Will David Stern go down as the Greatest Sports Commissioner of All Time?

With David Stern’s some-what surprising, yet unsurprising news that he plans to retire February 1st of 2014 thoughts as to his overall legacy have been pondered. Stern has been NBA’s commander and chief since 1984, in NBA years 26 years is a very long, long time one in which the game has evolved drastically. Stern has been with Basketball through the Magic Johnson years, the Michael Jordan years, the Shaq and Kobe era and today during the age of Lebron. The day-night difference that Stern has seen and helped usher in for the sport has me fixed to believe that Stern will go down at the greatest sports commissioner of all-time.

He’s been called many names, most of which aren’t nice–‘slave master’ ‘greedy Jew’ ‘money hungry’ the list of verbal assaults on Stern goes on. And let’s make no bones about it, Stern has been a controversial figure throughout his tenure, but it’s because of his keen ability to view Basketball in 3 dimensional terms and not relegate its impact to just entertainment, that speaks volumes as to why he was so successful. Stern can leave the NBA laughing all the way to the bank, and then some. It’s time we take a journey back in time to an NBA that was very different from the one of today, a pre-David Stern NBA…let’s go.

From 1975 to 1979 CBS was entered into a deal with the NBA valued at $91 million, during that time the NBA finals were ran on tape delay during the afternoons. The late 1970’s and early 1980’s featured an NBA struggling to get even decent ratings, as the league set the ‘gold’ standard in failure and proved to be a sinking ship. Even golf was beating the NBA Finals in ratings, and through the fledgling years up to Stern’s grip on the League the NBA was considered a joke, with no value and nothing that set it apart to deviate one’s attention from the powerhouse that is the NFL and MLB.

Flash forward to Stern’s vision of a progressive sports league, one that would be formulated in a matter that was tailor-made for the sport of basketball. One that would hone in on each player’s intrinsic values and exploit them to draw in fans. Stern succeeded Larry O’Brien in February of 1984, after having already been an employee for the NBA as General Counsel and later as Executive Vice President since 1978. Stern not only had the benefit of being a savvy business man, but also being at the right place at the right time and having the wherewithal to realize he entered his role at the exact right time.

Stern took over the NBA during the growing Magic vs Larry Bird rivalry which was proving to be very adventitious for the league, and also that was the same year Michael Jordan entered the league. Stern is the one who saw the the Nike deal MJ had garnered and figured this is something that the league should run with–after all, who doesn’t wear sneakers? It’s simple practicality that became Stern’s M.O. Basketball is a sport where the player’s are 100% visible–no helmet, no pads and no large rosters where players get muddled under one another. No, it’s very easy for the average fan to see who the best player on the team is, and thus Stern milked that concept and transformed the NBA into a star driven league, one where fans could emulate their favorite players by way of jerseys, posters, commercials…all equaling dollars for the league.

Stern took the NBA to heights unforeseen by any other North American sport, the NFL for all its ratings and popularity domestically never could catch on globally. Stern is the one who campaigned to get NBA players on board for the Olympics, where we’d be showcasing the best and brightest that the sports has to offer to the world. And in turn, the global impact of the game has soared and the NBA no longer became situated to American shores, it branched out.

For every negative thing NBA players have to say about David Stern,they should really be thinking twice. Because, if it wasn’t for him there’s no way that had the NBA stayed in the doldrums that it was mired in during the 70’s, that they’d be making the salaries that they do now. The revenue explosion in the NBA saw a surge in salary where the average player now makes in excess of $5 million dollars. Stern’s economic savvy was what ushered in a salary cap in the league, which kept teams more competitive and gave way to 7 new franchises to broaden the game’s impact.

So for all the good that Stern has done why does he still get a bad wrap from devoted fans and players alike? The answer is simple–Stern works for the owners not for the players. Too many times, people fail to grasp what the job of a sports commissioner is. A sports commissioner is an employee of the team owners–you know, teams are what makes up the sport itself. The only thing that separates a bad or niche commissioner from a great one is one who works SOLELY for the owners almost in a robotic manner to the point that he loses sight of the game’s integrity *cough* Bud Selig *cough* and great ones who work for the owners but never lose sight of the greater goal in question and strive to put out good quality throughout, like in the case of Stern.

For all of David Stern’s shortcomings, and his tough-guy facade you can’t ever say that he jeopardized the game’s integrity by settling for sub-par quality to amp up prices. The NBA unlike the MLB and NFL never put out ‘scab’ players to replace the starters all in an effort to have their cake and eat it too, while fans pay the price. Stern has always been show me the money or ‘I’ll show you the door’,  so through tough negotiations the league will shut down and stay down until arbitration is met. And even in the midst of the despicable lockout of 2011, no one could’ve executed a better finish. The 2011-2012 season looked dead as a door nail, but in the 11th hour a deal was reached which had the NBA tip off on Christmas–another brilliant implementation executed by Stern as a counter to NFL’s Thanksgiving game.

Stern will turn things over to his right hand man Adam Silver in the winter of 2014. And with Stern’s stepping down comes the end of an era, Stern is truly the last ‘maverick’ sports commissioner, one who had a vision for the league and saw it to fruition. The sports commissioners of today (with the slight exception of Gary Bettman of NHL) be it Roger Goodell or Bud Selig view their only job to be to keep general status quo in the sport and to please the owners first and foremost. We are truly losing a man with revolutionary ideas, it’s not to far-fetched to view Stern as the sort-of ‘Steve Jobs’ for the game of basketball. Everything from getting NBAtv created, to mega deals with ABC and Turner Broadcasting to the internationalizing of the game that can all be padded to his overall legacy.