By Shehan Jeyarajah
It’s hard to imagine the NBA without David Stern, isn’t it? For three decades, Stern has been arguably the most powerful individual in American sports, seemingly with a hand in every part of the game. With his departure, his legacy should be that of the best commissioner in the history of American sports.
When David Stern took over the NBA in 1984 from former commissioner Lawrence O’Brien, he took on a league that was having trouble filling up arenas and had a huge negative stigma thanks to an alleged widespread drug problem. Stern was forced to deal with a league that struggled with major racial undertones and was at a time labeled “too black.” The league could not even find a major network to air the NBA Finals — it was played on tape delay until 1981.
Before becoming commissioner, Stern was the general counsel for the NBA. He helped strike an agreement in 1980 to make drug testing widespread throughout the league. This helped repair the drug-riddled image that basketball struggled to shed.
Many point to the number of superstars that have come into the league since Stern took the reins. In the past 30 years, the league has featured the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and, most notably, Michael Jordan.
Stern changed the way the NBA marketed. Rather than a league of teams, the NBA became a league of superstars.
Basketball has the unique advantage of having athletes that are exceptionally visible. Unlike the NFL or NHL, the faces of athletes are unencumbered by masks or visors. Thanks to this, it’s easy to see and separate NBA players, making the process of creating identifiable superstars that much easier.
Perhaps no athlete is a better example of this than LeBron James. In 2003, James was drafted to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, one of the smallest markets and worst franchises in the NBA. Within a few years, Cleveland was near the top of the league and James was the most endorsed star in the NBA.
Neither Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Wilt Chamberlain or even Julius Erving reached anywhere near the same level of notability when they played basketball in the ’60s and ’70s. Marketing Bird, Jordan and Magic allowed the game to grow more than ever before.
Perhaps no move was more brilliant on Stern’s part than his plan to globalize the game of basketball. The NBA has not quite reached the popularity of the NFL or MLB in the United States, but it has overtaken both leagues on a world stage.
Basketball has possibly become the second most popular sport in the world, behind only soccer. There is no question that the NBA is the most international league in the United States, with 92 international players at the beginning of the 2014 NBA season.
A low point in the Stern era came when the Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated former referee Tim Donaghy for allegedly affecting point spreads and gambling on games. Such an investigation brought about questions of whether direction was coming from the league office.
This could have turned into a black mark on the game, similar to the steroid scandal in baseball, but Stern managed to sweep the scandal out of the public’s eyes and maintain the popularity of the game.
Stern leaves the NBA on a clear upward trajectory. Average player salaries are higher for the NBA than any other American sport. In 2014, the Chicago Bulls became the third NBA franchise to reach a $1 billion valuation by Forbes, along with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. During the 2012 season, it was announced that NBA revenue reached the $5 billion mark for the first time.
Stern will be remembered as a taskmaster, but his effect on the game will be longstanding. Without Stern, the NBA would not have reached the heights it has been pushed toward. He leaves the league in new commissioner Adam Silver’s capable hands.
Shehan Jeyarajah is a sophomore political science major. He is a sports writer for the Lariat.