The Towering, Complicated Legacy of David Stern

Over the past year, I’ve been teaching a class called The History of Sports in the United States at Montgomery College. When we get to the 1980s, I show a slide of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and David Stern to explain the explosive growth of the NBA. I ask the class if they can name all four people on the screen. Invariably, they can name Magic, Bird, and Jordan, but Stern’s face has been unrecognized. By the time we’re done with the unit they understand that David Stern influenced the game more than anyone who didn’t wear shorts. Now that the longtime NBA commissioner has passed away at the age of 77, it’s critical for us to understand his towering legacy. 

When Stern became commissioner in 1984, the league was just five years from having its finals shown on tape delay. Stern understood that the NBA would only go as far as its players and he relentlessly marketed the new generation, turning them into icons. He also wasn’t shy about integrating an exploding 1980’s musical form, hip hop, into the marketing of the league. In other words, he used black culture to fast-track the NBA’s growth. And it worked, bringing the ailing league to the cutting edge. NBA franchises went from being valued at between 10 and 20 million dollars to over a billion dollars today. Players’ salaries have risen dramatically as well, as the league became a global brand.

Stern also oversaw the formation of the WNBA and diversity initiatives that branded the NBA as a progressive, forward thinking institution. He handled Magic Johnson’s 1991 announcement that he was HIV positive with incredible love and grace. As current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who was mentored by Stern, said upon learning of his death, “David took over the NBA in 1984 with the league at a crossroads. But over the course of 30 years as Commissioner, he ushered 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. 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.”

This is all true, but Stern however wasn’t all sunshine and gingerbread. He was unapologetically ruthless when it came to both negotiating with the players’ union and protecting the league’s image as a safe sport for white, middle class consumption. This dynamic ramped into high gear following the 1998-1999 players lockout. Stern won the battle against the union after canceling almost half the season. He proceeded to project himself as a king of the sport; biting, sarcastic and more brazen about enforcing his will on the players. 

This was often executed in a ham-handed patronizing manner, utterly insensitive to how a majority black league would perceive his directives. The 2004 “Malice in the Palace,” the fight between members of the Indiana Pacers and white fans of the Detroit Pistons, only stirred up more of Stern’s fears that the league was pushing away white audiences. The brawl made Stern reactive and even, one might say, reactionary.

It was Stern who then instituted the much despised “dress code” in 2005, where players were monitored and subject to fines based upon what they wore when not on the court. He raised the age limit for when players could enter the league, preventing 18-year olds from entering out of high school, having to wait until they are 20 (that has since been amended to one year out of high school.). This was also perceived by some players as racially motivated. As NBA player Jermaine O’Neal, who came straight from high school, said at the time, “In the last two years, the rookie of the year has a been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star game, so why we even talking an age limit? As a black guy, you kind of think that’s the reason why it’s coming up. You don’t hear about it in baseball or hockey. To say you have to be 20, 21 to get in the league, it’s unconstitutional. If I can go to the U.S. army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes?”

David Stern also did nothing, at best, when NBA rebels Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf were driven out of the sport for acts of political resistance. This is all part of his legacy.

The aforementioned 1998-1999 players lockout also pushed Stern much closer to NBA ownership, with deleterious results. For reasons that are still unknown, Stern never moved to push then Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling off his perch and force him to sell his team. Sterling’s bigotry both as a franchise owner and in his private business affairs as a slumlord were an open secret, yet Stern never saw handling this as a priority. Sterling’s racism burst out into the open in 2014, the year that Adam Silver took over as league commissioner. Silver acted decisively – partly to stem a player’s revolt – and forced Sterling to sell his precious team.

Then there was the close relationship between David Stern and then Seattle Supersonics owner Clay Bennett. Of course, the Sonics are no more. Stern facilitated their move to Oklahoma City because the people of Seattle refused to vote for a new publicly funded arena. Stern also was never shy about rubbing Seattle’s nose in the move, as if he was warning other fan bases to not get between the league and their tax dollars. It was an altogether punitive and ugly response towards a fan base that had loyally supported the Sonics for forty years. As the loving remembrances of Stern come cascading downwards from establishment media, the people of Seattle must be remembered, their love of NBA basketball torn apart because Clay Bennett and David Stern wanted a few hundred million dollars more.

I will continue to teach about David Stern and his legacy. He should be studied and remembered by anyone who cares about sports. We need the perspectives of Adam Silver, Michael Jordan, former WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman, and all the sports cable entities in broadcast agreements with the NBA. But we also should listen to Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the fans of Seattle and everyone who was injured under the weight of his reign.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
Become an Edge of Sports Sustainer (Click Here)


Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com