On February 1st, 1984, David Stern became commissioner of the NBA. At the time, professional basketball was not very popular in the realm of sports. Many doubted the profitability of a professional basketball league. But the NBA is arguably the second largest professional sport in the USA behind the NFL. Stern announced last season that February 1st, 2014 would be his last day as commissioner. These are the 10 events that defined David Stern’s tenure.
Having Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics playing in the NBA Finals 3 out of David Stern’s first 4 years as commissioner was a heck of a way to begin a tenure. The Lakers and Celtics in the 1980’s would go down as perhaps the greatest rivalry of all time. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird brought the best out of each other and had a positive impact on the popularity of the NBA.
When David Stern became commissioner, there were NBA playoff games that were not being televised. In his 30 years, he has helped make significant deals with ABC, NBC, ESPN, and TNT. In 1999, the NBA created NBA TV. Thanks to deals with Turner Sports (who took over operations for the Network) and television providers such as DIRECTV (first major television company to make it available), NBA TV has grown. The NBA estimates that its network is available in over 45 million homes. The network features original programming as well as live NBA games, WNBA games, and international games. And let’s not forget about NBA League Pass, celebrating their 20th year this year, which has made NBA games available on several cable and media providers. The TV revenue was around 30 million when Stern took over. Currently the NBA generates nearly a billion dollars a year in TV revenue.
The HIV issue
When Magic Johnson announced in 1991 that he had contracted the HIV virus, it set off a massive hysteria nationwide. At the time there were many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding the HIV virus. Questions began swirling about Johnson’s sexuality because the public had not been educated on the subject. Players around the league were afraid of getting the virus by mere game contact. People around the country were absolutely dumbfounded when first lady Barbara Bush was shown on national television holding a baby infected with the HIV virus. Ignorance on the subject of HIV and AIDS was common in that time. In a large part because of Magic Johnson bringing this issue to the limelight, it allowed the public to be educated on the HIV virus. This was one of the most culturally significant issues that sports allowed us to deal with and learn about.
The Dream Team
Perhaps the greatest event that brought popularity to the NBA did not happen in the NBA. The 1992 Olympic basketball team was the greatest assembly of talent in the history of basketball (All but one player would end up in the Hall of Fame). Prior to 1992, only college players had played on the US National team and had brought unsuccessful results. David Stern wasn’t a huge fan of NBA players playing in the Olympics at the time but he didn’t do much to stand in the way. Letting the scenario play out became one of the best calculated risks Stern took in office. The popularity of the NBA exploded following the 1992 Olympics.
One of the young players on the Dream Team would change the face of the NBA forever. There is not a player in the history of the NBA recognized worldwide more than Michael Jordan. Jordan would go on to win 6 championships in the 1990’s and would win the NBA MVP in all 6 of those years. He would retire for a two year period in between 3 peats only to come back better than ever. Jordan’s last 4 NBA championships were the 4 most watched NBA Finals to date. Larry Bird would describe him as “God disguised as Michael Jordan”. ESPN would name him the Athlete of the Century over Babe Ruth and Muhammad Ali. Over 15 years since Jordan’s last NBA championship, current NBA players still try to live up to the legacy of Jordan. Current players such as Kobe and LeBron still have to live in the shadow of Jordan’s legacy and find it hard to escape the comparisons. Thanks to stars such as Johnson, Bird, and Jordan, the NBA learned a good deal about marketing their stars.
The NBA during David Stern’s tenure faced 4 lockouts, 2 of those lockouts caused shortened seasons in 1998-99 and 2011-12. The lockout of 98-99 was especially damaging following the retirement of Michael Jordan. David Stern saw the 1999 NBA Finals fall by nearly 8 million viewers from the 1998 NBA Finals. The ratings would climb slowly thanks to Kobe Bryant and the revitalized Los Angeles Lakers but they never returned to the high numbers of the Jordan years. The NBA didn’t take as big of a hit after the 2011-12 season thanks to established stars such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and others.
Malice in the Palace
NBA fans had felt a disconnect from players especially after the 1998-99 NBA lockout garnered such a negative reaction. In 2004, this disconnect reached a new low. Following an altercation/hard foul between the Pistons’ Ben Wallace and the Pacers’ Ron Artest, mass hysteria broke out when a fan threw a cup of ice on Artest who was laying on the scores table. Artest ran into the stands and began grabbing a fan who he believed threw the drink. Scuffles began breaking out all over The Palace at Auburn Hills both on and off the court between players and fans. When the smoke cleared, nine players were suspended for a total of 146 games which totaled a loss of $11 million in salary. As a result, David Stern made sure that security levels in NBA arenas increased and that alcohol sales would be limited. Arguably, as a result of the negative backlash this incident garnered, Stern also made a mandatory dress code at the start of the 2005 NBA season. Players would be required to dress in business attire when arriving and departing from games (or if they were inactive on the bench due to injury). There was backlash against this dress code from players who believed Stern was trying to get rid of the “hip-hop/thug culture;” in the NBA.
Thanks to the Dream Team and marketing stars such as Jordan and Magic, basketball became more popular worldwide. Add in Chinese megastar Yao Ming to the mix and it all helped the NBA explode globally within the last decade. Over the last decade, the NBA has seen great players from all over the world such as Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobli, the Gasol brothers, and others become star players. The NBA has also made several attempts to reach out to the Hispanic communities in and outside of the USA by printing Spanish on NBA jerseys for weeks out of the year. Prior to the 2013 season, there were 92 foreign players on NBA rosters (more than ever before).
Tim Donaghy scandal
One of the biggest nightmares a league could have is scandals involving potential fixing of games. Any kind of outside force not related to the players on the court affecting the outcome of a game would be a huge black eye (see: NFL – spygate/MLB - Black Sox). In 2007 it was reported than an NBA official named Tim Donaghy had been betting on NBA games to control the point spread. The FBI had found that Donaghy had dealings with low-level mob associates to help work on a gambling scheme and that Donaghy had placed thousands of dollars in bets on games from 2005-2007. There are always rumblings that the NBA likes big-market teams such as the Lakers and Knicks to do better than small-market teams for financial reasons. This scandal only contributed to the conspiracy theories. Perhaps as a result, the 2007 NBA Finals was the lowest rated/watched NBA Finals in history even with young star LeBron James making his first appearance in the Finals. David Stern had to fight for the integrity of the NBA during this time.
In 2003, a rookie with the biggest hype in NBA history was drafted by his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers out of high school. James brought a hungry fanbase in Cleveland their best opportunity at a professional sports championship in years. Once LeBron’s rookie contract ran out, he opted to test free agency. Over 13 million people tuned in to watch “The Decision” where LeBron announced where he would play. LeBron would be “taking his talents to South Beach” in Miami where he would play alongside all-stars Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. The Miami Heat would play in the NBA Finals the next 3 years, winning two championships. Those 3 NBA Finals, along with a Lakers-Celtics matchup the year before James joined the Heat, saw the ratings climb. James is still a lightning rod thanks to some of the negative response of “The Decision” but is the cornerstone of the NBA today.
30 years is a long time to be the commissioner of any major sports league. Stern weathered some major storms while continuing to increase the popularity of the NBA. There is no question that David Stern left the NBA in better shape than it was when he started as commissioner. Some would argue that only the NFL’s Pete Rozelle was a better commissioner to a major sport. No one could argue there’s been a better commissioner in NBA history. Adam Silver, Stern’s successor, has some big shoes to fill.
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