Thirty years ago, NBA draftees were not itching to have their photos taken with Larry O’Brien. It was nothing against the great commissioner who orchestrated the ABA-NBA merger and helped the fledging league sign its first cable television contract in 1982.
O’Brien’s 10-year tenure laid the groundwork for the league’s meteoric rise under David Stern, who became the most popular 5-foot-7-inch man on draft nights, with hundreds of soon-to-be millionaires sporting toothy grins while towering over Stern as they joined him on stage after being selected.
The NBA was Stern’s league during his 30 years, which began on Feb. 1, 1984 and ended three decades to the day later when he retired. He ruled with a heavy hand. He and his staff worked feverishly to exterminate the NBA’s well-earned reputation of being a drug-infested league, a drifting sport saved by the emergence of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
It was a league with an image issue and made up of a majority of black players, a league just a few years removed from tape-delayed games of its championship. West Coast fans would have to wait until 11:30 p.m. (approximately 5½ hours after the start) for the tipoff. During the 1982-83 season, CBS broadcasted four regular-season games.
Stern, 71, will enter the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday in Springfield because he has been credited — along with the presence of Michael Jordan — with turning the NBA into a thriving, worldwide enterprise that is no longer regarded as a strictly urban sport.
“My job was to get through the day,” Stern said. “People forget, I came the NBA in 1978 and Larry O’Brien gave me a lot of responsibility. We were spending time [trying to figure out]: How do we get off of tape delay? How many franchises should we fold? Should we merge? How many franchises will make payroll? How could we get more than $22 million in network revenue? It was very tightly focused, believe me, and we never anticipated the growth that we enjoyed.”
Stern, of course, downplays his impact. He credits his staff. He credits current commissioner Adam Silver, but his influence on the sport cannot be understated. Stern understands how dramatically the league has improved over the past three decades.
“There are a couple of things specifically, one is the fact that the NBA was originally thought of and challenged as not being able to succeed because it was too integrated, too many black players,” he told the Globe this week. “We showed the world that they were wrong about that. And No. 2, perhaps starting with Magic but now watching what has happened with NBA Cares, people now fundamentally understand that the obligation is for a sports league to be socially responsible and to preach a little bit different message than simply the love of the game and the commercial messages.
“But the opportunity of a sports league to set standards, to infuse kids with exercise, fitness and good health to stress the value of the game, pretty important stuff in my view, which all sports leagues have how adopted.”
While the NBA has never been able to catch the NFL juggernaut in terms of popularity, it has closed the gap and Stern, with the help of LeBron James, was able to foster the league’s continued growth after the retirement of Jordan, whose departure was supposed to be the death knell of the league when its most marketable star was snatched away by Father Time.
“I never had a doubt [the league would continue to prosper],” Stern said. “[Bill] Russell and [Wilt] Chamberlain retired. Elgin Baylor retired. Dr. J retired. Larry and Magic retired. Isiah [Thomas] retired. Clyde [Drexler] retired. Michael retired. This is an unending pipeline of spectacular basketball, both in this country and the around the world and the NBA will always continue to recruit the best.”
James, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and an international influx of players helped globalize the league in the early 2000s, but Stern was the mainstay. He instituted the controversial league dress code, sparked by Bryant donning a Donovan McNabb jersey on the bench while on the injured list.
Stern challenged the players’ ever-expanding sense of expression without eliminating the individualism. Allen Iverson changed the perception of the league’s image, fusing the marriage between basketball and hip-hop with his numerous tattoos, baseball caps, and cornrow hairstyle.
Iverson forced the league to accept hip-hop culture and while Stern was resistant at times to embrace the rapid change, race and perception was always something he acknowledged.
“I think my initial motivation literally was before I became commissioner, the scorn that was heaped upon the NBA because didn’t we understand that a black sport could never succeed in America,” Stern said. “That was very much a motivating point for me and for my colleagues. We just didn’t believe that and we were determined to right the NBA [perception], not only domestically but in the global space as well, to prove the naysayers completely wrong.
“We recognized that in some ways, our players had a harder burden. It expressed itself sometimes when it was about the afros and then about the cornrows and then it was about the tattoos. We always felt that there was no element of race, which I think is largely dissipated in terms of the appreciation that fans have for our players and their talents.”
Regardless of the popularity or lack thereof of Roger Goodell, Gary Bettman and Bug Selig, Stern became professional sports’ most popular leader, with teenage wunderkinds giddy to pose for pictures with him. Although he was considered a unrelenting negotiator behind the scenes with the NBA Players Association, making some adversaries amongst players and agents and being been blamed for ignoring the plight of retired players, he remained wildly popular throughout his tenure.
“I address the parents and the draft picks at lunch every year and telling them what this mechanism is that will make them famous on a global basis, wealthy if they are as successful as they hope to be but they shouldn’t forget about the families that brought them there,” Stern said. “This is a collective journey and it is always given me the greatest joy because in those faces, [we try] to keep those young men safe and focused. The players understood we put all of these in place for them.”
Although players such as Iverson should receive more recognition for globalizing not only the NBA but free expression, Stern helped with that effort. James is the game’s most popular player and yet sports tattoos on most of his body. That would not have been the case 30 years ago.
“We worked very hard at explaining to people, sometimes by words and sometimes by actions that you gotta know the people that you’re watching,” Stern said. “It doesn’t matter how they look or what they have on their bodies or what their hairstyle is. That’s a lesson that sports can teach. Our fans supported their players. That lesson actually extends to international players as well. The common language is basketball.”