David Stern’s Legacy

Today’s young people would have a hard time believing this, but 30 years ago, the National Basketball Association seemed to be on the verge of irrelevance. Annual television revenue was a mere $30 million. Drug scandals dominated the headlines. The notion that the league could be a global enterprise was laughable; it seemed more likely that the NBA might go the way of professional boxing or horse racing.

That’s the league David Stern inherited when he took over as NBA commissioner in 1984. In the decades that followed, Mr. Stern did more than lead the league away from the abyss. He presided over a new golden age of professional basketball, an age of superstars, memorable teams, superb rivalries and high visibility. He helped turn the NBA into a global entertainment superpower.

Mr. Stern retired as commissioner on Feb. 1, 30 years after taking the job. It would be small praise indeed—in fact, it would be an injustice—to say simply that the league is better off as a result of Mr. Stern’s long tenure. In fact, the NBA is a dazzling global organization today thanks in part to Mr. Stern’s leadership and vision. He was to the NBA what Pete Rozelle was to the NFL: a farsighted leader who turned a sport into a global brand.

To be sure, Mr. Stern had some help. There was a fellow named Michael Jordan who no doubt had something to do with the NBA’s international popularity. But even Mr. Jordan owed something to Mr. Stern. After all, if few people cared about the NBA, even fewer would have wanted to be like Mike.

Mr. Stern understood the impact of the cable-sports revolution and the importance of buzz in a media-drenched culture. He did more than restore the NBA to relevance.

A great New Yorker, David Stern made the NBA important, not only in the U.S. but around the world.