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A look back at Stern's 30-year tenure as NBA commissioner

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Mike Beauvais, TSN.ca
1/31/2014 12:43:00 PM
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On Saturday, David Stern's 30-year tenure as the commissioner of the National Basketball Association comes to a close.

No man in the modern era has held the top office in one of the ‘Big Four' sports longer than Stern and the NBA that we know today was largely molded under Stern's watch and his impact on the league is indelible.

TSN basketball analyst Jack Armstrong on the legacy of David Stern:

David Stern was a visionary who took the league through many challenges with a firm leadership style. Bringing financial stability, great media coverage, global visibility and incredible promotion of both star players and teams alike were just a few of the ways he was as big an impact player as anybody who wore a uniform. The league was a mess when he took over, but not now.  Adam Silver is inheriting a league in terrific shape - an NBA poised to continue to be proactive, decisive and a trendsetter on the pro sports landscape. Stern was the best commissioner the league has ever had and, arguably, the best in pro sports history.  He leaves quite a legacy.

Let's look back, then, on a generation of basketball under Stern's watch and where it's come from and where it's headed in large part due to the man calling time on a storied career.

Stern's impact on league direction did not begin with his assumption of the commissioner's office in 1984, but rather with two key policies enacted while the Columbia law graduate was still the league's Executive Vice-President: drug testing and revenue-sharing, both of which provided the framework for the two guidelines in place to this day.

A lawyer first, Stern's impact on the business side of operations is obvious, both domestically and abroad.

Expansion and franchise movement are hallmarks of Stern's NBA. Under the New York City native's guidance, the league has added seven teams in his 30 years (the Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies and Charlotte Bobcats) and relocated six more (the San Diego Clippers headed to Los Angeles, the Kings left Kansas City for Sacramento, the Grizzlies went south to Memphis, the Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Charlotte Hornets eventually became the New Orleans Pelicans and the New Jersey Nets crossed state lines into Brooklyn).

Recognizing the global nature of the game, Stern sought to raise the league's profile in two key ways.

Prior to Stern assuming office, the then Washington Bullets had competed in four games against international competition (one in Israel, two in China and another in the Philippines). These were the only four games that an NBA team had competed in outside of North America.

Sensing the international appetite for basketball and the potential to gain exposure abroad, Stern set in motion an initiative that, 30 years later, saw expansion into Canada and games played throughout Europe (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the then Soviet Union, Spain, Japan, France, Georgia, Russia, Lithuania and Turkey,) Asia (Japan, Taiwan and Macau,) Latin America (Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico) and the Caribbean (Bahamas).

As of Stern's retirement, 147 games, both exhibition and regular season, have been played outside of continental North America.

The second prong in Stern's international plan of attack was the deployment of NBA players to international events like the FIBA World Championships and Summer Olympics, starting with the Dream Team with the likes of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird running roughshod in Barcelona in 1992.

Did Stern's plan work? Well, over his 30-year tenure, players representing 69 different countries have appeared in the NBA, a stunning testament to the game's growth and popularity abroad.

Stern also moved the NBA into the world of the 24-hour news cycle and took advantage of the burgeoning demand for sports programming on television. It's simply impossible to believe in 2014, but prior to David Stern, the NBA Finals were aired on tape delay. That's right, tape delay!Stern put an end to that, signing lucrative television deals over the past 30 seasons that have ensured live broadcasts in both national and local markets. Right now, the Association is in the seventh year of an eight-year pact with Turner Sports and ABC/ESPN worth $7.44 billion. Rest assured, competition for the next TV deal will be fierce and the league can expect an even more substantial pact.

The impact the TV deal had on the financial health of the league is obvious.

According to Forbes, the NBA's 23 teams in 1984 were worth a collective $400 million. In the magazine's latest franchise valuations, the average NBA franchise is worth $634 million, up 25 per cent from last year alone and the league's franchises on the whole are worth an estimated $19 billion. Revenue generated from the 1982-83 season, the last prior to Stern's assumption of control, was $118 million. Last season saw revenue generation of $4.6 billion.

The Draft Lottery system is another advent under Stern's reign.

Phasing out the archaic system of a coin toss between the league's bottom-two teams to determine who would select first in the annual NBA Draft, Stern introduced a lottery in 1985 that would see any team who missed out on the postseason have an opportunity at the first overall selection in the draft. The process would undergo revisions over the years, but it became an effective tool to prevent out-and-out tanking by losing teams and would be adopted by Stern acolyte Gary Bettman for use in the NHL.

The growth under Stern from a business perspective is absolutely stunning, but Stern's sea change was also felt on the court and the in the locker rooms.

When Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV-positive in 1991 and stepping away from the game, Stern stood next to the Los Angeles Lakers superstar on the podium, literally and figuratively. Johnson would return to the league and play again in 1995, as Stern and the rest of the NBA showed a progressive stance when it came to a proper understanding of the transmission of the disease and those living with it.

Former journeyman John Amaechi came out in 2007 at the conclusion of his NBA career and Stern asserted that a player's sexuality wasn't of importance.

"We have a very diverse league,” Stern said at the time. “The question at the NBA is always 'Have you got game?' That's it, end of inquiry.”

He praised Jason Collins's courage when the forward revealed his homosexuality in April of 2013.

“As Adam Silver and I said to Jason, we have known the Collins family since Jason and [twin brother] Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family,” Stern said in a statement. “Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.”

The NBA also showed a progressive ideal that no other professional league did when, in 1997, it became the first major league to employ female officials with the hiring of Violet Palmer and Dee Kantner as referees.

From a discipline perspective, Stern has never been one to shy away on tough decisions.

In 1995, Dallas Mavericks star Roy Tarpley was permanently banned from the NBA for repeated substance abuse issues. Stern followed suit that same year with Richard Dumas of the Phoenix Suns. The Miami Heat's Chris “Birdman” Andersen was out of the NBA from 2006-2008 due to drug violations.

Though some argue that Stern's policies could be more lenient, they were praised by one of the more high profile recipients of a ban.

Micheal Ray Richardson, a former fourth overall pick of the New York Knicks in 1978, had lengthy and well-documented substance abuse issues and found himself suspended multiple times over the course of his career. In 1986 as a member of the Nets, Richardson was banned for life for three positive tests. Two years later, his suspension was upheld, but Richardson tested positive for cocaine twice in 1991. At the time, the  four-time All-Star vehemently disputed his positive results and vocally complained that the league was displaying a double standard in not disciplining Golden State Warriors star Chris Mullin for his battles with alcoholism.

As the years have passed, Richardson, who coaches the London Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada, now credits Stern with helping turn his life around. He and Stern made amends at an exhibition game in Paris in 1997.
“I went up to him at halftime just to say no hard feelings,” Richardson told Metro London in November 2013. “He doesn't know it, but he probably saved my life.”

Stern's policy of ignoring a player's stature when meting out discipline extended beyond drug bans. Bit players and All-Stars alike were brought to NBA justice under Stern.

Latrell Sprewell, then of the Warriors, was suspended 68 games in 1997 for throttling then coach PJ Carlesimo. Metta World Peace, then Ron Artest, received a 73-game ban for his part in the infamous November 2004 “Malice at the Palace” brawl in Detroit and three other players were suspended for 25-games-plus. After Gilbert Arenas of the Washington Wizards brought a gun into the locker room in January of 2010, the three-time All-Star was suspended for 50 games.

The importance of cultivating a workable minor-league system was also recognized by Stern and implemented through the proper expansion of the National Basketball Development League, now the NBA D-League, in 2005 after its creation in 2001.

For the first time, NBA teams, like their NHL and MLB counterparts, had a place where they could develop talent without taking up roster spots and use the D-League to spot talent not under NBA contract. From 2005, players with three years of service or fewer could be assigned to the D-League and in the 2011-2012 season, an agreement was reached that would allow veteran players to be assigned to the league if they chose to consent.

The benefits of the D-League for the 30 franchises were obvious, but it also represented a tremendous avenue for passed over players to force teams into giving them another look. Jeremy Lin, JJ Barea and Marcin Gortat are among those who blossomed during their D-League tenures before being recalled to their parent teams, while the likes of Matt Barnes, Will Bynum and Chuck Hayes all earned NBA contracts after successful D-League stints.

That same summer of 2005, Stern made another significant policy change when the league and NBAPA agreed that players would no longer be admitted into the league straight from high school. Superstars like Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Tracy McGrady headed into the Association right after high school, but a player would now have to be 19 years of age to play in the NBA.

One of the main reasons for this implementation was to encourage players to head to college and pursue an education. Many see this as naïve, referring to it as the “one-and-done rule,” as many players now will declare for the NBA Draft after their freshmen years, but it nonetheless forced an issue that few wanted to talk about.

On the court, Stern's watch saw new rules introduced to both improve the game and add to its integrity.

The 1998 season brought with it a ban on any sort of forearm and hand-checking anywhere above the free throw line. This allowed for more unobstructed scoring and some of the game's more productive players took full advantage.

In 2002, instant replay was introduced to determine whether or not shots got off prior to the expiration of game and shot clocks. Its usage was expanded in 2008, when replay could be used to discern if a basket should be worth two or three points.

An epidemic in soccer and hockey, Stern's NBA took on flopping in 2012. Though rules were implemented in 1997 to try to curb it, the addition of fines (albeit, monetarily insignificant ones) were meant to add in the shaming of the practice in a further attempt to eliminate it from the game. Obviously, that process is an ongoing one.

It would be completely disingenuous to suggest that the Stern commissionership was all sunshine and lollipops, because it certainly wasn't. The NBA experienced times of tumult under Stern's watch, as well.

In his 30 years as commissioner, Stern's NBA has seen labour disruption four times. That's more than any other head of any of the “Big Four” leagues. With lockouts in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 2011, seasons were shortened two of the four times and revenues suffered and acrimony lingered between the league and the NBAPA.

While the Draft Lottery was a novel concept, it hasn't been without its controversy, either. To this day, some insist that the 1985 lottery, won by the Knicks who then selected Patrick Ewing with the first overall pick, was rigged in favour of the Knicks as a means to get the league's biggest television market the best available player. However, it remains a conspiracy theory.

Gambling as an issue has arisen on a couple of very prominent occasions on Stern's watch as well.

When the Raptors were about to enter the league in 1995, the NBA ordered that gambling on basketball must be removed from Ontario's provincial sports lottery. The league went as far as to suggest that the expansion franchise would be upheld if there wasn't complete compliance. After three months of negotiation, the league's wishes were adhered to and Pro-Line removed NBA basketball from its games. Fifteen years later, betting on the NBA was reintroduced to that lottery.

An even heavier gambling episode occurred with the case of referee Tim Donaghy. In 2007, it was revealed that Donaghy, a 14-year veteran, was under FBI investigation for gambling on games in which he was officiating and his connections to organized crime. Donaghy was arrested and eventually pled guilty to two counts of felony conspiracy and ended up serving 15 months in a federal prison.

Though Stern categorized Donaghy's actions of those of a “rogue official,” North American sports' largest gambling scandal since Pete Rose brought with it aspersions from the media and fans alike over the integrity of league's officials. Stern brought about tougher background checks on potential referees, but the taint associated with the episode lingered and still does to a lesser extent today.

While relocation has brought with it mostly positive results, it, too, has not been without its detractors. Obviously, there is lingering resentment in markets where franchises left, but the New Orleans Pelicans (then, the Hornets) brought a special challenge to the commissioner's office when the league assumed ownership of the struggling team in late 2010.

The following year, Hornets star guard Chris Paul asked to be traded and in December of 2011, a three-team deal was agreed upon that would have seen Paul move to the Lakers, Pau Gasol head to the Houston Rockets and Lamar Odom to the Hornets. Stern, however, vetoed the trade for what he called “basketball reasons.”

The optics here looked bad. Here was the commissioner's office intervening in a trade involving a team under league ownership. This appeared to be a blatant conflict of interest on Stern's part and one resulting from pressure from the league's board of governors to cultivate parity (in not sending another star player to the Lakers,) but Stern stuck to his guns and the deal died.

Still, Stern's detractors pale in comparison to the innovation and stability brought to the NBA under Stern's watch. After 30 years, Stern can walk away from his post proud of the forward-thinking and critical leadership he brought to a league that was crying out for somebody to grab the reins and guide.

On Saturday, David Stern exits a bigger, better and more entertaining NBA than the one he entered and the teams, players and fans are all better off for it. David Stern was part-maverick, part-entrepreneur and North American sports had seen few like him before.

Very likely, they won't again.

David Stern (Photo: Steve Freeman/NBAE/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Steve Freeman/NBAE/Getty Images)
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