Stern will be remembered as a relentless, uncompromising leader during his 30-year tenure, a lawyer whose marketing instincts helped the NBA ride Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan — and later Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James — to new heights of global popularity. At every stop, there were confrontations.
In the early days, Stern’s NBA grasped for relevance, television airtime and a seat at the table next to pro football and baseball. As Johnson and Bird emerged as household names and the faces of dueling dynasties, the league pushed for more endorsement opportunities, greater media visibility and better behind-the-scenes access. As Jordan became an international phenomenon, Stern charged on, taking the game directly to Chinese consumers and dreaming of international expansion. He settled on placing two franchises in Canada in the 1990s but kept hinting for decades afterward that the league would eventually conquer Europe. With the advent of social media, a league that couldn’t get its Finals on live television in the pre-Stern era began to eclipse its fellow pro leagues in follower counts and influence.
The NBA’s explosive growth since Stern took over in 1984 is a tidy narrative: The Portland Trail Blazers, as just one example, were sold for $70 million in 1988 and are now valued at $1.6 billion. Yet talk of Stern’s legacy must include the bumps and bruises, the pugnacious spirit that led critics to label him as a “bully” and a “dictator.”
Stern fought and fought and fought, delivering wrath with piercing media comments and expensive sanctions. Fame was no inoculant. He fined Jordan for wearing shoes that violated the league’s dress code. He fined legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for daring to rest his players for a nationally televised game. He fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban at least 20 times, including six-figure punishments for blogging about officials and sitting on the baseline during a game.
Remember, these targets were the NBA’s crème de la crème. Jordan: the most popular and marketable modern player, a six-time champion whose banned shoes turned into a billion-dollar business. Popovich: perhaps the most respected modern coach, a five-time champion whose organization has pioneered everything from international scouting to efficient shot distribution. And Cuban: a tech billionaire whose over-the-top investments in his organization led to the 2011 title and helped raise the bar for modern owners.
If Stern didn’t mind conflicts with valued partners, he had no problem whatsoever eviscerating foes. Stern labeled Tim Donaghy, the disgraced referee, a “rogue, isolated criminal.” When Gilbert Arenas brought a gun to the locker room, Stern banned him for the season and said bluntly that the Washington Wizards guard “is not currently fit to take the court.” Even after stepping down as commissioner in 2014, Stern accused President Trump of “[ripping] the fabric of the republic asunder for narrow partisan gains” in 2018.
The NBA’s labor wars represented Stern at his most polarizing. In 1999, the NBA lost 32 games to a lockout. In 2011, 16 games were lost. As Stern insisted on drastically reworking the league’s financial framework in favor of the owners, he accused player agents of being “greedy” and “trying to scuttle the deal.” During one heated negotiating session, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade reportedly told Stern: “You’re not pointing your finger at me. I’m not your child.”
That lockout led HBO’s Bryant Gumbel to call Stern a “plantation overseer,” a nod to the obvious divide between the NBA’s largely white owners and largely black players. Many of Stern’s noteworthy policies on the league’s players — from the dress code to the age limit on prospects entering the draft to airbrushing tattoos from magazine covers — already seem to be relics of a past era. Stern, perhaps, is fortunate that his tenure predated cancel culture.
Yet the opposite is true, too: Some of Stern’s passion projects proved to be ahead of their time. The commissioner famously supported Johnson when he announced he was HIV positive in 1991, and the Los Angeles Lakers star credited Stern as a “good friend who helped save my life.” Stern fined Bryant $100,000 for using a homophobic slur during a 2011 game, then repeatedly provided public encouragement to Jason Collins, who became the first openly gay active NBA player in 2013.
While there were squabbles on a thousand fronts over the years, Stern’s focus remained on growing and selling the game. His final act as commissioner — one he professed to take seriously — was to groom an able successor in Adam Silver, inevitably cast as the good cop to Stern’s bad cop. In the years since their transition, the salary cap has risen significantly and the league has signed a lucrative media rights deal. Silver faces challenges — from China to the NCAA to a changing television landscape — but he was undoubtedly set up for success.
Stern pushed, prodded, punished, insulted, chafed and charmed those who crossed or challenged him. He believed in the fight, and the fight was the point.