NEW YORK — David Stern spent nearly 30 years growing the NBA, turning a league that couldn’t even get its championship series on live prime-time TV into a projected $5 billion a year industry.
Confident the NBA is in good shape and certain he has found someone who can make it even better, Stern is ready to end one of the most successful and impactful careers in sports history.
Stern will retire as commissioner Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after taking charge of the league, and be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.
“I decided that things are in great shape and there’s an organization in place that will ultimately be led by Adam that is totally prepared to take it to the next level,” Stern said Thursday during a press conference following the league’s board of governors meeting.
It’s hard to be any better than Stern, perhaps the model sports commissioner.
Name an important policy in the NBA — drug testing, salary cap, even a dress code — and Stern had a hand in it. A lawyer by trade, he was a fearless negotiator against players and referees, but also their biggest defender any time he felt they were unfairly criticized.
“For all the things you’ve done for the NBA and for sports generally, I think there’s no doubt that you’ll be remembered as the best of all-time as commissioners go and you’ve set the standard, I think not even just for sports league commissioners, but for CEOs in any industry,” Silver told Stern sitting to his left on a podium.
Stern told owners of his plans during their two days of meetings, and the board unanimously decided Silver would be his successor. Owners will begin negotiations with the 50-year-old Silver in hopes of having a contract completed by their next meeting in April.
Stern, who turned 70 last month, became commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. He has been the NBA’s longest-serving commissioner, establishing the league’s brand around the world, presiding over team expansion and overseeing the establishment of the WNBA and the NBA Development League.
“There is no debate that David Stern has earned his spot in the pantheon of sports commissioners. Deservedly, his name and reputation will always be synonymous with the phenomenal growth and success of the NBA over the last three decades,” union executive director Billy Hunter said in a statement. “His absence will surely be felt by anyone connected to the NBA and the sport of basketball, although clearly the league will be left in very capable hands with the appointment of Adam Silver as the next commissioner.”
Seven franchises have been added under Stern and the league has seen a 30-fold increase in revenues. Stern insisted the NBA have a presence on social media, and the league and players have more than 270 million likes and followers on Facebook and Twitter.
“There are all kinds of other business metrics we could look at that would define David as one of the great business leaders of our time,” Silver said.
Stern said he decided on his plans about six months ago, having guided the league through a lockout that ended nearly a year ago. He didn’t want to leave until the labor deal was completed or until he was confident there was a successor in place, and both are done. Silver has been the league’s No. 2 since 2006, and both Stern and league owners praise his abilities.
“I don’t know what else to say other than to recite what I told the owners yesterday in executive session,” Stern said. “I told them that it’s been a great run, it will continue for another 15 months, that the league is in, I think, terrific condition.”
Stern is the one who got it there, taking over what was a second-rate league with little-to-no TV presence — the NBA Finals were on tape delay in the early 1980s — and making basketball one of the world’s most popular sports.
“A couple of things that stand out to me is that David has been, in my estimation, the type of commissioner that has set the standard not only for the NBA but for all of the sports,” said Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, the outgoing chairman of the board of governors. “We have done so many wonderful things in the organization. The marketing, leadership, the brand recognition, going international way before our times, and David has led that.”
Taylor said there’s been a “40-fold” increase in revenues from the league’s national TV contract, and that the average player salary will have had grown from $250,000 when Stern took over to $5 million by the end of the current collective bargaining agreement.
Stern was the league’s outside counsel from 1966-78, then its general counsel before becoming executive vice president of business and legal affairs from 1980-84. He replaced Larry O’Brien to become the league’s fourth commissioner, getting a boost in taking the game mainstream with the popularity of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and soon Michael Jordan. The league began marketing its stars, and Stern found the desire for them was greatest in some far-away lands.
The real explosion came in 1992, when those three headed the Dream Team that led the U.S. to the Olympic basketball gold medal while winning fans around the world. The NBA has gone on to play games in 17 countries, staging 114 international games.
“He’s done a remarkable job,” Major League Baseball Commission Bud Selig said at the World Series. “To think of what the NBA was when he came in and what it is today, most people judge him very very highly.”
There were rough patches, particularly the brawl between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans in 2004, and the betting scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy. Stern had already passed off most of the heavy lifting to Silver by last year, but he was the one absorbing the criticism during the lockout for the second shortened season in his tenure.
He sometimes appeared worn down during the negotiations, even missing one critical bargaining session while sick, but insists he’s got plenty of energy to keep working now.
“I feel great,” Stern said. “I’m enjoying my job, but I’m looking forward to doing some other things. I’m stepping down, I’m not retiring.”
Stern just recently returned from China, Germany and Italy, and plans another overseas trip next season, and will remain an adviser to the league in retirement on international matters.
“We just think that his leadership will be important to our future,” Taylor said.
It’s meant everything to the league’s past.
The league has reported huge increases in ticket and merchandise sales, and TV ratings are at an all-time high. Last season’s lockout, the second time the league lost games to a work stoppage, hardly made a dent in the league’s business or in fans’ interest.
But even for Stern, business has always taken a back seat to basketball. He’s sought changes to improve play, such as the elimination of isolation play that bored him, to implementing penalties that go into effect this season for flopping.
“For the most part it’s been a series of extraordinary experiences and enormous putting together of pieces of a puzzle and it goes on forever,” Stern said. “And there will always be another piece of the puzzle and so the question is at what point do you decide that, let someone else do it? That’s the point that I’m at now.”
Taylor and Spurs owner Peter Holt, who is replacing him as board chairman, said the owners will work to have a contract with Silver by April. Silver came to the NBA 20 years ago and served a variety of positions before becoming the deputy commissioner in 2006. He was the lead negotiator during the lockout and Stern has relied more heavily on him in recent years, even turning to Silver to answer questions on tougher topics.
Stern said he wouldn’t leave until he knew there was a successor ready, and he has repeatedly said Silver is ready for that role. Stern said he would always remain available to take a call and help the league.
“Life is a journey and it’s been a spectacular journey,” Stern said. “Each step along the way there are things that you have to do, things that you maybe wish you hadn’t done. But I don’t keep that list, and so I’m totally pleased and I’m particularly pleased with the transition of which we’re now embarking.”