David Stern long stepped away from his official post as NBA commissioner, but his handprints are all over today’s game and his fingerprints touch the landscape of sports at large.
It’s easy to say anyone could’ve shepherded the NBA through its golden era of the 1980s. Magic, Larry and others played a game that was easy to digest, and they were drafted by the perfect teams in the perfect cities. But without Stern, his vision and the audacity he possessed when he took over, not many would’ve been able to absorb the game and embrace the new flavor of the day.
What good is magic if it’s in the woods and nobody sees it?
That’s where Stern, who died Wednesday after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12, came in, helping to change the league’s image to the masses with the same heavy hand he was often criticized for in not-so-digestible matters. Although small in stature, the man could command a room with the best of them — with a witty disposition and a voice that reflected his mission.
When he took over as commissioner, the NBA was a distant third in the American consciousness and maybe a step behind that considering how people felt about its players. Viewership was dwindling, and even though its players were dynamic and entertaining, the NBA Finals were on tape delay.
That didn’t automatically change with the arrival of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird following their captivating matchup in the 1979 NCAA championship game. The networks weren’t lining up to show those two without some serious pushing from the man who took over from Larry O’Brien in 1984.
Stern had to walk delicate lines from the day he took over — fighting the perception that the league was drug-infested and its players were selfish. Even if he knew the overall judgment was unfair, he had to get the public on his side to maximize the growing game.
The game was the game, but it was also a show, too. It needed to be entertaining as much as it was a competition, and as things ebbed and flowed, he did his best to keep it steady.
He had the temerity to expect his players be placed on the marquee — faces fans could identify with and embrace. The changes were subtle, but Stern wasn’t. He possessed an innate ability to see what was ahead, getting in front of the wave and making sure to get off before it crashed.
Before you knew it, NBA players were bankable commodities and ratings were on the rise almost as soon as he took over.
Anyone could’ve seen Michael Jordan was a little different than the rest, but Stern pushed all the league’s chips to Jordan’s table, believing he could take the game to places Magic and Larry couldn’t — and it paid dividends the league is still reaping all these years later.
Jordan couldn’t have been this larger-than-life figure without Stern’s tacit blessing — and lest we forget, the whispers of Jordan being favored by the league office didn’t come from thin air.
Stern never appeared to deny being complicated, which made him more relatable even from the ivory tower of Manhattan. His “I’m smarter than you” troupe was almost endearing, because most times, he was right and had the skins to prove it.
And he had the foresight to realize the key to making the NBA bigger was by taking things beyond national land — and the evidence is right in front of us. The annual trips to showcase the game outside of the states was Stern’s vision and his work — not just to take advantage of the economic benefits but to open its doors to international talent.
The top MVP candidates of today — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and many others — have Stern to thank, through degrees of separation, for making the game global and accessible. He pushed the Olympic committee to allow professionals to participate in the Summer Games, which begat the Dream Team ... which begat the first wave of international stars to affect the game, an expansion Stern understood could only make the league better.
His ambition required a stern hand — no pun intended — and it wasn’t always well-received as the league went through peaks and valleys.
Crisis management could’ve been his best attribute, firm in the face of the unthinkable. He didn’t banish Magic Johnson from the NBA family when Johnson contracted HIV, which not only threatened the league’s credibility but also Johnson’s life.
Stern stood alongside Johnson and embraced him, welcoming him back to the game that so loved him that nothing would stop the relationship between the game and its great figure. Of all the commissioners of recent vintage, who was better equipped to handle such a situation with grace, humanity and optimism in the face of the unknown?
By and large, was Stern a cuddly, cherubic figure? No.
He could be a bully and heavy-handed and stubborn to a degree. Things were often going to be his way or no way at all — but he seemed to issue his edicts with a smirk and a chuckle. You may have thought you were on his good side.
He laughed because, in his mind, he educated you.
His lockout beard from the 1998 work stoppage will forever be on his dossier, and even if he had no true regrets from it, he understood the long-term effects.
He let nothing slide, suffered very few fools and always believed he knew best. When the devastating Malice at the Palace happened in 2004, he knew the ramifications could destroy everything he helped build and was willing to be the villain for the greater good.
The dress code didn’t sound good or feel good, but its effect reached Stern’s desire as the league’s image changed for the better.
How great was Stern’s mystique? Rumors persist, two decades later, that he told the game’s greatest player at the peak of his powers to go sit down for two years in 1993.
The only reason it is truly believable is because of Stern — in some ways, he’s Keyser Soze come to life.
He almost felt indestructible, almost always with the right answers, with the right tone even through his faults.
If his 30-year tenure was to leave the game in a better place than when he took the mantle, Adam Silver had fertile ground to continue building upon Stern’s massive legacy.
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