Remembering what Stern did, and how he did it

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 31, 2014 at 2:27 am •  Published: January 31, 2014
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He is not in the Hall of Fame, he never played in an All-Star game and he is about a foot shorter than most NBA stars.

But try to find an NBA legacy more lasting than David Stern's.

The game is about the players, and nobody understood that better than the commissioner, who is retiring Saturday after exactly 30 years on the job. He would likely say that the league is where it is because of Bird and Magic, Kobe and Shaq, Michael Jordan and now LeBron James.

Players wouldn't forget to include Stern on the list.

"I think he is the greatest person in NBA history. He made everything happen," said Yao Ming, the former Houston center from China and one of the most important of the many international players who found homes in Stern's NBA.

A league that had been struggling just to find its footing in the U.S. — in the early 1980s weekday games of the NBA Finals were shown on tape-delay — is now one of the most popular in the world, a $5.5 billion industry with the highest-paid team athletes in sports. Now Stern, 71, hands it over to Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, his longtime top aide.

Stern is leaving quietly, refusing most interview requests because he isn't interested in discussing himself. But others have had to plenty to say about what he accomplished, and how.

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THE REINVENTION

The man who ended up with the most important job in basketball was an attorney when he joined the league in 1978, saying he figured he could return to his legal career if the NBA didn't work out.

Columbia Law School couldn't have prepared Stern for everything he would need to know after replacing Lawrence O'Brien and becoming the league's fourth commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. So Stern simply dedicated himself to learning it.

"He reinvented himself in my mind. He was a young, very highly thought of lawyer when he came into basketball. And he made himself a marketing guy. He just put his mind to it and he really got himself involved in new technology like cable television, which was a kind of a new thing back then. So he was prepared to take the league to another level." — USA Basketball chairman and former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo.

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THE EXPERT

Asked before this season about the NBA's plans to put nicknames and sleeves on some uniforms, Stern made it clear he wasn't involved, adding that the league's decision was influenced by "so-called branding experts."

"I used to think I was a branding expert," he said.

Those who worked for Stern would say he was, because he made himself an expert at so many things.

From the way the players dressed — on and off the court — to the length of lines at concession stands, nothing was too minor for Stern's involvement.

"He was the kind of guy, like if you were playing a chess game, he was 10 moves ahead of you all the time, and it didn't matter what the discipline was. If it was PR, event operation, merchandising, legal, one thing after another, the guy was good at it and great at it." — Former NBA executive Terry Lyons.

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A DIVERSE LOOK

Stern has said he's proudest of the league's diversity, and that goes from the court all the way up to the league office. There are a dozen black coaches, and women and minorities hold a number of key positions. The final owner Stern welcomed into the league, Sacramento's Vivek Ranadive, is a native of India.

"It happened very quietly, without forcing people into positions. There was no quota, no Rooney Rule, none of those things. There was just appointing people of different race, different color, different gender to senior positions and it happened at the league level and team level. It seemed to happen naturally, but you have to give him a lot of credit because it happened under his watch." — Miami Heat owner Micky Arison.

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A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Women's sports leagues usually come and go quickly.

But riding a wave of popularity in the mid-90s, two women's basketball leagues opened for business. The ABL came first, with more overall talent. The WNBA had Stern's backing, playing in NBA arenas, with the support of NBA's sponsors and being televised on the NBA's partner networks.

The ABL didn't last long. The WNBA is still around nearly two decades later, with 12 teams. He's said he wishes it were 24 — but it might be none without him.

"There wouldn't have been a WNBA at all if it wasn't for David Stern. The WNBA wouldn't still exist if it wasn't for David Stern. That was one of the factors that played into me playing in the WNBA instead of the ABL, was it had the NBA's backing and just as importantly if not more importantly David Stern's backing. If you know him even a little bit, he's not a guy who wants anything to fail. And so him starting this league, he would make sure it wouldn't fail in those early stages." — Rebecca Lobo, an original WNBA player.

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CREATING THE CASH

More teams, more jobs, more money. Lots more money.

The NBA added seven teams under Stern, bringing its total to 30, has had its games televised in 215 countries and territories, and its revenues increased by 30 fold. Player salaries have soared to an average of more than $5 million per season, and the national TV deal is worth $930 million annually. He has said the growth will continue after he leaves.

"David Stern, who in my opinion has been the best commissioner in any sport, has taken the NBA to a whole, whole other level, even probably higher than his expectations. So that's what Adam's going to have to be competing against. It's going to be interesting, to be honest with you, because I don't see how you can make the NBA more successful than David Stern has, but they're going to try." — Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley.