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Archive for January 2, 2020

Jan. 2, 2020 — David Stern, 1942-2020

For many sports fans, David Stern was the short guy who handed first-round draft picks a baseball cap and posted with them for photos.

But Stern, who died yesterday, was more than just a sports commissioner. He was part tinkerer, part visionary, and part disciplinarian.

When he took the role of NBA Commissioner, the league’s NBA Finals weren’t shown live on TV; they were tape-delayed and shown at 11:30 p.m. after the late local news on the East Coast.

Today’s NBA, as a product, is valuable enough that there are television partners in some 200 countries.

Stern’s efforts to globalize the game has vaulted it past volleyball and field hockey as sports played in more countries around the world; only soccer has more in terms of participating nations.

The NBA stars welcomed players Manu Ginobili, Vlade Divac, Yao Ming, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, all of whom were born outside the United States.

The marketing of the NBA has been copied in many other sports leagues in north America. These days, the weekend of any midseason All-Star game is not just about the game, but about the gathering of sponsors and league executives, often to make decisions about the future.

NBA-style marketing is found all over professional sports, such as a Player of the Week and Player of the Month awards, league-assembled features on players, and sales of all sorts of team merchandise.

But as much as Stern was a marketer in the corporate world, a story about Stern during a reception at an NBA function tells you something more. A buffet table at a dinner was shoved against the wall, allowing only one very long line of attendees to eat. Stern noticed this and asked the caterers to pull the tables away from the wall to allow a second line to form on the other side. That was his thinking.

Stern, I think, will be most remembered by the general public for his work with FIBA to bring professional NBA players to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The Dream Team, which had 11 Hall-of-Famers, was likely the single greatest team ever assembled in the history of team sport.

But I think there’s going to be one thing Stern did that will enrichen basketball even further: the founding of the NBA’s Developmental League back in 2001. It started very modestly with eight teams in the southeast U.S., but has grown to become a nationwide league with league affiliations often in the same market. The Boston Celtics, for example, have their affiliate an hour and a half away in Portland, Maine. The Washington Wizards, similarly, can call up a player from its developmental team which also plays in the District of Columbia.

I think the league, now known as the G-League, is going to eventually become the basis for a 60-team NBA with 30 teams in a lower division and 30 teams in an upper division, allowing for promotion and relegation.

Wouldn’t that be something?