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Under Stern's firm grip, NBA grew into worldwide phenomenon

POSTED: Jul 24, 2014 12:57 AM ET
UPDATED: Aug 6, 2014 11:49 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury


Call them the "wow!" moments.

They are the ones that made David Stern sit back and shake his head through his 30 years on the job as NBA commissioner.

GameTime: Stern's Headed to the Hall

"The truth is that at almost every metric, there has a been a 'wow,'" Stern said. "From globalization to international TV to digital to franchise valuation. I can sit here and tick off a list that goes on an on."

But there are a few that stand out, that have taken the NBA from a strictly American league operating just above the fringe of the sports backwaters to becoming a worldwide presence:

"Here was a sport that as recently as the 1970s had been viewed by many as being too heavily African-American to ever appeal to the mainstream and in 1992 a team of NBA players went to the Olympics in Barcelona and became darlings of the entire world. This was a moment, an event, that did not just show the world the highest level of basketball on the court, but also proved to the world, to corporate sponsors, to all sort of potential partners, that the NBA could be a global brand."

There are plenty more moments where that came from.

"The fact that we could use the complete tragedy of Magic Johnson's announcement in 1991 to change the debate on HIV-AIDS in this country was something that not only inspired all of us working within the league, but enabled us to recognize just how far we could go and how much we could do with our reach.

"You put those two things together, the fact that Magic played in the 1992 Olympics, and I believe that it was a signal event that told us there were virtually no limits."

Inside the NBA: Stern Reaction

A look back at Stern's three decades as commissioner is almost like viewing the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk from a 21st century seat on the international space station.

"I'll admit, I've enjoyed looking in the rearview mirror at times," Stern said.

He'd spent 12 years working as a member of the law firm that represented the league and then another six years as general counsel before becoming commissioner in 1984.

"Our NBA Finals were on tape-delay right here in the U.S.," he said. "Our total revenues for the league were $78 million and the question that we were asking in those early days on the job were which franchises were going to merge or fold.

"Now look -- we've played 150 games outside the United States. We're televised in 215 countries. We have tremendous reach with our digital platform and all of those areas shows nothing but the potential to grow."

Indeed, the Clippers are in the process of being sold to Steve Ballmer for an eye-popping price tag of $2 billion. The value of an average franchise, not counting the Clippers' sale, had risen 25 percent in year to just over $630 million, according to Forbes.

Inside the NBA: Stern Interview

Stern signed the first national cable TV deal with the USA network in 1984 for $400,000. His successor Adam Silver is currently negotiating a new deal that most industry executives believe with bring in roughly $2 billion.

His is a legacy that begat the phenomenon of every whisper and rumor about LeBron James turning into a global event.

It's been said by some that Stern was the beneficiary of good timing, coming along at the same time as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird and Michael Jordan and any executive could have turned that it into a bonanza.

However, Stern was not just any executive. He relentlessly, tirelessly and often defiantly promoted the product and defended the brand, i.e. NBA players.

"It's something that drove me and drove all of us," Stern said. "We absolutely have always been protective of the game -- persnickety, even -- when there were questions about our sport and our players. Our belief has always been that this is a most beautiful game."

Alternately avuncular and biting, Stern became as much the face of the NBA in every corner of the globe as anyone who every nailed a jump shot or slammed home a dunk. Tell him there was an area the NBA could not affect and he would develop a plan that could make a difference. The Basketball Without Borders and NBA Cares outreach programs spread the word and the brand. Tell him the game itself was not being played or presented in the best light and he'd be the catalyst behind a committee headed by Jerry Colangelo that changed the rules and put the wide-open, free-form jazz-style flow back into basketball.

First and foremost, he has always been a fan -- perhaps the NBA's biggest -- though at 5-foot-9 he'll enter with just slightest edge over the Hall of Fame's shortest player, 5-9 Calvin Murphy.

He sat at home for the first time in more than 30 years and was strictly a fan as he watched the Spurs defeat the Heat in The Finals.

"I thought it was spectacular basketball and it was both exciting and satisfying to see the success of a franchise exalting team and a system over the individual," Stern said.

Yet he took utter delight in following the exploits of James and Carmelo Anthony and the other free agent individuals as they dominated headlines and ruled social media in July, a time when the NBA used to never be on the map.

"You can never go back to where you started and pretend that you could see where you'd go," Stern said. "Hopeful? Yes. But who knew what steps we'd take?"

The steps that have led him to Hall of Fame induction.

"It's neat," Stern said with the vernacular of a teenager. "It makes me feel very good, proud of what has been accomplished for the NBA and for basketball on my watch.

"I know it's really about everything that everyone has contributed to the league and to our collective vision. I'm the beneficiary, but it was the players, TV, globalization and, most important, all the people that have worked in the NBA for all these years that have helped us grow.

"Wow! Yes, that's a word that sums up the experience."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.