David Stern, who served exactly 30 years as NBA commissioner, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 77.
Stern underwent emergency surgery in December after suffering a brain hemorrhage at a New York City restaurant but was not able to recover.
Current commissioner Adam Silver released 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.”
From 1984 to 2014, Stern oversaw the incredible financial growth of the NBA and helped turn basketball into a global sport, reaching 200 countries and territories in more than 40 languages. The league changed forever once it allowed professional stars to participate in the Olympics, putting the 1992 “Dream Team” on an international stage and inspiring a new generation of players.
The NBA added seven teams in that 30-year span, and the Women’s National Basketball Association and National Basketball Development League (now G League) were created under Stern’s watch. He played a major role in the implementation of the salary cap, and the average NBA player salary jumped by nearly $5 million over the course of his tenure.
While Stern was often viewed as a shrewd, defiant businessman and negotiator, he did show plenty of kindness and compassion, particularly toward one of the game’s greatest players.
Stern was stunned by Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he had contracted HIV. Rather than distance himself (and his league) from the Lakers legend, Stern stood by Johnson and worked to educate the general public on HIV and AIDS.
Johnson retired prior to the 1991-92 season, but when his condition remained stable, he asked Stern if he could play in the 1992 All-Star Game since he was the leading vote-getter. Stern approved, and Johnson went on to win MVP honors. Stern embraced Johnson after the game and later called the moment his favorite All-Star memory.
“Giving sweaty Magic Johnson a big hug right after he hit the last three, and still being able to hug him because he’s alive every time I see him, that is at the top of the list,” Stern said at the 2013 All-Star break. “And it will not easily be dislodged. Even though I do enjoy every All-Star [Game], that one will resonate for the rest of my life.”
Like any pro commissioner, Stern also dealt with a number of controversies.
He faced season-shortening lockouts in 1999 and 2011. He handed down the punishments for the 2004 “Malice at the Palace” brawl between the Pacers and Pistons. He instituted a controversial dress code ahead of the 2005-06 season, which some argue targeted black players and seeked to eliminate hip-hop culture from the league. In 2007, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to multiple felony charges related to placing bets on games he officiated. SuperSonics fans were happy to see Stern hand the reins to Silver, six years after the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder in 2008 — the same goes for Lakers supporters because Stern vetoed a Chris Paul trade as the de facto owner of the then-New Orleans Hornets in 2011.
In true Stern fashion, he always forged ahead with tremendous confidence, even at moments of crisis. If he had any doubts about his ability to manage the league, he certainly never showed it, nor did he lose his passion for basketball.
Stern handed the commissioner job to Silver on Feb. 1, 2014, and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame later that year. He never strayed too far from the NBA, holding the title of commissioner emeritus until his death.