David Stern, the NBA’s 4th and greatest commissioner, has died at age 77. If the NBA is a great sports empire today, then David Stern is surely its Caesar Augustus.
Others, with better memories, or more access, have already published eulogies, retrospectives and summations. This memorial will be somewhat more personal in nature.
It is bleakly appropriate amidst our Top Lists of The NBA Decade That Was (that strictly speaking isn’t over, but round numbers always seem to win out) that we now engage in toting up of the NBA life of David Stern, though his influence stretches back several decades. Much of the reason the NBA now merits such attention, generates so many words, is surely Stern’s doing. For that, his work should be celebrated.
You can read more of the NBA’s mighty accomplishments under Stern’s leadership elsewhere but here’s a bit of it: 20x average NBA salary increase, franchise values exploding, steadily climbing global viewership. The NBA is the USA’s only world league. The idea of an NBA Finals game shown on taped delay is ludicrous today. Nine figure contracts are regularly signed. Few humans are more widely recognized than LeBron James, or Michael Jordan.
Whatever your feelings, Stern’s vision, drive and utter commitment to building the NBA cannot be disputed.
Like all empire builders, David Stern can never be viewed with unmixed sentiment, or uncritical regard. Empires aren’t built that way, and emperors don’t apologize. The triumphal march of the NBA from a league that was an afterthought in 1984 when Stern began as commissioner, left some victims behind it.
Seattle’s venerable NBA lifeline was cut so Stern could make his point about stadiums. Point made. There are no decrepit buildings in the league, and costs for new facilities can now run into the billions.
There were times when it seemed clear Stern played favorites, times when he made decisions where the “basketball reasons” seemed specious, times when he was ruthless, or just cantankerous, to no good end. There was never a time when Stern seemed anything less than one hundred percent committed to his vision of a thriving, even dominant, NBA.
The NBA’s Caesar Augustus dies with the bounds of the empire set wider than ever, the players and owners richer than ever, the profits higher than ever. All empires have their discontents, their sins. Yet consider, back in 1984, who could have imagined such an unlikely and glorious triumph for a strange, beautiful, American game?
David Stern could.