David Stern's handshake is a very powerful thing.
It grants entry into a highly exclusive club, makes lifelong dreams reality and conveys immense wealth to those smart enough and dedicated enough to take full advantage of what comes after it.
With few exceptions, every player who has made a meaningful impact in the NBA over the past 30 years did so after a draft-day handshake with Stern—the man who took an occasionally televised domestic sport and turned it into an internationally ubiquitous sensation that has penetrated every market on Earth.
Stern will retire from his post as commissioner next month. When he does, he'll leave behind a legacy of immense success. More importantly, he'll walk away from a league that is in exponentially better shape than it was the day he inherited it.
One handshake at a time, Stern built the NBA into what it is today.
Stern was named commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. A transformative year from start to finish, Stern shook hands with Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie and some guy named Michael Jordan in his first-ever draft as the man in charge.
Later that year, the NBA would sign a two-year, $20 million television contract with TBS that kicked off a key period of growth.
It didn't take long for Stern to run into controversy as commissioner. The league's handling of the 1985 lottery has been the subject of much debate, with many insisting the New York Knicks nabbed Patrick Ewing as the result of some kind of league-wide conspiracy.
Like most theories of that sort, there's not much substance to it. Per Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated:
If you watch the video, you'll notice that Stern intentionally looks away as he reaches into the globe thingie, and that he picks an envelope in the middle of the pile. How could he know which envelope was bent? What is he, David Copperfield?
Just two days after being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 1986 NBA draft, Len Bias was dead—diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia related to the cocaine he'd used at a party.
Stern recognized the NBA's growing issues with substance abuse and began a crackdown marked by bans and suspensions which—to that point—were unprecedented.
A number of players who would go on to have key impacts shook Stern's hand at the 1987 draft.
David Robinson would kick of an era of dominant basketball in San Antonio; Mark Jackson started a career that would include nearly two decades as a player, followed by years as a prominent national broadcaster and head coach; and Reggie Miller headed to Indiana, where he'd spend 18 seasons.
In 1988, Stern welcomed a ho-hum draft class highlighted by the injury-prone Danny Manning.
In bigger news, though, the NBA added the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, expanding to 25 teams. Plus, the league re-upped with TBS and TNT for another two-year deal worth $50 million. To keep the growing, increasingly lucrative league in line, Stern added a third official to each game.
...more is better.
Stern added two more teams in 1989: the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic.
In addition, the league began to think globally, drafting players like Vlade Divac while USA Basketball laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the 1992 Dream Team.
The NBA was on a course but still going from side to side," said Jerry Colangelo, the USA Basketball chairman and former Phoenix Suns chairman who has known Stern for almost four decades. "He grasped the opportunity and raised the bar and brought the NBA into the world domain.
The NBA's popularity had exploded by 1990, leading to a pair of four-year television deals with TNT and NBC that combined to total nearly $900 million. Fortunately, the New Jersey Nets didn't waste quite that much money on Derrick Coleman.
Not long afterward, every kid in America became intimately familiar with John Tesh, the man who composed this sonic gem. If you don't long for Marv Albert, Matt Guokas and Steve "Snapper" Jones after listening to that, I don't think we can be friends.
Larry Johnson helped usher in an era when small-market teams could be just as cool as the big-market mainstays. By joining the recently formed Charlotte Hornets, "Grandmama" changed everything.
When Shaquille O'Neal went to the lottery-winning Orlando Magic, he became a larger-than-life star for a new era of NBA fans. Broken backboards and endless endorsement deals made him an enormous figure almost immediately.
Meanwhile, the Dream Team Stern helped create took the world by storm at the Barcelona Olympics.
Chris Webber would go on to become a symbol of the ballooning salaries that would lead to a lockout on Stern's watch, but he's just a soon-to-be traded draftee in this photo.
This was also the year Michael Jordan retired for the first time, a move that stunned everyone and took a bite out of the league's TV ratings.
There were more important draftees in 1994 than Jalen Rose. Grant Hill and Jason Kidd come to mind, for example.
But Rose's fantastic red pin-striped suit serves to illustrate what might be the very moment Stern started to look a little older. Don't worry though, he's still got 20 more years in charge after this photo.
Kevin Garnett ushered in a load of prep-to-pro draft picks when he came straight out of Farragut Academy in Chicago.
Another pair of expansion teams, the fifth and sixth of Stern's tenure, grow the league to 29 clubs. Welcome, Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies.
Plus, the very brief, nearly forgotten lockout that spanned from July 1 to Sept. 12 happened. No, seriously, it happened.
If Jalen Rose's suit hinted at the age and, ahem, "cultural" differences between Stern and the players in his league, Allen Iverson's entry into the NBA put them on a billboard.
Iverson's brash, hip-hop influenced attitude clearly made Stern uneasy. Eventually, Stern would implement a dress code to retain the league's appeal to its older, more conservative fans.
Tim Duncan went No. 1 overall to the San Antonio Spurs, sparking an era of dominance that hasn't ended yet. As Stern grappled with the changing image of the league, Duncan was always there to present the clean-cut, dependable example.
This was also the year the NBA funded and helped form the WNBA.
College teammates Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison traded places on draft day in 1998, with the former heading to the Raptors and the latter winding up with the Golden State Warriors.
Neither would play for a few months, though, as the 1998 lockout pushed the season's first game all the way out to Jan. 20.
Steve Francis symbolized an era in which players increasingly controlled their own destinies. He refused to play for the Grizzlies, forcing a trade before he ever suited up in Vancouver.
On the court, Stern presided over serious rule changes. Hand-checking became illegal, and the first steps toward today's defensive rules are implemented.
The fact that Jamal Crawford might have been the most impactful player in the 2000 draft might sound like a real bummer. But the fact that the league could continue to roll along despite a lackluster incoming class indicates just how strong the Association had become under Stern.
Also helpful, Vince Carter's epic performance in the 2000 dunk contest, an iconic moment from Stern's tenure.
This was a busy year for Stern and the NBA.
Tony Parker was the final pick of the first round, and his addition propelled the Spurs to new heights during the first decade of the 2000s.
Plus, the NBA did away with illegal defense, added the defensive three-second rule, created the Basketball Without Borders Program and saw the Grizzlies move to Memphis.
Yao Ming didn't attend the 2002 draft. If he had, his picture would have been here in place of Jay Williams'. Yao's entry into the league represented a new frontier for the NBA; the Asian foothold had clearly been established.
Meanwhile, the league agreed to new TV deals with TNT and ABC/ESPN, each of which were worth more than $2 billion.
Plus, the Hornets moved to New Orleans.
The 2003 draft marked the beginning of Stern's final stage as commissioner. He'd presided over the transition from Magic and Bird to Jordan, then seen Jordan pass the torch to O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and Duncan.
With LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony bursting onto the scene, the current era began.
Dwight Howard was still a wide-eyed kid in 2004. But he was entering a league at a tumultuous time.
In November, the infamous "Malice in the Palace" brawl occurred. Stern reacted forcefully, suspending Ron Artest for the rest of the year and eight other players for shorter spans.
Chris Paul's snazzy suit was appropriate for the draft, but with the institution of the dress code, he'd need a few more fancy duds for all of his upcoming games.
At the same time Stern was trying to control the image of his players, he also helped create the NBA Cares program. Around this time, the league puts a much heavier emphasis on community outreach and charitable efforts.
The age limit rule came into being in 2006, requiring incoming draftees to be at least one year removed from high school to be eligible.
In the equipment department, the league experimented with a new microfiber ball...briefly. Everyone hated the new rock, and the NBA went back to the old leather balls in January 2007.
If you're wondering what any of that has to do with No. 3 overall pick Adam Morrison, the answer is: Nothing.
Kevin Durant should have spent his career as a member of the Seattle Sonics, but Stern and the owners allowed Clay Bennett to purchase the organization. That led to the decision in 2008 to move the franchise to Oklahoma City, much to the dismay of Seattle's loyal fanbase.
In the playoffs, the stricter rules about leaving the bench Stern implemented following the 2004 fight between the Pistons and Pacers led to key postseason suspensions of Amar'e Stoudemire and Boris Diaw. It was a harsh lesson that helped solidify Stern's serious stance on on-court violence.
This was also the year the Tim Donaghy betting scandal broke. Stern quickly and quietly dealt with the disgraced referee, sweeping a potentially ugly mess under the rug in record time.
Much like Ewing's good fortune to land in New York, Derrick Rose wound up with his hometown Chicago Bulls in an odds-defying stroke of lottery luck.
Chicago had only a one percent chance at the top pick, but managed to snatch up the local kid anyway. Perhaps because no suspicious envelopes were involved, few people cried "conspiracy!" this time.
Coming toward the end of his tenure, the commissioner seemed to have fashioned a league that mixed supreme talent with real class.
John Wall didn't do anything wrong, but teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton earned season-long suspensions for a couple of locker room incidents that involved brandishing firearms.
Not a good chemistry-builder, and also exactly the kind of image-destroyer Stern absolutely loathed.
Stern welcomed Kyrie Irving to the Cleveland Cavaliers, the second time in less than a decade he'd seen a franchise-altering star head to that organization.
Another instance he'd seen before: a lockout.
This time, the stoppage shortened the season to 66 games. Just like it always had, though, Stern's league emerged from the situation as strong as ever.
The last superstar Stern welcomed into the league was Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick from Kentucky who is currently playing like an All-Star at age 20.
The Nets also relocated to Brooklyn in 2012, and Stern announced Adam Silver would succeed him as commissioner.
Olajuwon provided some closure in Stern's final draft, greeting him at the end of the first round with a hug.
Unfortunately, Anthony Bennett fouled up the photo opportunity.
These guys are right, though; Stern is No. 1.
Stern, who declined requests for an interview, leaves the NBA in fantastic shape: a profitable business generating more than $5.5 billion annually; average player salary of more than $4 million; rising franchise valuations; millions of fans worldwide; a $1 billion a year TV rights deal that will increase after the current deal expires in 2016; a meaningful philanthropic endeavor helping others worldwide.
There were plenty of ups and downs, but between the first and last time Stern shook Olajuwon's hand, the venerable commissioner left a legacy that will be almost impossible to top.