Behold the National Basketball Association. A mere decade ago, the league was lurching. The National Football League was an entrepeneurial firecracker; free agency had given major league baseball new life. If you listened to the wind, you might have heard pro basketball whistling nervously as it entered the 1980s.

Now on the threshold of the 1990s' first Finals, who would have imagined that one team would turn a profit of more than $12 million, as the Boston Celtics did last year? Or that the league not only would be totally national but moving full speed toward a global presence? Or, most significantly, that an obscure lawyer underestimated even by his college peers would be the force behind the turnaround?

Washington lawyer Ed Norton said of his friend, NBA Commissioner David Stern: "We met as freshmen at Columbia Law School in 1963. Aside from his being a good guy, nobody was prepared for him to do as well the first semester as he did. David tells the story -- and I even think it's true -- about some guy coming up to him and saying: 'Hey, I didn't realize you were smart.' "

Six years into being commissioner, Stern also has been tried and convicted of being smart, in the bright sense, by everybody even remotely connected with sport. His league has moved from nearly broke to ritzy solvency, from being perceived as drug-infested to a staple for soft-drink ads.

It's cause for celebration that only a few of the 27 NBA teams, among them the Washington Bullets, will lose money this year. No one may be able to avoid profits once the four-year, $875 million television contracts kick in.

Stern's leadership has the NBA as a rising influence in every continent around the globe and as comfortable a companion in the United States, through television commercials, as football and baseball. Even being stern, as he was this season with stiff fines to Charles Barkley and the Los Angeles Lakers, the commissioner shows how far pro basketball has advanced -- and in what direction it is headed.

The $50,000-plus that about 30 seconds of temper against the Pistons cost the 76ers' Barkley is 10 times what Red Auerbach earned his entire first season in the NBA. Coincidentally, and appropriately, Auerbach and the NBA made their pro debut in the same year, 1946.

Auerbach's choice after being mustered out of the Navy: the $2,900 being offered to coach the District's Theodore Roosevelt High or the $5,000 being dangled to guide the new Washington Capitols. The high school job was by far the more secure.

The $25,000 fine levied against the Lakers for not using Magic Johnson and James Worthy in the final regular season game was Stern once more emphasizing that he sees the NBA as entertainment as much as sport. Allowing players maximum rest before the playoffs may be laudable, Stern reasoned, but delivering the understudy after advertising Olivier ain't fair.

Stern is one of the few executives who openly calls professional sport what it actually is: a long-running show, except to the dwindling number of zealots who cling to it as a quasi-religion.

"I know Michael Jackson gets paid a fortune to do endorsements," he is fond of saying, "but the people who use him have the wrong Michael." To those, angered by staggering salaries, who say his stars ought to play because they love basketball, the commissioner snaps: "Bet you Billy Joel likes to sing."

Much as Stern likes to commish, his recently done five-year contract is worth $10 million in bonuses and an annual wage of $3.5 million. Joked Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry: "Maybe we need a salary cap for commissioners."

Pragmatism and Progress

So Stern is smart. The next reaction from someone unfamiliar with his background might be: "Hey, I didn't realize you were important."

Even before becoming its first general counsel, in September 1978, Stern was much of the substance behind the NBA's glitter. In minor and major ways, he has affected policy involving the merger with the American Basketball Association and cooperation with players. In collective bargaining and drugs, the NBA always has seemed a couple of steps ahead of the other pro sports.

How come?

Stern begins his answer with a paradox: "I think we were lucky, in that times were so bad. That enabled us to have to confront our issues with the players in the face of some difficult times. There are times when circumstances bring people together, because they realize they confront a broader foe. Which in our case was a combination that ran the gamut from indifference of the public to public hostility. Combined with lousy financial situations.

"We really had to confront, if not our continuing existence, certainly the mode of that existence. And that brings you together: 'Okay, guys. We may lose some teams; we may lose some jobs. We're being perceived as a bunch of silly owners, a poorly administered league, a minority sport in a white country, involved with drugs, playing a game that people don't appreciate in arenas that are sparsely attended and declining television ratings.'

"That can be kind of sobering."

Also sobering to the owners was the resolve of the late Larry Fleischer, head of the NBA Players Association.

"He outsmarted the NBA for years," management man Auerbach concedes. "Why? It was like playing poker. He'd bluff 'em. He knew the law {and used it, either through the threat of lawsuits or the pivotal Oscar Robertson antitrust litigation in the mid-'70s}. The owners were afraid of losing dates, so they'd capitulate. Whatever you'd give him, he'd sit there and sit there and sit there. Then he'd come up with something more."

"What this sport needed," Stern said, "was a harsh degree of pragmatism that could adjust to circumstances. Larry was a pragmatist and a good businessman, rather than an ideologue. Even though his statements would be chiseled in stone, you knew at the right time there would be the crack, the flexibility that would enable a deal to emerge.

"When the time came to make a deal, even when sometimes he didn't like the deal exactly, because nobody liked the deal, he wasn't going to allow certain notions to kill the deal if on balance it was in the best interest of his players."

Among the deals that emerged were an enlightened drug policy and a collective bargaining agreement that assures the players of 53 percent of the NBA's gross revenues. Salaries from the early 1970s have shot beyond belief, as if kicked ahead by retrorockets every few years, with no tug at all from financial gravity.

"The lifestyle now is completely different," said Ferry, who has been involved with the NBA at various levels for parts of five decades. "When I played {for 10 years, starting in 1959} basketball was a means to an end. Today, for many players, it is the end. It's the end of them ever having to worry about making a living."

One of those players is Ferry's son, Danny, whose estimated salary of $2.5 million to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers will give him more in a week than Bob earned in his best season.

"When I played," Bob Ferry said, "everything you did in basketball was related to trying to figure how it could carry over to some job after you quit playing. I always had offseason jobs. Worked in the brewery at Budweiser. Sold magazines. And took every public appearance I could, with the hope that I'd run into somebody who might want to hire me someday. You were scratching around, trying to find something you were good at."

The NBA is working at the life-after-basketball matter that Bob Ferry sees as more serious now than ever. Nobody needs a second career financially, so few work at finding one.

"There are only so many color jobs {in broadcasting}," Ferry said. "There are only so many assistant coaching jobs. And if you haven't been exposed to the real world, well, you just can't stay home every day and sit around. I learned a lot selling pencils . . . . I learned enough that I didn't want to do it the rest of my life."

Those two-comma salaries for players would not have happened if owners also were not being rewarded as old-timers in pro basketball never imagined. Abe Pollin pays one player, Bernard King, in one season almost exactly what the entire Bullets cost him and two partners nearly 26 years ago. At the time, $1.1 million was not a King's salary but a king's ransom, a record price for a franchise.

"I was chairman of the expansion committee for years," Pollin said. "I brought teams in, I think, for two or three million dollars. I was almost begging. It was $32.5 million for each of our latest expansion franchises. And I think the value of those franchises has doubled."

Comes the Evolution

In the summer of 1965, between his second and third years of law school, Ed Norton and the young woman who would become Eleanor Holmes Norton ducked into a New York deli for soda and sandwiches. To their surprise, emptying out a crate of oranges was the boss's son, David Stern.

Not entirely because of Stern, pro basketball has evolved from being a collection of mom and pop operations. Always, its paychecks were a bit heavier than those in other industries, but not by so much as now.

The legendary Joe Lapchick began getting paid to play basketball at age 15. Four years later, in 1919, he was playing in four leagues with four different teams.

"I was getting $3 per day on my job {as a machinist} and $10 per game for playing basketball," he was quoted in The Pro Basketball Encyclopedia. "I could afford to take a day off now and then. . . . My earnings increased by leaps and bounds. I played one manager against the other and sometimes got as much as $75 a game. The standard rate was a dollar a minute. . . . When there was a clash of dates, I took the best offer. There was no income tax at that time -- and I lived it up."

To a great extent, the pros even today live off the colleges. The NBA benefits from the publicity luminaries such as Magic Johnson bring -- and the free farm system the colleges provide.

Lately, however, the colleges have come to realize that the NBA had it right all along with a couple of rules: a shot clock and three-point line. Very likely, they will move closer to the NBA's rule of making every free throw a two-shotter. Imposing that in the last several minutes would be a fair way to keep games from dragging.

Still, if the popularity of college basketball is what led to stable and structured pro basketball, the model was, of all things, hockey. What evolved into the NBA was a meeting in 1947, on the second anniversary of D-Day, of 11 men who either operated or were prime hockey tenants of large arenas.

The first great team in this new venture was Auerbach's Washington Capitols, whose 49 victories (against 11 losses) were 10 more than anyone else won during the regular season.

"Everybody had a misconception of how to organize a team," Auerbach said. "New York would get all New York players; Pittsburgh would get all Pittsburgh players. Toronto {this was a league founded by hockey folks, remember} would get all New York players.

"I didn't believe that. I saw these guys {he would sign and mold} in the Navy. I got a heterogeneous group. It didn't matter to me where you came from, if you could play."

A never-ending pattern was established that first season that made sense for the owners, because it helped pay the bills, but continues to confound basketball purists: The playoffs overshadowed the regular season. And the Caps, the team 14 games superior to any rival in its division, got bounced in the first round.

"The first 14 calls went against us," Auerbach said in his Washington office not long ago, "so I could see the handwriting on the wall. I was a punk kid competing against the powers in the game."

Playing it safe, as he had structuring the Caps, Auerbach later not only developed nonpareil teams in Boston but also became one of the powers in the game. As a young Washington lawyer, Phil Hochberg once represented Philadelphia at an NBA meeting, with instructions that amounted to: "Vote the way Red does."

With the exception of Toronto that inaugural season, the NBA until the mid-'60s mostly was confined to the United States' Northeast and the northern Midwest. The 17 teams in its 28th season, 1974-75, were only six more than in its first.

When Pollin was becoming active in the NBA, Stern and Norton were moving toward law degrees and playing a fierce brand of basketball in casual games. Stern laughs about evolving from power forward to point guard, meaning he reached 5 feet 10 at age 13 and stayed there.

"What I remember about him," Norton said, "is he was as good as you can be without any physical talent. He understood the game; he knew where to go. But he couldn't run and he couldn't jump."

Norton also sensed Stern could be point guard for something more significant off the court.

"During his years at Proskauer {a New York law firm that represents the NBA}," said Norton, "his major outside activity was providing legal support and guidance to the Fair Housing Operation in Bergen County, New Jersey. So David's sense of racial justice is deep. Which is why I trust him on anything he does in the league on those issues."

The issue of special concern at the moment to Pollin and a couple of other money-losing owners is the number 53, the percentage of gross revenues the players receive each year. The number is for the league, not each team. Which means that the fixed amount of money Pollin must pay his players is well above 53 percent of what his team generates. The Lakers and some other teams with lucrative local television deals and sold-out arenas pay lots less than 53 percent of their gross.

"I might be spending 65, 70, 75 percent of our gross," Pollin said. "Some might be at 30 or 35 percent. There is an imbalance that will be addressed by a special planning committee."

While urging owners such as Pollin to "earn more money and do a better job and be better received by their communities," Stern said the matter "is not insurmountable" and should be resolved by the beginning of the 1991-92 season.

By that time the NBA will be ever more global. Next season, the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz will open their seasons in Tokyo. But when Stern was asked how long it would be before, say, Madrid would be a member of the Eastern Conference, he turned more serious than expected and said:

"I'm not sure it ever will be. I don't know if it has to be. That's an American question. A better one might be: 'How soon before we have an entry in the club championship of the world?' The assumption {among Americans} always is that the NBA is going to plant its flag in every city {around the world} that is large enough to support a team.

"I think one thing basketball has going for it is that it's a sport that huge numbers of countries believe is indigenous to them. And so the Soviet Union has two gold medals {in the Olympics}; the People's Republic {of China} plays it third, behind Ping-Pong and soccer; there's an Italian League and a Spanish League. Australia was fourth in the last Olympics. South America is where the world championships originated.

"So by the year 2000 the NBA champion might be playing in a tournament that has the club champions of other countries."

Tomorrow the World

If the NBA is not eager to plant its franchise flag outside traditional boundaries, it wants to paste its logo everywhere possible throughout the global village. It does that through clinics, where pick-and-roll is explained simultaneously in a half-dozen languages, and through such gestures as allowing foreign players entree to the NBA and pursuing ways to make NBA players available for the international events.

Stern smiles and looks ahead to the 1992 Olympics. The American team could be dominated by NBA players; Yugoslavian starters might all have NBA experience; three West Germans play in the NBA, as does one native of the Netherlands. If the Soviet Union and Lithuania part, both could have Olympians with NBA training.

"That's taking advantage of the flow," Stern said. "We're not originating a thing," although Pollin's people are getting involved with arena development and management in Europe. "It's just happening. As the sport grows worldwide, televised games grow. Licensing. Marketing."

Dare we imagine Margaret Thatcher saying: "NBA Action! It's FAN-tastic!" We dare imagine the NBA offering her the chance.