David Stern, Former NBA Commissioner, Dies at 77

Longest-tenured commissioner oversaw the league’s popularity explosion in the 1990s

david stern
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Jazz At Lincoln Center

David Stern, the former longtime commissioner of the NBA, died Wednesday following a brain hemorrhage, according to a statement from current NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He was 77.

“David took over the NBA in 1984 with the league at a crossroads,” Silver wrote. “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.”

Stern suffered a sudden brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and underwent emergency surgery.

Stern is the longest-tenured commissioner in NBA history, serving in that role for 30 years from 1984-2014, and is considered to be the among the most important figures in the NBA. Under Stern, the NBA saw its popularity expand in the 1990s and 2000s, not only in the U.S., but around the world. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.

Stern’s tenure with the NBA began in 1966 as an outside counsel, before joining the league full time in 1978 as General Counsel. He became league’s executive vice president in 1980, and succeeded Larry O’Brien (whose namesake is on the NBA championship trophy) as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. He retired exactly 30 years to the day on Feb. 1, 2014.

Stern’s tenure began with a little bit of luck — his first draft in the summer of 1984 included the likes of Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley and John Stockton. The next 15 years would see the league’s popularity rise to the level of Major League Baseball, which had for decades been the most popular sport in the country (that distinction now belongs to the NFL). In the 1970s, the NBA Finals were often tape-delayed. The league now gets billions of dollars from ESPN, ABC and Turner for the rights to air its games — the NBA Finals on ABC ranks among the most-watched TV events of the year.

Oversees, the NBA airs games in 200 countries and territories, in more than 40 languages.

Under Stern, the NBA expanded from 23 to 30 teams, including going beyond U.S. borders to Toronto and Vancouver (though the Grizzlies moved to Memphis after only 6 years). This past spring, the Raptors became the first team outside of the U.S. to win an NBA championship. Seven teams were also relocated during his commissionership, most notably the Seattle Sonics to Oklahoma City, and the Charlotte Hornets to New Orleans (though Charlotte was eventually granted an expansion franchise in 2004).

Stern also oversaw the creation of the WNBA and NBA Development League, now called the G League. His NBA career included the implementation of drug testing, the salary cap, and the dress code. The latter was criticized for unfairly targeting the league’s African-American players.

However, Stern also courted controversy during his long tenure. Along with the dress code, Stern was criticized for his hardball negotiation tactics and for overreaching his power. The league experienced four work stoppages while he was commissioner, including an ugly lockout in 1998-1999 that nearly cancelled the season, before a last-minute deal was reached. The 1999 season was shorted to 50 games and was beset was poor quality of play and low-scoring games. A similar lockout happened in 2011, which resulted in another shorted season of 66 games.

Then there’s the “Frozen Envelope” controversy during the 1985 draft, which saw the New York Knicks win the first-ever NBA draft lottery and the opportunity to select Patrick Ewing with the first overall pick. The Knicks did not have the league’s worst record, and their resulting good luck led to conspiracy theories that Stern purposely pulled their envelope (which had a bent corner) in order to get the best player in the draft in the league’s biggest TV market. Stern was also criticized for the move of the Sonics to Oklahoma City, which traded in the 14th biggest TV market for the 45th. He led the NBA to intervene against Howard Schultz’s attempt to keep the team in Seattle.

Stern remained active as Commissioner Emeritus after handing the reigns to Silver, taking trips overseas on the league’s behalf, doing public speaking and consulting.