By Evan Weiner
The former Commissioner of the National Basketball Association David Stern has passed away at the age of 77. Stern was the league’s boss from 1984 through Feb. 1, 2014. In many ways, he was the league. There will be many who will judge Stern’s body of work, but most people will not write or say that David Stern was both very smart and very, very lucky especially in the early days of this term.
David Stern replaced Larry O’Brien as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. Stern was an attorney who had been the NBA’s Executive Vice President.
Stern would direct a tremendous expansion in the marketing of the NBA; and develop a cohesive and profitable broadcasting strategy. He would move to try to ensure the stability of NBA franchises by increasing licensing revenues and developing corporate sponsorships.
When Stern assumed the job, the NBA had a salary cap and was drug testing players. Stern and the NBA would get a boost from the United States Olympics Basketball Team in the 1984 Los Angeles Games which was loaded with marketable talent led by Michael Jordan. Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin. Another high profile European player, Dražen Petrović, led Yugoslavia to a Bronze Medal.
Before the Olympics, Jordan was the third player taken in the draft behind Hakeem Olajuwon, who went to Houston, and Sam Bowie, who was selected by Portland. Jordan ended up in the nation’s number three market and perhaps its most rabid sports town. Chicago.
Stern was also about ready to get a major gift from Congress. The Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984. The 1984 Cable Act established policies in the areas of ownership, channel usage, franchise provisions and renewals, subscriber rates and privacy, obscenity and lockboxes, unauthorized reception of services, equal employment opportunity and pole attachments.
The law allowed cable operators to bundle what were financially faltering networks into a basic expanded tier which may have saved the cable industry as consumers were paying one flat price for numerous stations on basic expanded. The bundling of channels would lead to the formation of regional cable TV sports networks around the United States and strengthen ESPN, CNN (and other Turner properties) and other cable networks.
Regional sports cable channels would soon to able to pay more money for events than local over-the-air channels. The sports channels would have two sources of income, subscriber fees and advertising support.
Stern was able to get more and more money on the national level for NBA games on cable. The NBA got $12.5 million annually from Turner in its next contract in 1986. It was a two-year, $25 million contract. In 1988, the fees doubled in a two-year, $50 million agreement with Turner. In 1990, Stern got $275 million over a four-year period from Turner. The 1984 Cable TV Act was another one of the breaks Stern received.
In 1985, the NBA was struggling in its efforts to figure out cable TV and protect not only its national rights partners but local TV contracts as well. The league owners decided to limit teams that had deals with superstations to just 25 games per season.
In 1984, Jordan was a nice player who went to Chicago as the third player in that year’s draft. If ever a commissioner fell into the right set of circumstances to grow his league, it was Stern. Everything aligned.
With Jordan came Nike’s Phil Knight and the Spike Lee commercials with Jordan as the star.
Immediately, Michael Jordan had an impact on the Chicago Bulls. Jordan led the 1984-85 Bulls to an 11-game improvement over the previous season, which was a remarkable feat. The Bulls had only won 55 games in the two years before he arrived.
Jordan led the Bulls in points, rebounds, assists and steals. He was clearly the best rookie in the league and finished third in the league in scoring with a 28.2 points a game.
Jordan’s presence in Chicago Stadium that season almost doubled the Bulls attendance from an average of 6,365 per game in 1983-84 to 11,887. More importantly for the NBA, Jordan became the major cog of a massive marketing machine created by Nike that brought him into everybody’s living room.
Jordan, along with Larry Bird and Magic, became the catalyst responsible for building interest in the game internationally.
There was a salary cap, drug testing, three stars in the east, midwest and west coast and a new deal with CBS. More money was flowing into the game.
Bird’s Celtics took on Magic’s Lakers in the finals three times, in 1983, 1984 and 1987. The Lakers-Celtics rivalry of the 1980s put the NBA on the road to having “A-list celebrities” at courtside something that long time referee Darrell Garretson noticed.
“Jack (Nicholson) is quite funny because Jack will always tell you when I would say ‘Jack, I haven’t seen you’ and he told me about his last movie,” said Garretson, who had a reputation of not talking to players or coaches, but he would talk to Jack or Spike Lee. “Jack is great… I was there when he mooned the people in Boston. I think he is great because he doesn’t have any bodyguards. It amazes me when celebrities have bodyguards. Jack doesn’t have a bodyguard; Spike Lee doesn’t have a bodyguard. Arsenio Hall used to sit besides Magic (Johnson) and would say, ‘Magic, what is with the bodyguards? Who are you afraid of, you are 6-9, 245 pounds, what do you need a bodyguard?’ and this little shrimp Arsenio, are you telling me Arsenio needs a bodyguard? That’s ridiculous.”
Nicholson’s antics of dropping his pants and showing his rear to the Boston Garden faithful during a 1984 Finals game should have landed him outside the arena and possibly in jail for indecent exposure. But the only exposure was that Stern and the NBA laughed at it. Celebrities became part of the show and that included Spike Lee who would waltz onto the court at Knicks games in New York to discuss official calls or carry on courtside banter with players like Reggie Miller.
“From the photographers well, Jack had had his fill of the Boston people,” Garretson recalled. “He had a ball at it, and they left him alone. He could walk right through the crowd of the most rabid Boston Celtics fans and never look one way or another. I hate to see celebrities who need protection.”
The Lakers success had a big impact on the entire sports industry. In 1988 Lakers and Los Angeles Kings owner Jerry Buss sold the naming rights of the Forum in Inglewood, California, to Great Western Savings and Loan. The facility would be renamed Great Western Forum and would usher in a new revenue source for owners. What Buss did was not anything new. In 1953, the new owners, Anheuser-Busch of the National League’s St. Louis Cardinals, tried to rename Sportsman’s Park Budweiser Stadium after the company’s bestselling and best known beer label. But Major League Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick nixed the idea, and the park was renamed Busch Stadium — not the family who owned the brewery, not one of the brewery’s brands. The Boston Patriots owner Billy Sullivan sold the name of his new Foxboro stadium to the F and M Schafer Brewing Company in 1971. Other stadiums including Wrigley Field in Chicago and Briggs Stadium in Detroit carried corporate names, but the Wrigley family owned the Chicago Cubs. and the Briggs family had controlling interest in the Detroit Tigers.
Buss’ sale of the rights started a chain reaction of the selling of naming rights in all sports in the United States and Canada. Ultimately teams would find other sources of advertising revenues.
In 1986, Stern got another gift from Washington. The tax code reform signed off by Congress, the Senate and President Ronald Reagan changed the way arenas were financed. Under the right circumstances, an owner could get up to 92 percent of all arena revenues of all events in the building with the taxpayers in various locales getting just eight cents out of every dollar generated to pay down the debt. It changed sports and was a windfall for the owners.
Boston would get a new arena in 1995. During Stern’s tenure, every owner received a new building except the Dolans in New York where the Knickerbockers franchise was playing in a rebuilt Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968. New Jersey owner Bruce Ratner had plans for a new facility in Brooklyn, and SuperSonics ownership wanted to replace the renovated Seattle building that opened in 1962 and was rebuilt in 1995. Franchises in Miami and Charlotte opened two buildings, and Orlando also opened its second building during Stern’s tenure. Seattle did not come up with a new building, and the SuperSonics franchise moved to Oklahoma City.
The first NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff had teams playing in high school gyms. Walter Kennedy’s NBA played on neutral courts that included a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. O’Brien’s NBA featured old buildings with glorious histories that were becoming decrepit.
Stern, who once said in the 1990s that every one of his arenas should be like Disneyland, saw his teams play in state-of-the-art facilities that had restaurants and work centers.
The NBA had become so widely popular by the mid-1980s that drug abuse stories no longer stuck to the league. The days of innocence were gone replaced by Jack Nicholson rooting on the Lakers from courtside seats. The NBA had become the Ed Sullivan Show, instead of Ed introducing celebrities who showed up at his Sunday night CBS TV show in the 1940, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the NBC or the Madison Square Garden Network in New York would show what celebrities showed up at games. Those celebrities would show up in NBA promotions in both TV and print commercials. The NBA was FAN-tastic.
Bird-Magic-Jordan was considered the trilogy, and the three were the NBA’s most marketable players. But they were not alone. The NBA also had Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, along the Detroit “Bad Boys.” General Electric took notice of the NBA and its sudden popularity and signed a four-year, $601 million contract on Nov. 9, 1989, to broadcast games on its National Broadcasting Company division starting with the 1990-91 season. It was the biggest TV deal to date and rather remarkable considering that a decade earlier CBS was showing NBA playoff games on tape delay.
David Stern is a very smart man. He envisioned people watching basketball games on a computer. Just about every one of his goals was met except a European Division in the NBA.
During the early days of Stern’s leadership, the league welcomed Soviet players.
The NBA started globalizing in earnest when Ted Turner began his rise as a cable television mogul. Turner, the owner of the Atlanta Hawks, was trying to figure out how he could contribute to the end to the Cold War: He had already established CNN International, and his international sports event, the Goodwill Games, a friendly competition between America and the Soviet Union in 1986.
Turner sent his Hawks to the Soviet Union for the 1988 preseason training camp. In August 1989, Turner received a present from the failing Soviet Union: His team signed Aleksander Volkov. Volkov was the second Soviet to sign with an NBA team that summer, as the Golden State Warriors inked a deal with Sharunas Marciulionis in June.
On Oct. 12, 1989, the Amateur Basketball Association of the United States of America became USA Basketball and allowed the NBA to participate in the running of the organization. The International Basketball Federation had changed its policy toward the use of pros in the Olympics, and that gave the NBA a global opening.
Stern was brilliant and lucky. He was in the right place at the right time and his league flourished. He survived two lockouts, a referee betting scandal and a number of franchise relocations, but it should be noted that basketball during the Stern years grew to unlikely heights. Thirty years after taking the job, the NBA is a global business that Stern help build with the United States Congress, President Ronald Reagan, Michael Jordan, Phil Knight, Spike Lee, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Ted Turner and a “Dream Team” of NBA players in the Olympics.