David Stern, commissioner emeritus of the National Basketball Association and the league’s chief executive for 30 years during an era of massive global expansion, died January 1 at the age of 77.
Stern’s death followed a brief period following a December 12 brain hemorrhage and subsequent emergency surgery. His wife, Dianne, and their family with Stern at his bedside as he passed.
Easily one of the most influential executives in the history of US sports, Stern ushered historic levels of growth in essentially every facet of the league’s business. He oversaw an historic global expansion that saw NBA content reach more than 200 countries, the beginning of meaningful business being conducted in China and India, and top players competing regularly in the Olympics.
During Stern’s tenure, the Women’s National Basketball Association and what is now the NBA G League were also born, and led a series of other modernizations and new events including the Draft Lottery and a rapid embrace of digital and social media and emerging technology that continues to this day for the NBA.
And under his watch, players such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James became global icons often known by just their first names, a testament to how the NBA became a cultural force.
Such accomplishments were a radical departure from the NBA that Stern inherited in 1984, when the league was not far removed from its Finals airing only on tape-delayed television, drug problems were running rampant, and the fan interest overall lagged badly beyond that for the National Football League and Major League Baseball. Over that same three-decade span, overall annual NBA revenues grew from less than $120m to $5.5bn.
“Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail, and hard work,” said Adam Silver, Stern’s longtime deputy and now his successor as current league commissioner. “David took over the NBA 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.”
Stern was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, the same year as his departure from daily work with the NBA. Following that, Stern quickly pivoted into an active New York-based investor and business advisor, participating in funding rounds for a wide variety of sports technology startups. He also operated Micromanagement Ventures, an effort with former ESPN digital chief John Kosner that provided counsel and investment capital for emerging sports tech firms.
Tributes to Stern were quick to emerge from around the sports industry, with the former commissioner remembered as an aggressive, demanding visionary who retained a giant heart.
“He was a man of great vision and energy who is responsible and business advancements that created the modern sports industry,” said Gary Bettman, National Hockey League commissioner and a former colleague of Stern’s at the NBA. “David taught me how to a be a commissioner, and more importantly, how to try to be a good person.”
Added Roger Goodell, National Football League commissioner: “David was a driving force in sports for decades and helped the NBA soar to new heights around the world. I called him the dean of commissioners, not only for his longevity and vision for the NBA, but for his willingness to offer advice when I first started as NFL commissioner.”