David Stern will retire Saturday after being the commissioner of the NBA for the past 30 years.
For Stern, it’s been a long and winding journey that took him to many countries and across several continents, where he helped the NBA become a hotbed of global attention. It’s from this backdrop in which Donnie Nelson believes he knows what lies ahead for the 71-year-old Stern.
“What he’s done for this league is unprecedented,” said Nelson, the president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. “My kind of forte has been the international marketplace and for him to take this and do what he’s done globally, he really deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
“He is the best commissioner in my opinion in the history of sports, and he’s taken us to a whole different stratosphere. I’ve got nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for him.”
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Tributes for Stern have poured in from all over the world. The man who became NBA commissioner in 1984 — the year Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton entered the league — is being hailed as a visionary whose desire was to increase his sport’s popularity and see it grow worldwide.
Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale said: “I told him the other day, I said you talked about the NBA becoming a global game and everything years ago and I was like, ‘Nah, we’re not going to become a global game. This is an American game.’ ”
Stern has made NBA games a very hip place to be. Sitting courtside at NBA All-Star games is a staple for the rich, the beautiful and the famous.
“When I got in the league in the fall of ’80, in ’81 our [NBA] Finals were tape-delayed,” McHale said. “So if you wanted to watch it you had to wait until after the evening news in the Central Time Zone and watch the game, and not watch the news because you didn’t want to know who won.
“You think about that and then think about where we’re at now. He’s done a tremendous job.”
Even some of Stern’s most ardent adversaries put their differences aside to tip their hat to the man who has left an indelible impression on the NBA.
“We were a second-rate league that didn’t have its Finals on TV,” said Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whom Stern has issued fines for totaling nearly $2 million. “And now we’re the second-most popular sport in the world.
“And that’s all because of him.”
According to Forbes magazine, during the 1982-83 season — the last full season before Stern became the commissioner — the NBA’s revenues were $118 million. Last year, because of all the wheeling and dealing by Stern on TV contracts and endorsement deals, the league’s revenue had ballooned to $4.6 billion.
“In my opinion he’s the greatest commissioner in sports history,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who also doubles as the president of the Coaches Association. “I’ve gotten to know David well in the last eight years because of my close association with the league through the coaches association, and he’s become a better and better leader, because not only does he lead with decisiveness, he’s become a great listener too, and that’s been another thing that’s really helped overall communication and growth in the league.”
Stern, in essence, was firm when it came to negotiations, no matter how many billions of dollars were at stake. Some would argue that Stern was cutthroat, having taken the NBA through mind-boggling lockouts in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 2011 with, some say, an emphasis on trying to crack the players’ union.
“He did an excellent job bringing this league from a state where it stood behind football and baseball to one of the most visible and viable sports in the world,” said Aaron Goodwin, who has been a sports agent for the past 24 years. “Literally it’s the most popular sport in the world now and the NBA has flourished, and he has been great.
“He’s tough as hell, but great.”
During Stern’s tenure, NBA expansion grew by seven teams, and six franchises relocated. Stern, who graduated from Columbia Law School in 1966, was an innovator who didn’t mind blazing a trail.
“David made the NBA profitable for sponsors, and corporate sponsors,” said Robert Reid, who played in the NBA from 1977-91. “David also cleaned up that image of the NBA just being street basketball.
“He made it, without a doubt, where you looked up and said, ‘I am a professional NBA player and I am one of the best in the world.’ ”
No one, indeed, doubts the impact Stern had on the NBA.
“He’s been the best commissioner in professional sports for the last 30 years,” said former Mavericks coach Don Nelson, whose 1,335 victories make him the NBA’s all-time winningest coach. “He has done just a remarkable job getting us from a second kind of a tier league to right up there with football and baseball.
“We’re in the Big 3 now. And it’s because of David Stern.”