At the time of his retirement Stern will have passed former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, by only a few months, for longest reign of an American sports commissioner.
Stern leaves behind a legacy of financial success and bequeaths a league in the best shape of its existence. Revenues and franchise values are at an all-time high and there has never been more talent, both foreign and domestic, taking the court for NBA teams than there is this season.
A lawyer by trade, Stern was admitted to the bar in 1966 after graduating from Columbia University’s School of Law. That same year he became an outside counsel for the League (not directly employed by the NBA but working on their legal matters).
He officially joined the staff of predecessor Larry O’Brien as General Counsel (the NBA’s chief lawyer) in 1978 and was Executive Vice President by 1980.
With the league struggling to break with a difficult decade in the 1970’s, Stern was the force behind two important reforms, the first implementation of both a drug testing regime and the first salary cap in American sport after the advent of free agency.
Four years later, on February 1, 1984, he was put forward as the consensus choice to succeed O’Brien.
Riding the popularity of the Magic Johnson - Larry Bird rivalry and overseeing the successful marketing of stars like Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley, the NBA’s footprint in the cultural landscape in dozens of countries, not just the United States, is substantially larger.
When Stern took over 1984, the NBA Playoffs were still being shown on tape delay.
Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals in 1986, where the Showtime Lakers took on the Houston Rockets, was first seen on tape delay, and it’s now the last NBA playoff game to not be shown live. By the mid-90′s Michael Jordan was the most famous athlete on the planet, the NBA on NBC drew record ratings and the “Dream Team” had dominated the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
In 1984, the first foreign player, Oscar Schmidt from Brazil, was drafted. Within a few years and foreign players like Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac began to make an impact and the league began to truly reach out to the world’s growing basketball market.
The number of foreign players in the League has grown exponentially since 1984. Today, roughly a quarter of the league’s players are considered “international players” and the world’s biggest market for basketball is now China.
Stern’s reign will be remembered for this impressive growth of the game in the United States and throughout the world.
That’s not to say it’s been a completely smooth ride, though. There certainly has been the occasional controversy during his tenure. The handling of the New Orleans Hornets ownership situation left much to be desired from a public relations and, perhaps also, a competitive perspective.
But, Stern leaves behind a league with the foundation for an excellent future as likable, popular young stars abound.
The NBA’s television audience regularly matches or beats Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League in ratings and skews demographically younger, which is highly desirable to potential advertisers.
During his press conference, Stern said he’d reached his decision within the last six months.
Longtime Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver will replace Stern.
Note: Regarding the tape delay section, I know Bill Simmons has mentioned it a few times over the years, including in his excellent book. I didn’t have a link to anything specific but did want to acknowledge him as one of my sources for that section.