Love him or hate him, David Stern has changed the NBA game for the better. His impact has been felt worldwide as the NBA went from being an American game to a truly global marketing empire.
Thursday, the 70-year-old Stern announced he will retire on February 1, 2014, ending a 30-year run as NBA commissioner. The NBA's official Twitter account stated the following:
Commissioner Stern will step down on the 30th anniversary of his appointment to commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984.— NBA (@NBA) October 25, 2012
Stern's legacy is likely to get mixed reviews, given controversial decisions including moving the Sonics to what was considered a tiny market in Oklahoma City, and the infamous "basketball reasons" statement that prevented Chris Paul from becoming a Laker.
But looking beyond his smug exterior and a few questionable instances, you find a brilliant man who truly understands what moves the needle for basketball fans, kids who want to play the game and the sponsors and networks who have shelled out billions over the last 30 years.
Stern walked into an NBA that was tarnished by sloppy play, rampant drug use and a relatively Laissez-faire approach to marketing the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the players who really made the game great.
It's no coincidence that Michael Jordan became the most successfully marketed player in NBA history. His relationship with Nike undoubtedly helped fuel that legacy, but Stern's efforts to get the NBA onto lucrative cable markets brought Air Jordans to households around the world.
Where other sports such as hockey and baseball failed, the NBA succeeded. Stern allowed the Nike marketing machine to take full effect, and he embraced the Celtics-Lakers rivalry that helped the league earn respectability.
The exact measure of Stern's impact is difficult to measure. Whether it's attempting to decipher the NBA's gross revenue figure or understand Basketball Related Income, the amounts are staggering.
Which pro sports league does the best job of marketing its superstars?
BRI figures presented during the 2011 NBA Lockout totaled a whopping $3.817 billion. Those numbers simply wouldn't have been possible without Stern building the brand of superstars.
Stern did what not all commissioners had the desire, courage or respect to do: Superstar talent is obvious, but unless it's thrust onto TV screens, merchandised and monetized, the benefits won't be felt by the league as much as the player.
His treatment of Jordan alone personifies his viewpoint of a superstar. By his third season in the NBA, Jordan's Bulls were a mediocre team being pushed onto national TV games. Jordan's 63-point performance in the Boston Garden against the Celtics in 1986 played a part, but Stern knew what he had in Jordan.
The 1986-87 Bulls were becoming NBA darlings, despite being a .500 team.
As Jordan's greatness grew, so did his stardom and the scrutiny attached to his name. The NBA eventually responded to widespread allegations of MJ's gambling antics, finding that he violated no league rules.
Jordan walked away from the game to play baseball shortly after the investigation, only to return and win three more NBA titles. His dalliance in NBA ownership has been embraced by Stern.
No matter how many failed draft picks the Bobcats make under the Jordan regime, he gives the NBA a chance to survive in Charlotte.
As the NBA transitions into the era of LeBron, Durant, whiny Dwight Howard and wounded Derrick Rose, the marketability of superstars promises to continue. Sure, none of those players got anything close to Jordan's meager $2.5 million endorsement deal when they entered the NBA.
But not even the most ridiculously aggressive marketing campaign can do what the NBA commissioner can—push the product onto the masses on televisions all over the globe.
The formula behind Stern's model for success was very simple: Give the people what they want. And there is no question he has done just that.
Adam Silver, you have some big shoes to fill.