NBA commissioner David Stern, who used superstars such as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson to grow the game internationally, and has catapulted the league to unprecedented financial heights, announced on Thursday that he will step down on Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after taking charge.
Stern, 70, whose first involvement with the league was in 1966 as an outside counsel, said he is not retiring. He plans to work with the league office, mostly on international affairs. Adam Silver, the deputy commissioner since 2006, will become the new commissioner.
After taking over for Lawrence O’Brien in 1984, Stern emerged as one of professional sports’ most successful commissioners. He took the NBA, whose championship games were televised on tape delay in the early 1980s, to stunning heights on par with the National Football League and Major League Baseball.
With the help of Jordan’s marketability, and the rivalry between Bird’s Celtics and Johnson’s Lakers, Stern turned the NBA into an immensely successful business, expanding by four teams in 1989 — including the now two-time champion Miami Heat — and into Canada in 1995.
Stern said his stepping down is not related to health issues. He hinted over the last several months about his tenure coming to an end, telling reporters that the recent collective bargaining agreement would be his last.
“I don’t know what I else to say other than to recite what I told the owners [Wednesday] in executive session. I told them that it’s been a great run,” Stern said following a Board of Governors meeting in New York on Thursday. “It will continue for another 15 months, that the league is, I think, in terrific condition.
“I said that I like to think that I did an adequate job, but one of the things I did best was to provide a successor that would be able to take the kinds of things that we now look at as huge growth opportunities, international, digital, television negotiations, and have somebody in place with an extraordinary organization that has worked together with [Silver] and with me, to take us even to the next level.
“I could not be happier sitting here to know that I’m going to be succeeded by Adam. I’m not going any place for the next 15 months, but this gives us the opportunity to work on a very, very smooth transition across the broad array of initiatives and issues that we are going to be working on together. I’m very, very happy.”
Stern led the league through years of considerable drug use in the early ’80s and to a lucrative television contract with NBC in 1990. He also oversaw NBA players participating in the Olympics for the first time in 1992, the first NBA-affiliated women’s league, and the relocation of five franchises: the Kansas City Kings to Sacramento, Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans, Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis, Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City, and New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn.
There were two abbreviated seasons — 1998-99 and 2011-12 — because of work stoppages. Stern gained the reputation as a difficult negotiator who was fiercely loyal to the league’s owners.
Stern said his vision for the NBA was to allow smaller-market teams to compete with those in bigger cities. While the Celtics, and Lakers, and Bulls dominated the championship landscape, the Spurs and Pistons also won multiple titles, while the Thunder reached the Finals last season.
“There is a lot of good stuff going on, but particularly I want to spend time with Adam with respect to his vision,” Stern said.
Silver made it clear he plans to continue Stern’s plan but with his own fingerprints. He is in favor of advertisements on uniforms, which would be a first among the four US major sports.
Stern has intimated over the last several months that Silver was his choice to be his successor, and the Board of Governors approved.
“It’s an enormous opportunity,” Silver said. “It’s one that, obviously, I’ve been at the league for over 20 years now, so I don’t think I ever had a right to anticipate it. It’s certainly something since I became deputy commissioner six years ago that David and I have touched on, and increasingly over the last few years we’ve talked more about it.
“But I’m enormously honored and thrilled, and appreciate the transition period that David is providing me. So, I’ll have the next 15 months for yet even more on the job training working directly with David.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.