David Stern Retirement: The Commissioner’s Handoff To A(dam) Silver Era

There is little clarity of separation among the contending National Basketball Association teams, as the 2012-2013 season has begun. The NBA has experienced unexpected wins and unpredicted losses in the early days of the season. In the short term health of the league, wins and losses will balance out as the season progresses and the better teams will begin to enforce their will. This is a normal reality for a NBA season. What will not be normal is an NBA without its current commissioner and   leader, David Joel Stern.

Commissioner Stern’s recent retirement announcement was timely. On February 1, 2014 David Stern will hand off the position of commissioner to his twenty-year colleague Adam Silver. He could have waited to make the announcement but choose to let it be known that he will be officially stepping down after thirty years at the helm of the National Basketball Association.

David Stern has had a unique vantage view of the NBA at various positions since 1966. Stern’s first job was that of Outside Counsel where he was able to view into the NBA from the outside. Stern was then appointed General Counsel for the NBA where his view changed. Later, Stern would have an up- close and personal view of the Association as Executive Vice President. Eventually, David Stern became the Commissioner, succeeding Larry O’Brien as he moved up the NBA’s hierarchy ladder to the top view of the NBA.    

Exceptional career opportunities can be a great training ground for someone who has ambition, vision and possible solutions to the various problems that exist within a company’s infrastructure. David Stern was that someone. How often does an outsider work with a company or organization as a supplier of sort and then is hired to an internal position as General Counsel; where all of the company’s problems and issues come across his desk?

Through the mid-1960s and the 1970s and into the 1980s, from the outside in and the inside out, David Stern saw many of the problems, issues and concerns that were plaguing the NBA’s business, financial structure and image.

One of Stern’s goals as Executive Vice President of the NBA was to improve the financial structure of the league.  Stern did enhance the NBA’s financial structure when his idea and eventual development of a league salary cap was initiated, approved and implemented. The NBA salary cap generated a revenue sharing system between the NBA’s owners and its players that in essence made them partners.

In addition to the NBA’s financial status, there was a need to stem the tide in the media and among fans who had a negative image of the NBA, believing that all NBA players used drugs which negatively impacted the marketing and advertising of its teams, its players and the overall NBA brand.

When David Stern proposed a new drug testing policy during his term as Executive VP he knew he needed to change the public’s perception of drug use in the NBA. The issue was taken seriously by the NBA and a drug testing program was instituted.   

David Stern, from his various management vantage points saw these issues and others that were holding the NBA back from its optimum potential. As Executive Vice President he had taken the NBA to unprecedented territory and the organization knew that they had the leader they needed when the then commissioner Larry O’Brien stepped down.

On February 1st 1984, the NBA named David Joel Stern as their commissioner and new leader. The NBA and Stern’s timing as commissioner could not have been better. Immediately, upon Stern’s arrival as the top man in the NBA, the league was in a growth pattern.

The uncanny skills and play of Ervin “Magic” Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and the unstoppable Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics generated a new and exciting brand of basketball in the Association.

The 1984-85 season saw four players who began their tenure in the NBA. Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton who would become superstars and play pivotal roles in helping the NBA regain and create new levels of popularity with unlimited possibilities.

The NBA’s table was set for the new Commissioner, Stern, and all he had to do was lead the way. The financial infrastructure was in place and growing. The number of teams expanded. Superstar talent was in the league, and then there was Michael Jordan. Jordan’s promotional relationship and eventual partnership with Nike helped heighten interest in the NBA as well as in Nike.

Stern believed early on in the promotion of the NBA’s superstars. When corporations began utilizing these stars to promote their products on television etc . . . , the NBA benefitted. Under Stern the NBA was developing and nurturing its superstars, increasing television game exposure, new team(s) expansion, and the Boston Celtics /Los Angeles Lakers rivalry, assured that the NBA was headed for a bright future under David Stern’s leadership.   

Even with early success as commissioner, Stern was determined to do more, and he accepted the good flow of prosperity while keeping his fingerprint on the fabric of the NBA.

Stern has had some well documented controversies during his tenure. He has done such a great job as commissioner that as the near end of his departure approaches, NBA teams are on the way to costing a billion dollars as a franchise. 

One of the items that was exposed from this last Collective Bargaining Agreement battle and lockout of players is that despite all that David Stern had done it was not enough to empower him with the new owners  who had spent four hundred million or more for their franchises.

Stern’s influence that he previously had with the old owners was not visible with the new owners, whose reason and perspective for owning a franchise at the current valuation appear different. It was hard to get the new owners to follow his advice for the good the NBA, as he had done with NBA owners who purchased franchises in previous decades.

In light of great assets and despite any liabilities, David Stern will leave the NBA brand, with the NBA positioned to be not only a global brand but a physical entity in countries all over the world. As jet travel time to destinations continues to decrease, the feasibility of NBA franchises all over the world is a vision David Stern can see, but he knows he is not the one to lead the NBA to its new destination. David Stern has taken the NBA to the center position of the world courts.