When David Stern steps down in February 2014, he undoubtedly will want to be remembered as a businessman more than a sports executive.
Stern might have been the latter when he took over the job in 1984, but over the years as he guided the NBA from millions of dollars to billions of dollars in revenue, Stern quickly realized that the key to making the league successful was to understand the business world at large. Turning the league into a money-making machine could only be possible if he learned the state of all entertainment. He made it a point to read and talk to people outside the world of sports and, more impressively, he was respected by some of the world's top business leaders. He loved to go to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, each year to talk shop with the titans of industry and the richest people in the world.
The international game grew with Stern, who was never scared to get on a long plane ride or on a long-distance phone call to expand the league's reach. He was the first U.S. commissioner to become a worldwide celebrity of sorts.
So many fans have only seen Stern in times of controversy of late, whether it was being the scapegoat for the Sonics' move out of Seattle or when he used his ownership power to negate Chris Paul's trade to the Lakers.
But that's like evaluating a basketball player by looking at his jumpers and not his defense. You see, David Stern was a genius moving without the ball. Sure, Stern was able to help the league emerge from its horrible image problem and tape-delay Finals because he had the tools to work with -- namely Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.
But those who really understand what Stern has meant to the league understand that sponsors who have invested their millions in the league over time were investing just as much in Stern's leadership as they were in the league's players. Owners who bought teams, sometimes with a skeleton of a roster or a woeful losing tradition, also were buying into the value of "Stern Stock."
What most have not seen is how hard David Stern has been to work for. He expects perfection from his employees and has never been good at smooth talk when an insider hasn't had the league's best interest at heart. His most loyal lieutenants understand this comes from the incredible passion and sense of ownership he feels for what has become a thriving business.
David Stern defines the NBA more than any player who played in it. But it works both ways. It's why, at 70, he needs a year and a half to wind down.