I feel it's appropriate to comment on the announcement from the NBA that David Stern will retire as commissioner of the NBA in February 2014, 30 years after taking the job. In that time, the NBA has moved near the top of the pro sports heap in terms of popularity. Young athletes from around the world are keen to play basketball and hope to play in the NBA. That was not the case when Mr. Stern took the reins in 1984.
The league that Stern inherited didn't have the same stature as MLB or the NFL. In fact, at one time, NBA playoff games were shown on TV via tape delay. But Stern had a vision that proved to be right on with regard to marketing NBA basketball. He was helped, of course, by the emergence of stars like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. The combination of Stern’s business instincts and the willingness of the various media entities to give hoops a shot led to a dramatic increase in the popularity of the game. That popularity has also increased revenue many times over, in part through increased TV ratings and multibillion-dollar TV deals.
In the 1970s, at the height of my career, I heard talk that the league was "too black" and lacked the appeal of other professional sports. Today, the NBA is seen as a prime entertainment option for fans and a premier showcase for athletes, and the bottom line of the sport reflects that strong position. Stern's tenure has seen seven franchises added to the league roster, and now there is talk of the league expanding to Europe or Asia next. Revenues have grown to $5 billion annually, and the league has offices in cities all over the world.
For me, personally, this was a fascinating transformation to watch. I can remember attending an exhibition game in Paris in the early 1990s. I didn't expect to see what greeted me at the arena. The game was sold out, and it was televised live to an enthusiastic audience. More interesting for me was what I saw on the streets of Paris. In many public parks, there were basketball courts and young men playing the game dressed like their counterparts in America's inner cities. As time went on, I would see the same scene in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires. More recently I have had the opportunity to observe people in Europe waking up at 3 a.m. to watch a live broadcast of an NBA playoff game. More often than not, many of them are watching a local athlete. A good proportion of NBA teams have players from outside the U.S., and their participation in the NBA has helped grow the popularity of the sport in their home countries.
I think I agree with the general consensus that having NBA players participate in the 1992 Olympics fanned the flames of worldwide interest. When Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the other members of that Dream Team showed the world how exciting and competitive the top level of the game was, something changed. More and more players from outside the U.S. chose basketball as their favorite sport, and the results have been spectacular. Pau Gasol was among those motivated to play basketball by what he saw at the '92 Olympics. The international game, which had grown to the point of eclipsing U.S. college players, might have taken longer to reach the current level had Stern not backed the participation of NBA players in the Olympics.
Adam Silver will be next in line to sit in the commissioner's chair. He is Stern's personal choice and enjoys the support of the board of governors. He has been with the league since 1992 and has served a number of roles since joining the league. The fact that Silver has been involved in negotiating the most recent TV deals is an indication of how well prepared he is to take over the commissioner's position. Labor issues will not be looming over this transition, either. The resolution of last year's lockout made it possible for a long-term spell of peace on the labor front.
As a retired player, I want to wish Commissioner Stern all the best as he moves on. The fact that the league is so healthy financially means a lot to us retired hoopsters. Our pensions are secure, and the future of the game we love looks bright.