During the NBA's Board of Governors meetings in October 2012, Stern announced his plan to vacate his post on Feb. 1, 2014—30 years to the day after he took over for the late Larry O'Brien.
This wasn't just another great figure in the sports world preparing for a prolonged farewell tour. No, this was a renowned artist struggling to walk away from his life's masterpiece.
The league that Stern will leave behind looks nothing like the one he took over in 1984. It's grown from a mildly successful domestic product into a wildly lucrative global corporation.
Not that long ago, though, the fate of Stern's NBA teetered on the brink of disaster. His players were vilified in the court of public opinion and often served something worse by the judicial system.
But Stern never wavered in his determination to put this game where it needed to be. Relationships were risked, and popularity was sacrificed, but through it all, he put the NBA's best interest ahead of his own.
Here's the story of how the former clerk behind the counter of Stern's Deli saved the game of basketball.
Building the Brand
Stern inherited a league in transition when he grabbed the reins in 1984.
The stars of yesterday (Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson) had long ago left the league's locker rooms. The next generation of all-time greats (Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan) were still getting their feet wet.
What once had captivated the country came dangerously close to losing all of its luster. Just 23 teams filled the league's ranks, many of which were mired in financial disarray.
The loss of star power, really the NBA's failure to market the stars that it did have, was only part of the problem. Rampant drug abuse shook the league's image to its core.
"Back in the day it was like, 'We got a bunch of young black guys making a good living and smoking pot,'" former player and current analyst Charles Barkley said on NBA TV's Open Court. "That was the NBA's image...That's a hard product to market."
Stern first confronted the issue when he implemented the league's first drug testing program as vice president in 1983. Shortly thereafter he was forced to put his policy into practice.
From 1986 to 1995, eight different players were banned for violating the league's substance abuse policy. Some of those players were later reinstated, but two of them, Roy Tarpley and Richard Dumas, came back to the league only to be banned again for other violations.
With the substance abuse problems largely curtailed, Stern turned his focus to those muddled financial books.
Step one was making the most of the NBA's individual talents. With an assist from the concurrent development of players like Johnson, Jordan and Bird, he capitalized on the captivating draw of the league's elites.
Although initially opposed to the idea, he oversaw the league's players journey to the Olympic stage. The result was the 1992 Dream Team, a supreme collection of talent that received a welcome in Spain akin to The Beatles' American debut.
The global seed had been planted, and Stern watered it at every opportunity.
With interest in his All-Stars skyrocketing, he looked to maximize their on-camera appeal. He instituted several rule changes that limited what defensive players do without committing a foul, and as offensive production increased, casual fans flocked to the sport by the millions.
Stern's economic impact on the sport has been astronomical.
According to Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times, players' average salaries have soared from $250,000 to over $5 million during his tenure. Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen reported in 2012 that the league was raking $930 million in TV contracts, with games being broadcast in 215 countries. NBA was valued at over $12 billion, up from the relatively "meager" $400 million it was worth when he took over.
Unfortunately, Stern would soon learn a lesson from the culture he clashed with repeatedly during the 2000s. More money brought nothing but more problems.
Issues with Perception of Players
As Father Time forced Stern's saviors into retirement, many of the league's new crop of stars brought with them a lifestyle ingrained during their upbringing but foreign (and frightening) to a good percentage of fans.
With some of the game's brightest stars emerging from some of the country's toughest areas, the disconnect between players and well-to-do season-ticket holders was quickly climbing to its boiling point.
Postgame press conferences mirrored music videos. Clothes got baggier, hats and tattoos were wardrobe necessities and jewelry bordered on outlandish.
Rather than attempt to learn about the players behind these outfits, people lined up for the chance to label them criminals.
Forbes' Michael K. Ozanian wrote simply, "Many NBA players carry guns and the league is full of thugs." Radio shock jock Howard Stern added, "Sometimes, you can't take the ghetto out of the guy," (both quotes via ESPN's Henry Abbott).
As a small segment of basketball's population ran afoul of the law, those detractors felt validated in their claims.
On Nov. 19, 2004, though, even the league's staunchest supporters saw their loyalty put to the test.
In the final minute of the Indiana Pacers' rout of the Detroit Pistons, an in-game brawl between Ben Wallace and Ron Artest eventually spilled into the stands of The Palace at Auburn Hills.
Pacers players and Pistons fans exchanged blows in front of an aghast national audience. This couldn't be called a worst-case scenario; it was simply unimaginable horror.
Bill Walton, who was calling the game for ESPN, called it "the lowest point for me in 30 years with the NBA," (via Grantland's Jonathan Abrams). Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, then the Pistons' coach, later said, "It was the ugliest thing I've ever been involved with," (via ESPN's Jemele Hill).
Sadly, Stern couldn't see the unsightly moment the same way. Just a few years later, he powerlessly watched as his league was led down a lower, uglier path.
His Darkest Hour
Conspiracy theorists had traced Stern's each and every move as commissioner.
Usually those allegations came from the outside world. But in 2007, he faced his most damning accusation yet, from an NBA employee no less.
Tim Donaghy, a 13-year veteran referee, plead guilty to two felony charges of conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce.
His subsequent allegations rocked the hoops world to its core.
He claimed that the league office had directed officials to avoid calling technical fouls on star players for fear of damaging ticket sales and television ratings. He said that another referee influenced the outcome of a game in 2004 because of a relationship that the official had with a team's general manager.
He also claimed that two officials fixed Game 6 of an undefined 2002 playoff series to extend it to seven games.
Multiple reports have since identified the series in question as being the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings' meeting in the Western Conference Finals, the only series that went to seven games that year. L.A. shot 15 more free throws than Sacramento in Game 6, 40 to 25, 27 of which came in the fourth quarter alone.
Stern vehemently denied the accusations made by Donaghy, whom he called a "rogue, isolated criminal," per the Associated Press (via ESPN), but the damage had already been done.
The conspiracy theorists had their proof, or at least as much of it as they felt they needed.
Yet even in his darkest hour, Stern guided his league back into the light. No matter the problems he faced, the commissioner always had an answer.
Polishing the Product
Stern's official job title might as well be changed to crisis manager. He withstood the impact of all of these blows and always responded with a haymaker of his own.
He noticed a developing problem was with players' immaturity, or at the very least the perception of immaturity. His approach to curbing that financially damaging trend was twofold.
In 2005, Stern enacted the NBA's controversial dress code.
T-shirts, headgear, chains or pendants worn over one's clothes and sunglasses worn indoors were banned. Players were required to wear "business casual attire" whenever they engaged in league or team activities.
The issue was quickly a hotbed for discussion with clear battlegrounds established early in the process.
Allen Iverson, who'd carried the "thug" reputation throughout his career, saw the move as an attack on himself and players like him. "They're targeting my generation—the hip-hop generation," Iverson said, via Mike Wise of The Washington Post. "You can put a murderer in a suit and he's still a murderer."
Others, though, accepted the dress code as just being part of the job.
"It's not a big deal, not to me," LeBron James said, via ESPN.com. "We are going to have fun, but this is a job and we should look like we're going to work."
Stern, for his part, said the dress code was actually meant to help his players, not hamper them. He told The Boston Globe's Shira Springer that was simply a way to put fans' focus back where it belonged:
Sometimes I worry that our players' intensity can be misconstrued and their effort can be misconstrued. They are the most intense, the most dedicated...We'd like to use our convening power to have people focus on this game and our great players, who they are and how they play, rather than their variance from some norm...Being neatly attired in a certain way, that's going to be our norm.
A year later, the commissioner took his next controversial step toward image repair.
As part of the league's collective bargaining agreement in 2006, the NBA enacted an age limit on potential draft picks. All players needed to turn 19 during the calendar year of the draft and non-international players had to be one year from removed from their high school class' graduation to become eligible.
Stern told Lee Hawkins of the Wall Street Journal that the restriction was put in place for two reasons:
One, so you can see them play against better competition. And two, so they get an extra year to sort of mature. Kevin Durant said that if he hadn't spent that year at Texas, he probably would've been roaming around malls when he came to the NBA.
Mark Cuban told NBA.com's David Aldridge that the measure wasn't meant to infer that certain 18-year-olds couldn't make the transition, but that far too many tried (and failed) to make that leap:
I just think there's a lot more kids that get ruined coming out early, or going to school trying to be developed to come out early, than actually make it. For every Kobe (Bryant) or (Kevin) Garnett or Carmelo (Anthony) or LeBron (James), there's 100 Lenny Cookes.
The policy can't save teams from making draft-night blunders, but if there's a prevailing perception that it will help players like Cooke, then Stern has done his job.
Perception becomes reality, and Stern has never lost sight of that fact.
Making a reasoned decision in response to a series of events is one thing, but preparing unprecedented solutions on the fly is quite another. This is where Stern established himself as the greatest commissioner going.
For a league fighting to shake its "thug" reputation, the Malice at the Palace was a potential knockout blow. To save face for his players and his league, Stern's punishments had to be swift and hard-hitting.
The nine players involved in the incident were administered a total suspension of 140 games. Artest, the most visible of all offenders, received the harshest penalty and was forced to sit for his team's next 73 games.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst later called it the most memorable moment of Stern's tenure:
He was taking historic action and did so with what seemed like genuine concern about the impact on the league. In the post-Jordan era with ratings down and an uncertain future, it was a key moment in his leadership and you could see all over his face that he knew it.
Clearly the players weren't the only ones at fault during the melee, and Stern did what he could to corral hostile fans, too. In February of 2005, the league office established new arena guidelines that stopped the sale of alcohol after the end of the third quarter, limited customers to two alcoholic beverages per transaction and trained arena personnel in effective alcohol management.
Forcing adults to act like, well, adults, was an impossible task, but Stern did everything in his power to make sure this was a one-time incident.
"The line is drawn, and my guess is that [it] won't happen again," Stern told reporters, via ESPN.com. "Certainly not by anybody who wants to be associated with our league."
As for the Donaghy debacle, Stern's assessment that this was the work of an isolated criminal relieved him of the need for any far-reaching change. Still, he took the opportunity to spell out the league's policy on monitoring officials.
He said in a press conference, via NBA.com, that the league employs a "large" security department featuring representatives from the "Secret Service, U.S. Army, New York Police Department, and New York State Police Investigation." He added that the league remains in constant contact with the FBI, DEA, Homeland Security Department and Nevada Gaming Board.
The Next Chapter
Stern's impact on the sport is impossible to miss on or off the floor. Even when he steps down from his position next February, the evidence of his impact will remain.
The age limit and dress code are unlikely to change before the next round of collective bargaining negotiations, which can't start before 2017. The NBA Cares program that Stern launched in 2005 should stick around for the long haul.
He's already handpicked his successor, Adam Silver. Silver has been groomed for the position ever since he became deputy commissioner in 2006, but no amount of on-the-job training could fully prepare someone to slip into Stern's shoes.
Stern told The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn that he's not concerned with the way his final chapter reads. He's far more worried about the middle passages:
Well, I'm not a big believer in the L word, legacy. I just want people to say that he steered the good ship NBA through all kinds of interesting times, some choppy waters, some extraordinary opportunities, and on his watch, the league grew in popularity, became a global phenomenon, and the owners and the players and the fans did very well.
Judging by this list of accomplishments, it's hard to disagree with any of that.