2011-12 lockout when Dwyane Wade, according to Time.com, shouted back, "You're not pointing your finger at me. I'm not your child."

Fellow Olympic gold medallist Chris Paul, a player representative during those talks and now president of the NBA Players' Association, said, "We had some interesting times, some interesting times. One thing about David, he was going to give it to you straight. Good, bad, or indifferent.”

Stern was also a key player in the foundation of the WNBA in 1996 with league play starting a year later following the USA's women's team gold at Atlanta 1996.

After receiving the Olympic Order in 2012, Stern stepped down as NBA commissioner after exactly 30 years on 1 February 2014.

He was given the title of 'commissioner emeritus' and inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame in 2016 in recognition of his efforts to grow basketball worldwide.

Stern is survived by his wife Dianne and two sons.


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