By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
Since the founding of the National Basketball Association in 1946 there have only been five league commissioners. The NBA’s fourth commissioner, and its most impactful, was David J. Stern, who last week died of a brain hemorrhage.
Stern was such a force on the game of basketball, his three decade reign as NBA commissioner placed the league as one of the most secure and profitable entities in world wide sports, with a current commissioner who learned directly under him and barrels forward with continued vision, ambition and optimism.
In localizing things, from a Chicago perspective, one could view Stern’s rise as an indelible leader in sports with the rise of his most trans-formative athlete — Michael Jordan.
When Stern took office in 1984 it was mere months before Jordan made his debut as a Chicago Bull. From day one, Stern had two figures leading the game in “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, who raised the level of competition and celebrity in his league enough to make the NBA Finals an event again and not a tape delayed afterthought.
But little did anyone following the game know then how much Stern would prioritize expanding the game to make it a global product, while managing the realities behind life during that time period, which among other things included the stifling of his league’s expansion due to racism and self-destruction tied to drug abuse, on-court violence and negligent ownership.
As a calmative, or at least a distraction, to those heavier issues, Jordan joined Johnson and Bird as league figureheads in the late 1980s and in the ’90s Jordan became the only man arguably as important to the league as Stern as his Bulls centered the league in Chicago through on-court dominance and off-court celebrity that brought millions of dollars worth of added attention to the league.
It wasn’t just with the dynasty Bulls that the NBA transformed under Stern’s stead. In a league that featured predominantly African-American players and a predominantly White coaches, front office and management staffs, Stern was the first NBA commissioner to attack these issues of representation head on and his tireless efforts to market players of all kinds from early in their careers worked to make the league popular and accepted firmly in the mainstream within the United States while formulating in-roads in other nations that encouraged international embrace of pro basketball and eventually made the NBA a destination for aspiring athletes all over the globe.
Stern also had impacted today’s fashion and (likely unintentionally) made the NBA a platform for new trends thanks to the dress code he implemented in 2005.
Stern took a risk in enacting the formal dress requirements and left himself open to criticisms that labeled him as old, out of touch and even racist, but his intention to make the league the global brand it is today was not to be trifled with, and its why that is Stern’s biggest accomplishment and his most indelible legacy.
So many lives have changed under Stern’s watch as he provided a platform to not only make an American game globally inclusive, but to take a game that once wasn’t take seriously an effective avenue for athletes, many from underprivileged communities, to become global icons and empowered social actors who could give back to many more beyond themselves while also marketing themselves as entertainers to rival any new stars from Hollywood or statesmen who can stand with the leader of the free world, or stand against him.
“Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today,” Jordan said in a statement via the NBA. “He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before.”
According to the NBA, under Stern, the NBA would play nearly 150 international games and be televised in more than 200 countries and territories, and in more than 40 languages. NBA stars became involved in the Olympic Games and sports learned the definition of what a “Dream Team” is. The NBA Finals and All-Star weekend grew into international spectacles, so much the 2010 All-Star game drew more than 108,000 fans to Cowboys Stadium in Dallas, a record to watch a basketball game. In today’s NBA, current Silver has added to Stern’s legacy by creating a G-League team in Mexico and another entire developmental league in Africa.
From my early days playing basketball, one of the clearest things I remember is palming NBA authentic Spalding basketballs that had David J. Stern’s signature engraved in them. The love of the game of basketball stems from a love of the ball itself, its the same for every hooper. That love for the ball and that love for the game led me to play competitive basketball for over 15 years.
In large part, because of Stern’s vision, I lovingly and willingly played the game of basketball and allowed it to become an important part of my life to this day. I thank him for that, and for all that and more, he will surely be missed.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media