David Stern, the former commissioner of the National Basketball Association widely credited with leading the league through a period of tremendous growth, died Wednesday. He was 77.
In a statement, the NBA said Stern had died "as a result" of a brain hemorrhage he suffered Dec. 12. At the time, ESPN reported that Stern underwent emergency surgery after he collapsed at a Manhattan restaurant.
"For 22 years, I had a courtside seat to watch David in action," Adam Silver, Stern's successor as commissioner, said in a statement. "He was a mentor and one of my dearest friends. We spent countless hours in the office, at arenas and on planes wherever the game would take us. Like every NBA legend, David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals – preparation, attention to detail, and hard work."
Stern worked at the NBA for more than 35 years, beginning with his hiring as the league's general counsel in 1978. He became the league's executive vice president two years later and succeeded Larry O'Brien as league commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. He remained in the job for the next 30 years before stepping aside in favor of his longtime deputy, Silver, in 2014.
In his statement, Silver credited his predecessor with "usher[ing] 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," Silver said. "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."
During Stern's tenure, a league that had trouble securing live telecasts of its championship series a few years earlier became an industry raking in over $5 billion a year, while basketball became one of the most popular sports in the world after soccer. 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, and the NBA Finals and All-Star weekend would grow into international spectacles. The 2010 All-Star game drew over 108,000 fans to Dallas Cowboys Stadium, a record to watch a basketball game.
As part of its growth, the NBA expanded from 23 to 30 teams during Stern's tenure, though some expansions were more successful than others. While the Miami Heat have won three NBA titles since entering the league in 1988, the Vancouver Grizzlies lasted just six seasons in their original home before moving to Memphis in 2001. Stern was also widely criticized for supporting the move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, leaving one of the NBA's most fervent fan bases without a team.
But, Stern also oversaw the creation of the WNBA and NBA Development League, now the G League, providing countless opportunities to pursue careers playing basketball in the United States that previously weren't available.
"It was David Stern being a marketing genius who turned the league around. That's why our brand is so strong," said former Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson, who announced he was retiring because of HIV in 1991 but returned the following year at the All-Star Game with Stern's backing.
"It was David Stern who took this league worldwide."
He was fiercely protective of his players and referees when he felt they were unfairly criticized, such as when members of the Indiana Pacers brawled with Detroit fans in 2004, or when an FBI investigation in 2007 found that Tim Donaghy had bet on games he officiated, throwing the entire referee operations department into turmoil. With his voice rising and spit flying, Stern publicly would rebuke media outlets, even individual writers, if he felt they had taken cheap shots.
But, he also was a relentless negotiator against those same employees in collective bargaining, and his loyalty to his owners and commitment to getting them favorable deals led to what was seen as his greatest failures, lockouts in 1998 and 2011 that were the only times the NBA lost games to work stoppages. Though he had already passed off the heavy lifting to Silver by the latter lockout, it was Stern who faced the greatest criticism, as well as the damage to a legacy that otherwise had rarely been tarnished.
David Joel Stern was born on Sept. 22, 1942, in New York. A graduate of Rutgers University and Columbia Law School, he was dedicated to public service, launching the NBA Cares program in 2005 that donated more than $100 million to charity in five years.
He would begin looking internationally soon after he became commissioner and the globalization of the game got an enormous boost in 1992 when Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird played on the U.S. Olympic Dream Team that would bring the sport a new burst of popularity while storming to the gold medal in Barcelona.
Stern capitalized on that by sending NBA teams to play preseason games against other NBA or international clubs, and opened offices in other countries. The league staged regular-season games in Japan in 1991 and devoted significant resources to China, and Stern's work there would pay off in 2008 when basketball was perhaps the most popular sport in the Beijing Olympics.
Growth slowed near the end of his tenure. The worldwide economic downturn in the late 2000s all but wrecked his longtime hopes of expanding overseas and led to the second lockout, with owners seeking massive changes to the salary structure after losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year on their basketball teams, on top of losses in their personal businesses.
He helped get them, and the league was thriving again by the time he left office
Stern, who was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, is survived by wife Dianne and sons Eric and Andrew.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.