David Stern, former National Basketball League commissioner who ushered the league into its modern era, died today from complications arising from a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12, the league announced shortly after his passing. He was 77 years old.
Stern, a former antitrust lawyer, took over the NBA in 1984, transforming it into a multi-billion-dollar international industry. But Stern had some marketing magic, focusing the league’s merchandising through the auspices of the game’s bankable stars: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird (not to mention the rise of cable television and the celebrity status of courtside seating in Los Angeles or New York).
Under Stern, the league greatly expanded itself internationally, establishing offices in Canada, Africa, China and securing broadcasting agreements in more than 200 countries. Stern also grew the league domestically, with expansion teams in Miami, Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis and Vancouver, Canada. Stern also approved the relocation of teams to Brooklyn, N.Y., Oklahoma City and New Orleans.
Stern served as commissioner until 2014, the longest-tenured commissioner in the history of North American team sports, before handing the reigns over to Adam Silver. When Stern announced he was stepping down, Adweek spoke to Walt Frazier, former NBA star and current New York Knicks analyst, who said that Stern “built the league.”
In a statement, Silver said, “Over the course of 30 years as commissioner, [David] 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.”
The NBA’s rise under Stern’s tenure also paralleled the career of Jordan, who joined the league the same year as Stern became commissioner. He was the first player to market himself as not just an athlete but a brand, signing deals worth billions with Nike, Gatorade and even the 1996 movie Space Jam, which featured many of the leagues best at the time.
In 2014, after announcing that he’d be stepping down from his role, Stern told Adweek that he saw the internet as the next horizon for the league.
“It’s going to be a big deal for us for a lot of different reasons. The real-time delivery of data and statistics about the NBA on a global basis via the web is about as exciting as it gets,” said Stern.