Tip-Off Timer: 25 Years at Head of NBA for David Stern
No one -- not Wilt, not MJ, not Red, not Magic or Bird, not Kobe or LeBron -- no one has had more impact on the NBA than a 5'9 lawyer from Teaneck, N.J., named David Stern. You'd think that'd be a sad commentary on the game, that it has been defined in the board room rather than on the hardwood.
But there's no doubt that if Stern had worked for Major League Baseball or the National Football League after earning his J.D. at Columbia, it'd be the same story. Like Wilt, like MJ and Magic and Bird and Kobe and LeBron, Stern is one of the rare stars who -- with his undeniable talent and incredible work ethic -- could not have failed.
Stern celebrated his 25th anniversary as the NBA's commissioner last spring. His history with the league is actually much longer: he was an early fan of the early Knicks, and he first served as an outside counsel on league matters back in 1966, when the NBA was still relatively fledgling.
When Stern took over the league's board room in 1984, the league wasn't terribly stronger than it had been in those Wilt vs. Russell days. Sure, television had arrived, and Magic vs. Bird was quickly reaching its professional crescendo. But the game was riddled with drug problems, and had trouble drawing lucrative broadcast crowds. Despite extant love for the game internationally, the NBA had not yet spread its tentacles to the Far East, to Europe, to Africa, to South America.
Stern changed all that. He cleaned up the game as well as can be expected, he (along with Nike and David Falk) ushered in the era of the superstar, which helped push the league into more households than ever. He made a quiet push in China as far back as 1990, and accelerated the global spread of the game by practically giving away broadcast feeds in foreign countries (including Communist China). And he did all this without removing the commodity status the NBA has held in America's urban centers (though it can be argued that the NFL made significant headway into the NBA's city power this decade).
Stern hasn't been without follies. Like every other major league, the NBA has struggled to find a sustainable arena solution to keep sports alive in the nation's small markets. (Or in Seattle's case, even big markets.) At times his attempts to clean up the game's image have slinked toward silly (see: dress code) and he presided over one of the worst breaches of trust (the Tim Donaghy case) in decades. The WNBA is still finding its way ... after more than a decade in existence. And for all the good, the NBA is still the nation's clear-cut third choice behind football and baseball.
But take it all together, and imagine the league without Stern, and ... well, you can't. He's left such an indelible mark that imagining the NBA under any other leader feels preposterous. I don't think the Commish will be sticking around another 25 years, but it's impossible to argue that'd be bad for the league. Here's to Stern, the NBA's most valuable person.
Even if he can't dunk.