David Stern is as important an NBA figure as they come, having soldiered through three decades of league stewardship. His impact is undeniable, though I would argue that the benefit of such an impact is highly deniable.
Upon announcement of his impending retirement, Stern is receiving praise all around. The "greatest commissioner" is credited with exponentially increasing league popularity, and with globalizing the sport. The portrayal is of a league that became the sports version of Apple between 1984 and today—while all the other leagues crumbled into oblivion, I guess.
You would think, based on the recent pre-eulogies, that Stern took pro basketball out of empty high school gymnasiums and into the national conversation.
Let us review. David Stern took over the NBA in 1984, a year after the Finals registered a 12.3 TV rating. The last NBA Finals notched a 10.1 number. This is a reductive assessment, considering that there were tape-delayed playoff games back in the late '70s and early '80s.
I would, however, mention that the move away from tape delay had much to do with the interested ginned up by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, a dynamic that predates Stern's tenure. The overall point is that basketball was a popular sport before David Stern, and a greater percentage of American television owners watched its signature event.
As for "globalizing the game," this is a plaudit that rarely gets put into any tangible context. We're all supposed to nod in agreement that Stern is the great globalizer, the one who introduced the world to basketball.
Hoops has been a global game ever since the 1936 Olympics, and the World War that followed those Berlin Games (American G.I.s played the sport in Europe and the Philippines). Vlade Divac did not learn how to play because David Stern flew to his Yugoslavian home with diagrams in tow. The 1992 Dream Team was a watershed moment in global basketball, but not one that David Stern envisioned or pushed for (via Lang Whitaker and GQ).
More to the point, what does this globalization even mean for the league? The NBA had a plan to build 12 stadiums in China, but the particularities of that venture aren't clear (the stadium they built in Shanghai has been used for an Usher concert, and the Shanghai Sharks play elsewhere).
Meanwhile, China's own league keeps the NBA at bay, as Stern's institution fades in popularity (via the New York Times). It is easy to assume that business in China automatically makes one rich, but it's difficult to economically appropriate a sport in a foreign country—especially one with state-owned television.
Don't get me wrong, I love the idea of globalizing this sport, of bringing back talent from all over the world. Dirk Nowitzki is the best import since The Office. It's just that David Stern has yet to demonstrate how this strategy enhanced the NBA's overall health.
Stern has, however, claimed $400 million losses, which makes me wonder as to where all the money is going. When the NBA lays off a staggering 11 percent of its workforce, I might look across the ocean and see billions tied up in Chinese projects of vague purpose.
Stern's tenure has been marked by bizarre adventures and distractions. He created a women's league under the NBA's umbrella, for reasons that remain unclear. I'm more than happy to support women's basketball, but the current product lingers and languishes, possibly because it's constrained by the NBA's model.
Also, could you imagine Bud Selig creating a women's softball league to complement the MLB? It's just an odd choice that we've become used to over the years.
Selig makes for a good comparison point, as his league continues to be healthy and profitable (At last glance, baseball gets $7 billion in annual revenue to the NBA's $4.7 billion). Since 2001, the NBA added teams in the 43rd, 44th and 45th ranked TV markets. Basketball now has five franchises in markets smaller than baseball's smallest market.
You can deride such a criticism as number-crunching, except the small/big market divide has come to define NBA discontent and lockout-elongating owner squabbling. It's a problem further exacerbated by the NBA's inexplicable move to increasingly tinier towns.
The commissioner inherited America's third-most successful sport. As he leaves, the NBA remains America's third-most successful sport. I have higher expectations for what I consider to be the world's most beautiful game.
To some, David Stern is still the greatest commissioner, a man who helped make Michael Jordan bigger than movie stars. To my eyes, he's been polishing a bronze medal for three decades, when he should have taken gold.