David Stern was the longest serving commissioner in NBA history, remaining in that position over three decades after taking over in 1984. Stern died last week at 77, and many across the world of sports paid tribute to his impact and influence on the game. For the most part, Stern’s tenure will be seen as a positive one, and even his most severe critics acknowledge that the league is better off in many ways as a result of things that he did. But there were also some controversial things he did that weren’t so positive, many of which folks were or are reluctant to discuss for fear that acknowledging them somehow denigrates or diminishes the whole of his achievements.
When Stern took over in the mid-80s, the NBA was essentially a regional niche sport. There was no NBA TV. The NBA Finals were on tape delay, because the network carrying them at the time (CBS) considered them too much of a ratings liability to be shown in prime time. There was little interaction between the NBA and international leagues, and NBA players didn’t compete in either the Olympics or any international tournaments.
Three decades later, NBA TV airs games almost every night, while the league has long-term deals with ESPN and TNT. The Dream Team of the early 90s helped turn basketball into a truly global sport, and the NBA is now covered by press from numerous countries. Foreign players are regularly drafted and the Finals are not only in prime time, but heavily marketed. Some of Stern’s critics claim such players as Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird are more responsible for the league’s success than anything Stern did, but there’s little doubt he pushed for a lot of the things that have occurred.
Stern was also involved in rules changes that have altered the style of play. Eliminating hand checking, implementing the three-point line, and changing the rules regarding zone defenses have made 21st century basketball very different. Purists lament the lack of low post play and what they see as an overemphasis on dunks and three-pointers, but the sport’s popularity, especially among younger people, remains high. The league has been hurt somewhat this season by injuries to key players and the demise of the Golden State Warriors, one of its more popular teams over the last few years. But that’s been balanced by the rapid improvement of the Los Angeles Lakers and that of the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, led by second year sensation Luka Donic.
But there were down sides to the Stern reign. Among them were the exiling of Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf from the NBA for political reasons. Hodges fell out of favor for his vocal protests directly to President Bush when the Bulls went to the White House over the President’s lack of responsiveness to the problems of Black and poor people. Abdul-Rauf refused to stand at attention during the playing of the national anthem, and suffered severe public criticism, even death threats.
Stern didn’t back him publicly, and later got a rule inserted into the CBA mandating that players either stand at attention during the anthem or stay in the locker room. Abdul-Rauf ended up in the Turkish League. Stern also pushed through a provision mandating a dress code on the bench for idle or injured players, a move widely viewed at the time as making sure Black players appeared respectable to a white viewing audience. In fairness, Stern did intercede to ensure that first Robert Johnson and then Michael Jordan were able to become NBA owners. He pushed for more representation in the league office for both Blacks and women, and helped in the hiring of the league’s first Black woman official.
He ruled with an iron hand, and was steadfast in his insistence things be done his way. But the NBA is a far more profitable and popular league today than it was in 1984. It has offices in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and is starting an African League in the next couple of years. He wasn’t perfect, and there remain some policies he implemented that are questionable at best. Still, on balance, David Stern was more of a positive than negative force in regards to the NBA and sports in general.