Like most pro sports leagues, the NBA is a confederation of separate organizations that compete yet must also cooperate. No such organization can exist, let alone thrive as the league has for more than 50 years, without outstanding leadership at the top.
Only four men have held the league's top position: David J. Stern, Larry O’Brien, Walter Kennedy and Maurice Podoloff. Each man, in his own way, made a significant impact on the league's success and put a particular imprint on the league's history.
An attorney, Stern began his association with the league in 1966 as an outside counsel and was named NBA General Counsel in 1978. After a promotion to Executive Vice President in 1980, he moved into the Commissioner’s office when O’Brien retired in 1984.
During those years, Stern has participated in virtually every matter that has shaped the NBA, including the landmark 1976 settlement between the NBA and its players that created a free agency system, the collective bargaining agreement that introduced the salary cap and revenue sharing, professional sports’ first anti-drug agreement, the development of NBA Properties as the league’s marketing arm, and the creation of NBA Entertainment, an award-winning television and multi-media production company. More recently, Stern moved the NBA into the digital age with the development of NBA.com and NBA.com TV.
As Commissioner, he has presided over the expansion of the league to 29 teams and the globalization of the sport. NBA players compete in competitions worldwide, including the Olympic Games, under the aegis of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and the NBA has offices in Europe, Australia and Asia.
Under Stern's guidance the NBA has enjoyed its period of greatest growth and taken basketball to the forefront of the global sports scene.
O’Brien played an important role during a tumultuous time for the NBA. He had an unusual background for a sports commissioner. Before he was named Commissioner in 1975, he had served as national chairman of the Democratic Party, Postmaster General and as a long-time adviser to former President John F. Kennedy.
His experience proved to be very valuable. O’Brien applied all his considerable political savvy to both the NBA's merger with the ABA -- in the end, the NBA took in the ABA's four strongest franchises, each of whom was required to pay an entry fee -- and to gaining Congressional approval for the endeavor. In his first year on the job O’Brien also solved one of the league's biggest problems, the so-called “Oscar Robertson Suit,” which had both blocked the merger and cost the league dearly in legal fees, and helped the league reach a collective bargaining agreement with its players' union.
With Stern serving as the point man, O’Brien presided over negotiations with the union that averted a strike in 1983. The result was a landmark new collective bargaining agreement that became a blueprint for the stabilization and growth of the league and led to a unique anti-drug program hailed as the most far-reaching and innovative in professional sports.
The league’s first publicity director, Kennedy had gone into business and then politics, serving as mayor of Stamford, Conn., before he rejoined the league in 1963 and was named to the position of NBA President. Kennedy's strengths were in marketing and advertising as well as publicity, but he also was a skillful administrator and negotiator. His legacy, however, was overseeing the expansion of the NBA from nine teams to 18, and from coast to coast.
Kennedy served during the formation of the National Basketball Players Association, the players' union. Literally minutes before the scheduled start of the 1964 All-Star Game at Boston Garden, it was Kennedy’s personal promise to use his best efforts to force the owners to create a pension plan that saved that event from what would have been a disastrous, wildcat strike by the league's star players.
In 1967, Kennedy’s title was changed to Commissioner, and in 1971 the owners gave him far-reaching authority to run the league, making him perhaps the most powerful administrative figure in American pro sports at that time.
Podoloff, a Yale-educated lawyer who was born in Russia in 1890, had come to the United States while still a child, was selected as the first league president in 1946. He was a shrewd businessman and a keen negotiator whose brilliance lay in his ability to forge coalitions and recognize the common good, and those were the qualities that enabled him to guide the NBA, originally known as the Basketball Association of America (BAA) through its early years.
The BAA incurred significant losses in its first two years, in part because salaries were escalating, the result of a battle with the National Basketball League (NBL) for the top college players. Podoloff and some of the BAA's owners recognized the solution, thus leading to Podoloff's greatest triumph as league president – a merger in the summer of 1948. Podoloff used the lure of the BAA's big arenas, such as Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden, to convince the leaders of the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Indianapolis Kautskys that their future could be better served in the BAA.
The NBL team Podoloff really coveted, though, was the Minneapolis Lakers, with their 6-10 star, George Mikan, and Podoloff convinced Minneapolis owners Max Winter and Ben Berger that since the NBL was weakened, they should also join the BAA, which they did. So, too, did the Rochester Royals, who had the NBL's best backcourt player, Bob Davies. The NBL survived one season without Mikan and Davies, but before the start of the 1949-50 season the BAA absorbed what remained of the NBL and adopted a new name: the National Basketball Association.
Podoloff also presided over the league in 1954, when it adopted the 24-second shot clock, perhaps the most important rules change in pro basketball history. He would remain as the league's top executive until 1963, when he retired at age 73 and was replaced by Kennedy.
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