Stern, David

views updated

STERN, David

(b. 22 September 1942 in New York City), commissioner of the National Basketball Association (NBA) who presided over tremendous growth and financial success of the league during the 1980s and 1990s.

Stern was the son of William Stern and Anna Bronstein Stern. He spent his early years growing up in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, where his father owned a delicatessen. Chelsea was not far from Madison Square Garden, where Stern went to basketball games and developed an intense love for the game at a young age. In 1956 the family moved to northern New Jersey, where Stern attended Teaneck High School, graduating in 1959.

Stern entered Rutgers University later that year and earned a B.S. in history in 1963. On 27 November 1963 he married Dianne Bock; they had two children. After Rutgers, Stern went on to Columbia Law School, from which he received an LL.B. in 1966. After graduating from law school, Stern went to work for the law firm Proskauer, Rose, Goetz, and Mendelsohn in New York City, where he served as outside counsel to the National Basketball Association (NBA) beginning in 1968. In 1974, at age thirty-two, he became the firm's youngest partner ever. Stern worked on legal issues related to professional basketball for years. In 1978 he was offered the position of general counsel to the NBA and joined the league as a full-time employee. In 1980 he was elevated to the position of executive vice president.

During his long apprenticeship before being named commissioner, Stern was involved in virtually every business matter that shaped the NBA. Included in these activities was the landmark 1976 settlement between the league and its players leading to free agency. Stern also maintained a position of leadership when the NBA established a collective bargaining agreement, a salary cap, team revenue sharing, and professional sports' first antidrug agreement. While these alterations fortified the NFL's policies, they did not provide a solid economic foundation for the league. Professional basketball had not penetrated the American sporting public's psyche in the same way as football and baseball contests. The last games of the 1979 and 1980 NBA Finals were not even broadcast live on television. In the early 1980s the NBA was characterized as a league in near chaos, riddled by runaway salaries and widespread drug abuse. Critics cited quarrelsome owners and poor leadership. Television ratings, attendance, and corporate sponsorship were all in decline, and several franchises were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Stern was elected unanimously to succeed Larry O'Brien as the NBA's fourth commissioner on 1 February 1984. Over a sixteen-year period after Stern's ascendancy, the NBA grew from twenty-three to twenty-nine teams, enjoyed a fivefold increase in revenues, expanded television exposure dramatically, and launched the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). Marketing success led to the televising of NBA games in 205 countries and the opening of offices in eight cities outside North America by the year 2000. Beginning in 1984 Stern marketed the league as an entertainment company, and turned his focus to the fan base by incorporating special events subsidized by American corporations. These events, including slam dunk contests, three-point shooting contests, rookies on display in competitive games, festivals for kids, and all-star games played by teams that the fans selected, were lucrative for being both attended and televised. (A similar pattern also began to develop in the WNBA, where professional women players participated in the same type of festival atmosphere.) Stern also began employing the greatest athletes in the world. Aided by increasing revenues and the presence of popular players like Larry Bird, Earvin ("Magic") Johnson, and Michael Jordan, the NBA began to prosper. In a few short years the NBA was considered the most stable and successful sports league in the world, a model for successful merchandising. In 1990 Stern was named the best commissioner in organized sports by Sport magazine and recognized as the Sports Executive of the Decade by the Associated Press.

Stern did not suffer significant public criticism until 1998 and 1999, when a labor struggle resulted in a 191-day lockout, canceling hundreds of games. While Stern insisted that the strike was a necessary correction to the system, a bevy of disillusioned fans and critics argued that the conflict was incited by greedy owners seeking to incorporate an adjusted salary cap and tighter rookie restrictions. As the league spokesman, Stern insisted that such new measures would guarantee team continuity. Players charged that they would lose bargaining power and would be forced to accept policies leading to the disintegration of free agency. Both sides in the conflict appeared greedy to a public not interested in hearing about the labor relations of rich athletes and managers. In 1998 the average player's salary was $2.5 million, and David Stern made $7 million a year.

Remarkably candid about league issues, Stern used this environment of struggle to suggest that NBA supporters needed to consider new philosophies. Speaking of personal creativity and the modern athlete, Stern said that professional basketball was an institution undergoing slow change. He cited the way that U.S. corporations treated employees in the 1940s and 1950s, when policy, procedure, and consistency were most valued, and argued that NBA teams in the 1990s were like jazz ensembles, needing freedom for personal creativity in order to sustain a pleasant environment for both players and management. When the lockout ended, Stern focused on new digital technologies to fuel the league's international marketing juggernaut. NBA Properties, the institution's marketing arm, joined NBA Entertainment, a television and multimedia production company, and TV, a twenty-four-hour digital network. By 2000 NBA websites received one-third of their traffic from users outside the United States. Stern advocated merging league websites, radio, television, satellite packages, and global programming into a coherent message stream.

Stern has a legacy of commitment to public service. He has contributed time and energy to the NBA's TeamUp program, which promotes community service and volunteerism. In the summers of 1993 and 1994, Stern led a group of NBA players and coaches that toured Africa to benefit the international relief agency CARE and to conduct coaching and children's clinics. He has also served on the boards of Columbia University, Beth Israel Medical Center, the Rutgers University Foundation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Federal Holiday Commission, the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund, and the Museum of Television and Radio and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

By the end of the twentieth century Stern was one of the most influential figures in sports. No other commissioner in professional sports appeared to have as much control over his organization as Stern. Instead of placing flamboyant owners or associates at the forefront, Stern acted as the spokesman for the NBA. Comfortable in both the boardroom and the arena, Stern has defined the direction of professional basketball. In 2001, he continued as commissioner and showed no signs of retiring.

"David J. Stern," NBA Media Ventures (2000),, is a short, standard biography highlighting Stern's background, business history, and social causes. The information is limited to his career with the league. David Halberstam, Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made (1999), is perhaps the best source for information about Stern's early life and career. In "David Stern's Game Plan," Industry Standard (15 June 2001), Terry Lefton describes Stern's business philosophy.

R. Jake Sudderth