David Stern, Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and Legendary NBA Commissioner, Dies at 77
Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12
David Stern, the longest-serving commissioner in NBA history and the leader who oversaw the league’s massive growth during his three decades at the helm, died Wednesday at the age of 77. Stern, who was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2014, suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and underwent emergency surgery. He died with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside, according the league’s statement.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued the following statement:
“For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action. He was a mentor and one of my dearest friends. We spent countless hours in the office, at arenas and on planes wherever the game would take us. Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail, and hard work.
“David took over the NBA in 1984 with the league at a crossroads. But over the course of 30 years as Commissioner, he ushered in the modern global NBA. He launched groundbreaking media and marketing partnerships, digital assets and social responsibility programs that have brought the game to billions of people around the world. Because of David, the NBA is a truly global brand – making him not only one of the greatest sports commissioners of all time but also one of the most influential business leaders of his generation.
“Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David’s vision, generosity and inspiration. Our deepest condolences go out to David’s wife, Dianne, their sons, Andrew and Eric, and their extended family, and we share our grief with everyone whose life was touched by him.”
Stern’s Legacy: Looking Back at a Legend
During three decades as NBA commissioner, David Stern oversaw an era of unprecedented revenue growth and worldwide expansion en route to solidifying his legacy as one of the greatest commissioners in the history of pro sports.
During his tenure, the league experienced a 30-fold increase in revenues and dramatically expanded its national-television exposure through a series of shrewd media-rights deals. In addition, Stern led the launch of the WNBA and NBA Development League, dramatically enhanced the NBA’s international profile to more than 215 countries and territories across the globe, and founded the NBA Cares community-outreach program, all while shepherding the league through multiple tumultuous labor disputes.
Under Stern, the NBA also embraced the rise of multiscreen video consumption early on, keeping fans engaged beyond the linear telecast through platforms like NBA.com, NBA TV, NBA League Pass, and social-media and mobile apps. NBA Entertainment also produced a massive catalogue of Emmy Award-winning documentaries and other original content to help facilitate Stern’s vision of a star-focused system that built up the league’s brand while allowing its top players to thrive.
From Courtroom to Hard Court
A New York City native and Knicks fan growing up, Stern graduated from Rutgers University and then Columbia Law School. His nearly five-decade association with the NBA began in 1966, when he served as outside counsel for the league while at the firm Proskauer Rose. In 1978, Stern was hired as NBA general counsel, focusing particularly on the league’s television exposure and negotiating its first-ever cable-rights deal with the enterprise that would go on to become the USA Network, and was elevated to executive VP in 1980.
A Commissioner Is Born
On Feb. 1, 1984, Stern officially took the mantle of commissioner from Larry O’Brien and immediately set his sights on expanding the league’s television exposure — no small task considering that, in the early ’80s, even the NBA Finals were still aired on tape delay.
However, Stern’s challenges early on in his tenure went far beyond just boosting the NBA’s television coverage. In an effort to combat the perception of rampant drug use throughout the league and teams’ intentionally losing to end their season in order to better their Draft position, he was able to institute the first wide-ranging antidrug agreement in pro sports and the NBA Draft Lottery, respectively. Stern also led negotiations on the 1983 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which included implementation of a soft salary cap with exceptions to allow teams to retain their high-profile free agents (later known as the Larry Bird rule).
Expansion — on the Screen and Into New Cities
By the late ’80s, the NBA had hit new heights in terms of popularity and revenue. With this momentum in mind, Stern pushed for expansion into untapped major markets, resulting in the addition of the Miami Heat; Charlotte, NC, Hornets (now New Orleans Pelicans); Orlando Magic; and Minnesota Timberwolves. The league would eventually reach 30 teams with addition of the Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies (now in Memphis), and Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) over the next two decades.
The NBA had also finally become a major player in sports television, as Stern’s deal with Turner Broadcasting mandated that multiple games per week be televised on TNT — a scenario that would have seemed unthinkable just a decade earlier. In addition, NBC outbid CBS for the NBA broadcast-network package in 1989, forking over $600 million over four years and, in turn, launching one of the most iconic and successful live franchises in the history of sports television: NBA on NBC.
Embracing Technology Early On
By the end of the 21st century, sports consumption was about much more than just a few games a week on network and cable TV as fans began demanding more round-the-clock news, out-of-market games on multiple screens, and a better in-venue video experience. Stern and company read the tea leaves early, building up NBA.com and other digital assets, launching NBA TV and the NBA League Pass out-of-market streaming/cable service, and pushing franchises to enhance their in-arena experience with larger videoboards, wireless connectivity, and more. In addition, in 2000, the league began hosting its annual Tech Summit during All-Star weekend to expose NBA execs to new technology and share ideas.
A Fortified Legacy
On Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after taking the helm, Stern stepped down as commissioner, making way for his long-time mentee Adam Silver to take over. Although he often found himself a lightning rod for controversy, one thing is clear: Stern leaves behind a league in far better shape than when he found it and led the transformation of a nascent sports enterprise into the global sports-media behemoth the NBA is today.
“My wife Willow Bay and I are deeply saddened by the loss of David Stern, who left an indelible mark on the sports industry and helped turn the NBA into a global cultural force,” said Bob Iger, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, The Walt Disney Company. “He was an integral part of our personal and professional lives. Our hearts are with his family and the NBA.”
ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro added: “David Stern was a brilliant leader whose vision was instrumental in creating the global success the NBA enjoys today. ESPN is deeply grateful for his tremendous partnership through the years. Our thoughts are with David’s loved ones, Commissioner Silver and the entire NBA family at this difficult time.”
Turner Sports also released a statement: “David Stern was a true visionary and brilliant architect of the NBA’s rise from a highly successful sports league to an admired global brand. His impact will be felt for generations to come. Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with his family, friends and the entire NBA community.”