So David Stern is retiring this week. Some say “good riddance.” Some say “thank you, Mr. Commissioner.” Some say he is the best thing to happen to American sports since Pete Rozelle. I tend to agree with that last group.
Pete Rozelle was a genius. Every decision he made towards making the NFL marketable and profitable turned out positively. Everything from the Super Bowl to merging the NFL and AFL to broadcasting has made the NFL what it is today. It is the most popular sport in America by a long shot–a recent Harris Poll revealed that 35 percent of sports fan identify the NFL as their favorite sport, with baseball coming in a distant second at 14 percent–and really no matter what current commissioner Roger Goodell does in the future, the league will remain extremely profitable. This is all because Pete Rozelle set the ground work.
David Stern is to the NBA as Pete Rozelle is to the NFL.
I will even go a step further: David Stern is the most significant non-athlete sports figure of the past 50 years.
Stern took over as commissioner of the National Basketball Association in 1984 at the age of 41. As fortune would have it, he took over the job four months before the greatest draft class in NBA history, setting the stage for him to bring the league into the stratosphere. Maybe you remember the short, Jewish John Holmes shaking hands with (H)Akeem Olajuwon, who had decided he wanted to look like a conductor for a day. Or perhaps you remember his giddy, quivering voice as he introduced the new superstar going number three to Chicago: someone named Michael Jordan. Regardless of what you remember, the fact is that Stern welcomed four of the greatest 25 players of all time into the league on the same day, as Charles Barkley went number five and John Stockton went 16th.
Stern’s first brilliant move? The draft lottery for the 1985 NBA draft. In the past, the two worst teams would flip a coin for the top pick. In 1979, the Bulls lost the coin toss and therefore lost the chance to land Magic Johnson. (Of course, this event ended up being fortuitous for both sides, as the Lakers won five titles in the eighties, and the Bulls won six in the nineties after drafting Jordan in 1984). Stern’s idea had the teams put into a pot and then having the top pick drawn. This was to counter accusations that teams would lose on purpose in order to get the top pick, as was apparently the case with Houston the year before. The problem with the system was that there were no weighted odds, so every team that missed the playoffs had equal chances of getting the pick. Ultimately, the New York Knicks got the first pick and ultimately the most coveted college player since Kareem in Patrick Ewing. After a few years with this system, the technique of weighted odds came in 1990, which gave teams with worse records the higher chance of getting the top pick.
Of course, the draft lottery led to accusations of tampering from both the fans and the teams themselves. You’re telling me that by SOME MIRACLE, the NEW YORK KNICKS landed this generation’s Kareem? (Fortunately for the league’s rep, Ewing ultimately had a Hall of Fame career, but nowhere near Kareem level. Oh, and he never won a championship.) In 2003, it was a COINCIDENCE that LeBron James, the greatest high school player of all time went number one to his hometown Cavaliers? And in 2008, the next great point guard Derrick Rose went to Chicago, the city where he made himself a high school legend, the city that had a 1.9 percent chance of getting the number one pick, by ACCIDENT?
Maybe the league rigged the deck to enhance viewership. It is possible, but not provable. And regardless, the idea that maybe Stern did this to build the brand shows what kind of marketing genius Stern was viewed to be.
This was his greatest achievement. The NBA in the past had some level of popularity. Russell and Wilt was interesting, the 1976 triple overtime Finals game between Boston and Phoenix captivated, but the NBA could never compete with baseball and football. Until Stern came along.
When Stern took over, the 1984 season was coming down to its final two months. Ultimately, the season ended with a thrilling seven game series between the Celtics and Lakers, with the Celtics coming out on top and star Larry Bird taking MVP. Though Bird and Lakers’ star Magic Johnson had been in the league five years, this was the first time that the two really went head-to-head in a big way. So, what did Stern do? He realized that he had two immortal superstars who had a budding rivalry and marketing the crap out of them. Their rivalry, their friendship, their association came to define the early years of NBA’s Golden Age. Bird and Magic were the first athletes who were considerably marketed, and as a result, the league itself got extra advertising and air time. And Stern picked out the rivalry as it started and was rewarded by seeing the two do battle twice more in the Finals during the decade. By the time they retired, Bird and Magic could not be talked about without mentioning the other. That was the result of Stern’s ability to sense the moneymakers in his league.
However, these two could not even touch what Stern did with the league’s biggest star. Michael Jordan signed with Nike after he was drafted and they put all their money into making him as big as Magic and Bird. The details are fascinating but time-consuming so long story short, Michael Jordan became the most marketable athlete who ever lived. He took the role of league’s best player around 1988 and held the title until 1998, and during that span, he was in virtually every commercial: Gatorade, Nike, McDonalds, you name it. Michael Jordan was the most recognizable collection of syllable around the world. Kids in destitute villages in Africa could be seen in tattered Bulls 23 jerseys. The marketing project that was Michael Jordan took the NBA international.
This could be seen best in 1992. Sick of the lackluster play from amateurs at the past Olympic Games, Stern mandated that professionals would be used instead. And thus the Dream Team was born. Everyone knows the story: it was the greatest team ever assembled, they stomped everyone who tried to play them, opponents stopped playing to ask for their autograph and pictures. The point is that it was the manifestation of everything David Stern had done in his short eight year tenure as league commissioner: Everyone everywhere knew the stars of the NBA.
David Stern realized early on that the NBA was a league dependent on its superstars, and thus NBA stars became more marketable than any other athletes. And it has lasted into the present. Can you even remember the last time you went through a commercial break without seeing an athlete endorsement? Stern changed the way of athlete promotion and advertising in general. That is why he is so significant.
It has not been all unicorns and butterflies under Stern. He has done a few things to harm the league. He extended the already excruciatingly long postseason by adding a few more games to the first round of the playoffs. He instituted hand check rules to make it almost impossible to stop anyone from driving into the paint. The league has gotten considerably softer over the years.
However, in terms of making their league relevant, no one has accomplished what David Stern has. Not even Pete Rozelle. He is the greatest commissioner who ever lived.
Adam Silver has some small, unathletic shoes to fill.