The legacy of former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died on New Year’s Day after suffering a brain hemorrhage last month, is indelible and indisputable. Beyond taking the NBA from a struggling league to a global force during his 30-year tenure, Stern also oversaw the creation of the WNBA and the NBA G League (née NBA Development League), as well as NBA Cares a wide array of media initiatives, and a transformative moment in the AIDS crisis. There were hiccups along the way, sure, like the NBA’s dress code and two seasons shortened by work stoppages, but those are far outweighed by Stern’s achievements.
If there is something to be learned from how Stern transformed the NBA into what it is today, something that can translate from the very different world of when he became commissioner in 1984, it is one line in his Hall of Fame speech in 2014.
“You’ve got love the game, and everything we do is always about the game – always about the game.”
Does that really matter? The modern commissioner, after all, primarily acts as the face of 30 or so billionaire team owners, representing them in labor negotiations and taking criticism for the actions of their cartels. Roger Goodell was described last year by New York Daily News columnist Jane McManus, aptly, as “the NFL’s human shield.”
And, of course, being a fan of a sport does not necessarily mean putting aside those corporate considerations so that “everything we do is always about the game.” Gary Bettman may have been a young lawyer watching the Islanders win the Stanley Cup back in 1981, but how much does it help the game to hem and haw about supporting women’s hockey, or to pull the game’s top stars out of the Olympics in “a cold, logical business decision?”
What Stern understood, and the way he acted, in a way his peers either could not or would not, is that what is good for the game is, in turn, good for the league. That may not always be the case immediately, like in the case of the NHL not seeing post-Olympics television ratings bumps, but it pays off over time – think of the kids who become baseball fans for life because they go to a minor league game as an inexpensive family outing, imagine how many parents stop their kids from playing football now because of safety concerns but might let them play if the NFL took real leadership on the issue, or take it from someone whose favorite hockey player as a kid was Scott Lachance, as a result of the defenseman playing well for Team USA in 1992 and announcers mentioning that the then-19-year-old would play for New York in the NHL.
More people being into basketball, however they get to it, ultimately is good for the NBA. It seems like that should not be a revolutionary concept, but Stern got it, his successor Adam Silver gets it, and because of that, the NBA remains on the positive trajectory that it’s been on for the last three and a half decades while the other “big” leagues in North America routinely face existential questions.