|David Stern with the Rookies of 2012|
David Stern served the NBA at the very highest level over nearly 30 years as Commissioner and some 48 years of association with league. His ability to impact the NBA had never been contemplated before in the realm of professional sports. Without a doubt, he will retire as the greatest commissioner in league history and, I believe, the best leader and commissioner in the history of any sport at any level on any continent. Simply put, Stern is a visionary. He fully recognized the potential and future growth of cable TV, long before any other executive - sans Ted Turner - even thought about it. Stern had the foresight to see where the rights fees for the league would increase under deals cultivated over decades with Turner and ESPN. He also had the vision to bring the NBA to a global audience through live NBA events and via every communications medium and that paid off in spades after '92 when the game impacted a truly global talent pool of players.
Stern saw labor relations as an opportunity to mold the league and partner with the players to share in the future prosperity of businesses revolving around the game. All the while, Stern had the vision and the collective bargaining acumen to make the league as attractive in Charlotte, Portland, San Antonio and Utah as it was in LA, Boston, New York or Chicago. As the league became more and more competitive, the labor deal was tweaked to take the NBA to an even better place for incoming rookies and proven veteran players who wanted to sign them in true free agency.
Labor - check.
International growth - check.
Player programs - check
Building assets, protecting intellectual property, researching and acting on all forms of new technology, nurturing and developing the women's game, then even further development of the NBA talent pool - check, check and check.
From there, the canvas was only half completed, as Stern focused mightily on player relations, player programs, grassroots programs, community relations initiatives that attacked the issues everyone else was afraid to even speak of. A league , supposedly, "too" black and "too" driven by players who were experimenting with illegal substances (a.k.a. the "recreational" drugs such as cocaine and marijuana became the league with the first anti-drug program and real player development program. The HIV/AIDS epidemic? Earvin "Magic" Johnson had the confidence to walk up to a podium in 1991 and Stern was at his side right up to this very day when he supports the "right" things and helps provide a lofty pulpit to fight the HIV virus, or the SARS epidemic; the trials of education and high school drop-out rates; and a whole slew of community relations programs, many put together to counter a natural disaster (Katrina; Earthquake in Haiti; or whatever the cause of the day might've been). It was truly amazing to see him, willing to turn an entire organization on a dime and lead a league right into a controversial issue that no sports league would even touch.
Community Relations - check.
The NBA's darkest days were when Stern stood up and faced the music and the critics, with that criticism sometimes coming from the very teams he was leading towards financial stability, prosperity and, ultimately, solid ground. Tough decisions, like terminating the player contract for Michael Ray Richardson might've actually saved the man's life. Whether it was an amped up drug scandal in Phoenix, a 'third strike and you're out' anti-drug suspension of John Lucas or - the unfathomable, the Tim Donaghy criminal activity of a ref, Stern stood up and guided the league through rough waters. He even reversed courses at a 180-degree turn, when necessary such as when the rules and three-point line took steps in equally opposite directions or, god forbid, when the NBA experimented with a brand new synthetic basketball that just didn't cut it on the court as it cut the finger tips of every point guard in the league.
Confronting crisis - check
Willingness to correct course and say, "we screwed up." - check.
David Stern demands the very best from those who report to him and he expects the highest levels of performance wrought by hard work, long hours and attention to detail. All the while, he wanted the NBA to have the touch of a family affair where those who sought the coolness, the hipness of the game were welcomed with open arms. Stern didn't have to say it, because he lived it and he did it - everyday.
David's total dedication to the NBA and his job, his willingness to face the music and confront the unfathomable challenges or news; that was when he served the league at his best and he did it every time - he shot .999%. Now, David isn't perfect, and God knows, he could light you up in a manner second to none, but, put simply, the guy is damn good. He demands the very best and he gave his very best each and every day. I still can't figure out where he got the energy while we were all touring the world and spreading the NBA basketball gospel. We'd be dead tired, but he would lead the charge! You just couldn't out-work David.
I wish Commissioner David Stern a very enjoyable and productive transition time to fully pass the torch to Adam Silver. Adam will do very, very well. David will demand it of him.