A True Basketball Big Man

Former NBA commissioner David Stern.  (Fortune Live Media via Wikimedia Commons)

Former NBA commissioner David Stern.
(Fortune Live Media via Wikimedia Commons)

When the National Basketball Association playoffs tip off on April 19, the star players who take the court should credit their status to recently retired league commissioner David Stern, according to Peter Horvitz, author of “The Big Book of Jewish Sports Heroes.”

Horvitz said Stern’s leadership of the NBA for 30 years saw the league shift from the fringe of sports fans’ attention to the very center.

“The leading players of the sport have become true superstars,” Horvitz said. “Players such as Larry Bird, Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have become cultural icons. I don’t think the prosperity and popularity of any sport owes so much to the executive abilities of a single man more than basketball owes to David Stern.”

Stern — who grew up in a Jewish family in Teaneck, N.J. — retired from his role as commissioner on Feb. 1 and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. Hall of Fame board chairman Jerry Colangelo said Stern, a lawyer by trade, made himself a marketing genius through his work for the NBA.

Brian Scalabrine of the Boston Celtics accepts his NBA championship ring in October 2008 from then NBA commissioner David Stern.  (Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Scalabrine of the Boston Celtics accepts his NBA championship ring in October 2008 from then NBA commissioner David Stern.
(Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons)

“With intelligence and hard work he was always on the cutting edge in the areas of cable [television] and technology,” Colangelo said. “He positioned the NBA to take advantage of the new wave of technology and put us in a position on an international stage to be the first professional league to have a major foothold internationally. By doing this, he elevated the league in a tremendous way.”

Colangelo — who formerly owned the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association and the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball — said Stern “had great autonomy in terms of making decisions, and he proved to be an extraordinary leader of wealthy owners.”

Before rising to the rank of commissioner in 1984, Stern was the NBA’s executive vice-president and its general counsel. During his tenure as commissioner, the league expanded from 23 to 30 teams and television revenue increased from $10 million per year to $900 million per year. Stern implemented several rule changes in the game, instituted the age limit for NBA draft entries, created the draft’s lottery system, oversaw the launch of the NBA Developmental League and managed the relocation of six franchises.

“I’ve known David since 1967,” Colangelo said. “To have watched his growth as an individual, as a lawyer with great business acumen, as someone who developed relational skills — I’ve seen the whole journey and so I know his accomplishments, which are just short of sensational.”

Credited for developing and broadening the NBA’s audience by setting up training camps, playing exhibition games around the world and recruiting more international players, Stern’s legacy is in the numbers: the NBA now has 11 offices in cities outside the U.S. and is televised in 215 countries and 43 languages.

“Basketball is the No. 2 sport in the world in terms of popularity and participation, with soccer being No. 1,” Colangelo said. “The NBA and its incredible growth has been a big part of that overall growth. That’s because of the exposure of the game, domestically and internationally. There’s no small piece of credit that belongs to the NBA for where basketball as a sport is in the world.”

In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article titled “From Corned Beef to Caviar,” E.M. Swift wrote that Stern, the son of a New York deli owner, was undisputedly “the best commissioner in sports, the best in the history of basketball and every bit the equal of the best sports commissioners of all time, such as the National Football League’s Pete Rozelle and baseball’s Kenesaw Mountain Landis.”

Swift quoted Michael Goldberg, a former general counsel of the American Basketball Association, as saying that Stern “dismisses the adage that nice guys finish last.”

“David’s father ran a successful deli in New York. To be successful in that business, you have to have great rapport with your customers. You have to get them to come back, even if the corned beef is a little dry and the apple pie a little stale. You have to give the customer a smile, a pleasant greeting, a sense that he is being taken care of. David Stern understands that, and I don’t think it would be farfetched to say that he has applied that to the NBA,” Goldberg said.

Colangelo concurs with Goldberg’s assessment of Stern.

“I agree, because when you are brought up in that environment and you see firsthand how to run a business, how to deal with customers, that’s a solid foundation to come from,” Colangelo said. “When he left that scene and went on to school, then professionally as a lawyer and then the NBA, he brought all that knowledge with him.”

Colangelo acknowledged that Stern is part of a long line of Jewish figures that helped shape basketball history, including coach and owner Eddie “The Mogul” Gottlieb; Ossie Schectman, who scored the first basket in NBA history; and legendary coaches Red Holzman and Red Auerbach.

“Eddie Gottlieb was a dear friend of mine, as was Red Holzman,” Colangelo said.

Though the David Stern era was marked by the rising popularity of the NBA’s stars, Colangelo stressed that basketball remains the everyman’s game.

“Basketball doesn’t take a lot of equipment or space,” he said. “You can play it in an alley, a playground or a schoolyard or on the side of a barn. You can play organized ball in YMCAs and high school gyms and college field houses. There are many places to play the game, which is the consummate team game. We always push stars and we talk about the greats, but basketball is poetry in motion.”

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