NBA Commissioner David Stern, left, and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver… (Kathy Willens / Associated…)
If David Stern ruled the NBA with an iron fist, he cushioned the blows by transforming a league that couldn't get its championship final live on national TV in the early 1980s into a powerful marketing machine that made players and owners incredibly rich and turned its stars into international icons.
Stern announced Thursday he will step down as commissioner on Feb. 1, 2014, 30 years to the day after starting a job that seemed unattractive at best and impossible at worst. He will continue to delegate responsibility to his anointed successor, Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, the lead negotiator during the dispute that shortened the 2011-12 season but secured a decade of labor peace.
Silver will get a rubber stamp from the league's Board of Governors in April. Later, Stern will assist him as an advisor specializing in international matters, perhaps Stern's greatest legacy.
"If there was a Mt. Rushmore of sports commissioners he'd be front and center," said Scott Rosner, faculty associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania.
"While he certainly has had his share of detractors during his long reign over the NBA, there can be no doubt that David Stern is the individual most single-handedly responsible for the growth of the league during this time. A league that was struggling to stay afloat when he took command is a profitable, $4-billion global entity."
Stern, who turned 70 last month, was jovial and reflective during two conference calls Thursday. Asked if he had any regrets, he sang the line "Regrets, I've had a few," from Frank Sinatra's hit "My Way." Silver chimed in with the next line, "Too few to mention," a perfect follow-up.
"Life is a journey. It's been a spectacular journey," said Stern, who was hired as the league's outside counsel in 1966 and became its general counsel in 1978. "Each step along the way there are things you have to do, things maybe you wish you hadn't done, but I don't keep that list."
As noted by Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who handed his board chairmanship to San Antonio's Peter Holt on Thursday, the NBA's TV rights fees have increased 40-fold under Stern. The average player salary was $275,000 in the 1983-84 season. It now exceeds $5 million.
Stern instituted a salary cap and drug testing, and turned the U.S. Olympic team into the unofficial 31st franchise starting with the 1992 Dream Team. Franchise values have soared, as the NBA grew to 30 teams and branched into Canada with the Toronto Raptors.
Allowing the Vancouver Grizzlies to leave Canada for Memphis in 2001 goes in Stern's minus column. The league on Thursday approved the struggling Grizzlies' sale to a group headed by Californian Robert Pera and backed by an assortment of stars including Peyton Manning's wife, Ashley, and actor Justin Timberlake.
The SuperSonics' departure from Seattle in 2008 was bungled when Stern backed owner Clayton Bennett's attempt to get the city to finance a new arena and then let Bennett move the team to Oklahoma City.
The 2004 Pacers-Pistons "Malice at the Palace" brawl occurred under Stern's watch, but his punishments were severe.
Lakers fans would add to the negative side of the ledger Stern's conflict of interest in vetoing a three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers from the league-operated Charlotte Hornets.
On a larger scale, Stern had to deal with referee Tim Donaghy's involvement in a gambling scandal that sent Donaghy to prison and threatened the integrity of the league.
"I can tell you that this is the most serious situation and worst situation that I have ever experienced either as a fan of the NBA, a lawyer for the NBA or a commissioner of the NBA," Stern said in July 2007.
But his accomplishments will rightfully outweigh the criticism.
"I think the biggest thing he did right is the recognition of growing the game internationally, and I think a big part of that, which helps domestically, is placing an emphasis on the stars of the sport," said Patrick Rishe, a Forbes contributor and associate professor of economics at the Walker School of Business at Webster University in St. Louis.
"If fans become enamored with stars, then they get to know teams, and I think that was the mind-set in part that he used."
Rishe said he'd rank Stern second to Pete Rozelle in the pantheon of sports commissioners.
"No question he benefited from the great timing of being the commissioner when the Larry Birds, Magic Johnsons and Michael Jordans came onto the scene," Rishe said. "But you still have to have somebody steer the ship through rocky shoals, through rocky waters. I really believe over the course of time he's been able to do that."