David Stern, One Of The Most Influential NBA Commissioners, Dies At 77

Jan 1, 2020
Originally published on January 2, 2020 8:12 am

David Stern, a basketball Hall of Famer and former commissioner of the NBA, died on Wednesday at age 77. The NBA issued a statement saying that his death was the result of a brain hemorrhage that he suffered in mid-December.

Stern spent 30 years as commissioner of the NBA, beginning in 1984. He took over the league during a time of some uncertainty; the NBA's image had been battered by reports of widespread drug use among players. But that same year, Michael Jordan entered the league along with other soon-to-be superstars such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Under Stern's leadership, the league began to soar. It added seven teams, spread its brand globally and saw revenue and player salaries skyrocket.

Stern was also a driving force behind the creation of the WNBA in 1996. The commissioner of the WNBA, Cathy Engelbert, described Stern's commitment to women's sports as "ahead of its time" and said it had "provided countless opportunities for women and young girls who aspire to play basketball."

During Stern's time as commissioner, the NBA did see some problems, including tense labor battles that led to shortened seasons and four lockouts. Even so, Stern has been described as one of the most influential commissioners in NBA history. When he stepped down as commissioner in 2014, Stern was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Stern is survived by his wife, Dianne, and his sons Andrew and Eric. In a statement on Twitter, current NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote, "Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David's vision, generosity and inspiration."

: 1/02/20

A previous version of this story misspelled Cathy Engelbert's last name as Englebert.

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David Stern never scored a single point in the National Basketball Association. He profoundly influenced the players who did and the experience of the fans who watched. The former longtime league commissioner died yesterday at 77, and NPR's Tom Goldman reports on why David Stern left such an impression.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: David Stern was commissioner from February 1, 1984 to February 1, 2014. But while there was symmetry, there was nothing tidy about his three decades on the job. They were explosive, expansive, groundbreaking and stunning when you consider the NBA David Stern took over. Playoff games had been broadcast on tape delay, teams had been losing money, cocaine use reportedly was widespread among players.

But just a few months into his tenure, Stern stepped up to a dais in New York City and ignited the spark that lifted the league skyward.


DAVID STERN: The Chicago Bulls pick Michael Jordan from University of North Carolina.

GOLDMAN: Behind Jordan and other emerging stars of the '80s - Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley - the NBA game became irresistible. But it was Stern, the keen businessman, who parlayed those players' skill and stardom into something even bigger. Hall of Fame player Isaiah Thomas talked about Stern on NBA TV.


ISAIAH THOMAS: The courage that he had and the belief and the stubbornness that he had to pursue his vision of what the league could be like globally.

GOLDMAN: Under Stern, the NBA opened offices in more than a dozen cities outside the U.S. He worked out TV deals to broadcast games in more than 200 countries. In this country, he helped start the WNBA. Stern's support of Magic Johnson in the early 1990s when the Lakers star announced he was HIV positive, that set the tone for a league with players now known for speaking out on social issues.

There were missteps. Asked about regrets in an interview with The Undefeated a few months ago, Stern mentioned the four owner lockouts of players during his time.


STERN: I would love to have had clear sailing and unanimous agreement on collective bargaining, but I didn't. And that's a failure, I would say.

GOLDMAN: But mostly, his steps were true. Stern was, in the words of former WNBA president Val Ackerman, an innovator, a taskmaster and a role model. Among the condolences pouring in, this tweet from NBA Spain, gracias por tanto - thanks for so much. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYLVAIN CHAUVEAU'S "BLANC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.