Sports

NBA executives mourn the loss of legendary commissioner David Stern — a commanding and complex leader

NBA legends Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and NBA Commissioner David Stern on the red carpet of the premiere of Magic Bird on Broadway on April 11, 2012 at the Longacre Theatre in New York.
Steven Freeman | NBAE | Getty Images
Key Points
  • NBA executives paid tribute to former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died Sunday at the age of 77.
  • Charlotte Bobcats owner Michael Jordan praised Stern for his "vision and leadership."
  • Golden State Warriors COO Rick Welts called Stern the "single most important individual" in the history of the NBA.
NBA legends Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and NBA Commissioner David Stern on the red carpet of the premiere of Magic Bird on Broadway on April 11, 2012 at the Longacre Theatre in New York.
Steven Freeman | NBAE | Getty Images

The National Basketball Association continues to mourn the death of former commissioner David Stern, with league executives remembering him as a commanding and complicated leader who many regard as having been one of the greatest commissioners in sports.

Adam Silver, who succeeded Stern as NBA commissioner in 2014, called him a "mentor" and "friend." Stern, who died Sunday at the age of 77, three weeks after being hospitalized for a sudden brain hemorrhage, is survived by his wife, Dianne, and their sons, Andrew and Eric.

"Like every NBA legend," Silver said in a statement, "David had extraordinary talents, but with him it was always about the fundamentals — preparation, attention to detail, and hard work. 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," Silver continued. "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."

San Antonio Spurs CEO R.C. Buford, the team's general manager during Stern's time as commissioner, remembered him as a man of "clear vision and purpose."

Buford and the Spurs certainly had their battles with the league office while Stern was in charge. It was Stern who hit the Spurs, which many consider the organization that popularized the "rest" trend in the NBA, with a $250,000 fine in 2012 for doing exactly that when the team played the Miami Heat in a primetime matchup. The Spurs rested star players Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green by sending them home, an action Stern called a "disservice to the league and our fans."

Despite any differences during Stern's reign, Buford joined in with other NBA executives around the league who remembered Stern as the person who changed the image and economics of the league.

"He built our game to a significant position, not only domestically but around the world. He had an impact on basketball across so many platforms," Buford said.

During his 30-year tenure, from 1984 to 2014, Stern took the NBA from a 23-team organization struggling to make a profit to a 30-team operation whose revenue increased by 30 times to a reported $5 billion. He helped boost its attraction by expanding its presence outside the United States through marketing and television broadcasts in more than 200 countries and regions in 49 languages.

He also presided over four NBA lockouts and led efforts to create two new leagues, the Women's National Basketball Association and the NBA Development League; implemented the first dress code and first anti-drug agreement in professional sports, and introduced salary caps and revenue sharing to the league.

Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil, who worked for Stern in the league office, said Stern read "stacks of newspaper articles" to study international affairs as he attempted to reach a bigger audience for the NBA.

"It wasn't sports," O'Neil told CNBC. "He wasn't reading about the Atlanta Hawks versus Milwaukee game. He was reading about life science, and politics, the emerging economy in Brazil and India, and the incredible market that Africa is today. He understood the geopolitical impact and influence that it would have on this game."

Neil Olshey, the Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations, said "for those of us fortunate enough to work in this league under David's leadership, he elevated the standard of excellence in all areas of basketball operations and required you to always be at your best."

Stern is described by some as a "shrewd businessman" and a commissioner who was a "commanding leader."

Golden State Warriors Chief Operating Officer Rick Welts called Stern the "single most important individual" in the history of the NBA.

Welts worked under Stern as the league's chief marketing officer and president of NBA Properties until 1999 before leaving the NBA to become president of Fox Sports Enterprises.

In a video statement provided by the Warriors, Welts called Stern a "mentor."

Said Welts: "I used to joke that my greatest success of my life was directly reporting to David Stern for 17 years and living to tell about it, because it was, some days, an amazing challenge.

"I had a complicated relationship with him, like everybody else," Welts continued, "but at the end of the day, he was a friend, he was a mentor, and his inspiration, creative genius, innovation, ingenuity are the things that really created the NBA that we know today."

Though Stern reported to the league's owners, he was also seen as a commissioner who had the players' best interests in mind when it came to growing league revenue.

After Stern's first year as NBA commissioner in 1984, players' salaries ranged from $60,000 to $2.5 million, and the league's salary cap was roughly $3.6 million. When he departed in 2014, the salary cap reached $58.6 million, while player salaries ranged from $490,180 to $30.4 million.

Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who was drafted by the Chicago Bulls the first year Stern became commissioner, told The Athletic that Stern created "opportunities" for players to grow their brands. Last year, the Jordan brand's parent company, Nike, announced the line reached its first-ever $1 billion quarter.

"His vision and leadership provided me with the global stage that allowed me to succeed," Jordan told the subscription-based sports media company. "David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him — and I admired him for that. I wouldn't be where I am without him."

In a text message to CNBC, Roger Montgomery of sports agency Elite Athlete Group added: "His legacy of turning the NBA and the game of basketball into what it is today has made it possible for me to be a part of the awesome opportunities I'm experiencing as an agent. Thank you, Mr. Stern."

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