Breaking Down How David Stern Turned the NBA into a Global Game
As he prepares for retirement after nearly three decades of leadership, we owe the commissioner a fair shake, an acknowledgement of his less visible legacy.
The Stern we knew and didn't particularly love obscured efforts to bring to the league to a global audience, his—as ESPN's Marc Stein puts it—"determination and success in taking the NBA to every corner of the Earth."
Of course, we needn't attribute any saintliness to those efforts. This wasn't some kind of selfless endeavor to spread the gospel to all who would listen.
It was business, pure and simple.
And it was the kind of business that preserves and grows the vitality of a league destined for worldwide popularity. This game is replete with rare personalities, spectacular athleticism and compelling storylines. Its international appeal was just waiting to be discovered.
And Stern did just that.
Take it from a three-time MVP (via NOLA.com's Jimmy Smith):
"It goes without saying that he's done so many great things for the league for what the league was when he entered to where it is now," said [LeBron] James. "It's a global game. His visions have led to that for this game to be, not only broadcast here in America, but in so many different countries and so many different places in the world. That was his vision."
A vision is one thing, but Stern went a step further to be sure.
The NBA is as prominent internationally as it's ever been, this year featuring overseas preseason games and a regular-season contest in London. Games are viewed on TV in 215 countries, and the league is increasingly popular in China and Europe.
Overseas fans are more excited about attending the preseason games than their American counterparts.
Foreign players are also more numerous in today's league and featured more prominently on successful teams. Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol rank atop a long list of international stars, all having led their teams to titles in the last decade.
When the original Dream Team exploded onto the world stage in 1992, the NBA left an indelible mark on the Summer Olympics thanks to superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
The cross-border pollination that typified the subsequent decades wasn't entirely of Stern's doing, but there's no question he led the way when it came to building and selling the NBA's brand.
The 70-year-old spearheaded the league first international TV deals in the early 1980s, laying a foundation for rapid expansion in the coming decades.
A first-rate negotiator with a background in law, Stern knew the NBA well since 1966 and became the organization's General Counsel in 1978. He was perfectly positioned to hammer out deals around the world.
At the end of the day, though, LeBron James is correct. None of Stern's early legwork would have counted for much were it not for his leadership.
ESPN's J.A. Adande writes that Stern's "vision of elevating basketball to a soccer-like popularity around the world had the dual effect of expanding the market to the far reaches of the globe and broadening the talent pool available to the teams at home."
When Stern took the job, the league seemed more like a cottage industry than the multinational phenomena it's become. Profiling that ascent without giving the commissioner his due would leave a glaring gap in the historical record—even when accounting for the impact of icons like MJ, Kobe or LeBron.
It was Stern's stewardship ensured that the world witnessed those legends.
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