Twenty-Five Years and Counting: The Legacy of David Stern

aSenior Analyst IJanuary 30, 2009

LeBron James, Dwight Howard, and Chris Paul are three of the best players in the NBA. They will all be starting in the All-Star game on Feb. 15 and have their teams playing excellent basketball. But despite their success, none of these men can fully understand the impact David Stern has had on professional basketball.

Why, you ask? They are simply too young.

When David Stern started his tenure as the NBA's commissioner 25 years ago, none of the aforementioned men had been born yet.

A quarter of a century ago, Stern was handed a league that was in much need of help. Drug use was prevalent among players, management-labor wars had the league close to bankruptcy, and fan interest was significantly decreasing at a steady pace.

Just one year prior to Stern's appointment, Commissioner Larry O'Brien decided that drug testing was a necessity and that a salary cap had to be developed. Both were put into place but nobody was sure how the changes would affect the league. To say that the league was in trouble is an understatement.

In came David Stern and with him several young men by the names of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton in what is often regarded as the greatest rookie class of all-time.

But before anything else, Stern realized he had to first fix the problems at hand. His approach to the league's drug problem was simple. If a player came forward and asked for help, they would receive treatment and avoid punishment. Those who didn't seek treatment but failed a drug test would face suspensions and severe consequences.

Stern was also prepared to work under the new salary cap as he was one of the men who helped create it as the league's executive vice president under O'Brien. When he took over as the NBA's commissioner, 17 of the league's 23 teams were losing money and he knew this had to change. By creating a salary cap, Stern knew it would make the players and owners partners and established a revenue-sharing system for the league.

With those issues sorted out, Stern knew he also had to bring in fans if he wanted the league to strive. How would he do this? He would improve how the sport was marketed.

Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were no longer just talented players, they were marketed as superstars. The two were appearing in commercials, leading their large-market teams to the Finals each year, and appealing to all basketball fans, regardless of race, gender, and social status. From 1984 to 1989, either Johnson, Bird, or both men had advanced their teams to the Finals, which led to a rivalry that was great for both fans and the league.

While Magic and Larry were competing for championships each year, another player was refining his game and electrifying the league. If the duo of Johnson and Bird was the defibrillator that revived the NBA, Michael Jordan was the prescription that made it healthier than ever.

Having already led the league in scoring, winning an MVP award, and producing a popular signature shoe with Nike, Jordan was ready to take the torch as the league's next superstar. Suddenly, "Air Jordan" was the face of the league.

Ratings for games, which were now shown on NBC live rather than on tape delay as was the case in the past, were skyrocketing. Jordan, like both Bird and Johnson, was popular and respected by people from every walk of life. By hyping up and marketing these players as superstars, Stern generated buzz and interest in the league. While basketball lovers were still able to appreciate the fundamentals of the game, casual sports fans appreciated the individual stars and the league had reached a new audience.

Jordan quickly became one of the greatest players of all time and also one of the most famous men in the world. He won championship after championship and the NBA was full of stars. Seeing this, Stern knew it was time to focus on spreading his product globally.

How could he put his players on display to the rest of the world? And just like that, the Dream Team was created. For the first time, Olympic basketball would feature NBA players who would dominate their opposition. Shortly after, the NBA started opening international offices across the world. NBA Entertainment, another Stern creation, was a production company that focused on making tapes and programs that gave fans in both the United States and worldwide another medium for watching their favorite teams and players.

In the following decade, Stern would also provide basketball fans with more ways to follow the league with the creation of and the first league owned and operated television network, NBA TV. These globalization efforts would not only increase the NBA's fan base but also raise the amount of international players entering the league as the sport was gaining popularity across the world.

In 1997, Stern wanted to give woman basketball players their own professional league so he created the Women's National Basketball Association. While the league hasn't gained the popularity that the NBA has, it has been successful.

Recently, Stern has focused on increasing the talent level and readiness of players entering the NBA. In 2001, he formed the National Basketball Development League, which is basically the league's minor league farm system. It focuses on helping players refine their skills and allows teams to provide their raw players with experience that they wouldn't get by sitting on the end of a bench.

He also implemented the age minimum that requires a player to be 19 years old in order to be eligible for the draft. This stopped high school players who weren't ready for the competition, fame, and fortune from jumping straight to the NBA and forgoing college.

Stern has also shown that he can handle controversy. The Malice at the Palace between the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons several years ago was handled well. Suspensions were handed out and the league has been strict about interactions between players and fans as well as reserves leaving the bench during games.

Last year, Stern had another problem arise by the name of Tim Donaghy, a referee who was caught betting on games. But after investigating and determining the situation was an isolated incident, he focused on reviewing officials calls tougher than in the past and convinced the world that it would not happen again.

Despite the controversy, the league continued to receive support from fans and Finals ratings were higher than they had been in years.

Today, Stern's main concern is preventing players from fleeing for more money in Europe, where no salary cap exists, but he doesn't feel threatened by the international competition that, in a way, he helped create. The state of the economy and how it will impact the league is also something he's paying attention to.

But if anyone can handle this, it's David Stern. The NBA was essentially falling apart until he pulled the pieces back together, made drastic changes, and then watched his product become more successful than ever.

In the last 25 years "the NBA's revenue has increased by 500 percent" according to Sports, a number that speaks volumes about Stern's tenure as commissioner. The league will forever have his finger prints all over it and his legacy will be celebrated for years to come. He will be remembered as one of the greatest sports commissioners of all-time and saved the league that so many of us love today.