David Stern, one of the most impactful executives in sports history via his 30-year tenure as NBA commissioner, passed away Wednesday at the age of 77 as a result of a brain hemorrhage he had suffered in Manhattan back on Dec. 12.
Stern was born Sep. 22, 1942 in New York City and grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey. He graduated with a law degree from Columbia University in 1966, and would soon be hired by the law firm Proskauer Rose. They represented the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Stern would work on several cases with them. In 1978, Stern would leave that firm to join the NBA’s legal counsel team under then-commissioner Larry O’Brien.
Stern took over as NBA commissioner in 1984, at a time when the league lagged far behind MLB and NFL in the American sports and pop culture, airing its games (including some playoff and Finals games) in late night and mostly on tape delay. He then oversaw the Lakers-Celtics rivalry in the 1980’s with superstars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and the elevation of the league to international status with the rise of Michael Jordan, his 6-time NBA champion Chicago Bulls, and the forming of the Dream Team of NBA stars in the Summer Olympics in the 1990’s. The NBA continued being a force in the 21st century under his tenure with superstars Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Stern stepped down as commissioner in 2014, and later that year, got inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The popularity of NBA brand can be owed greatly to Stern, especially with its television deals throughout the years: from CBS to NBC and TNT, to its current home ESPN and ABC. He was at the forefront of the rise of cable television at the turn of the century. The establishment and success of the league’s cable network NBA TV served as a template for other professional sports league’s creations and developments for their own outlets. Stern also helped launch the women’s professional basketball league WNBA in 1997.
Tributes to Stern from many in the sports industry have poured in since learning of his passing. Adam Silver, who succeeded Stern as NBA commissioner, stated “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.”
Michael Jordan, NBA legend and owner of the Charlotte Hornets, stated about Stern “His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed. David had a deep love of the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him — and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.”
NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson remembered Stern as a visionary: “David Stern was such a history maker. When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand. When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All Star Game in Orlando and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.”
3-time NBA champion LeBron James offered his Stern tribute: “I will never EVER forget when you called my name on stage and I shook your hand. My dream came true!!! Thank you for your commitment to the beautiful game of basketball that has changed so many young adult/kids lives and more importantly your vision to make our game become WORLDWIDE was a vision only you could make happen! You did just that. Making our game the greatest sport in the world! Was a honor to know you personally. Rest In Paradise David Stern!”
Stern is survived by his wife Dianne and their two sons, Eric and Andrew.