Ten ways David Stern helped grow the game of basketball
When David Stern officially retires from his position of NBA commissioner on Feb. 1, he’ll leave the game in infinitely better shape than when he assumed the role three decades ago. There are countless other items that could’ve made this list, but here’s a look at 10 of the ways Stern helped grow the game of basketball during his 30-year tenure:
1. A global game. Basketball has zoomed past football and baseball in terms of worldwide popularity, with participation levels among youngsters sky-rocketing across Europe and various nations on the other continents. The reasons behind this international basketball boom are vast, but since the 1980s, the NBA has emphasized a long-term approach by regularly playing preseason and regular season games overseas. The games have helped to build a fan base that did not exist during the early years of the league.
2. The Dream Team. The U.S. once sent its college players to the Olympics, but Stern and the NBA had the foresight to change that in the early 1990s. Starting with the “original Dream Team” in 1992, America transformed the Summer Games – basketball became one of its most-watched competitions – while simultaneously making an immeasurable impact on the NBA’s popularity worldwide. Several of the European boys who witnessed the ’92 Barcelona Olympics as children are now playing in the NBA.
3. The WNBA. Prior to 1997, American female basketball stars had no place to play domestically as professionals. With the direct backing and support of the NBA, the WNBA has grown in popularity and provided opportunities that previous generations of women could never have imagined. Girls growing up in the United States now dream of becoming the next Candace Parker or Brittney Griner. An entire segment of the population is even more likely to play and follow the sport.
4. Media exposure. Through partnerships with national networks such as ESPN, ABC, TNT and relative newcomer NBA TV, basketball has become a staple of television programming for much of the past three decades, particularly during and after the Chicago Bulls/Michael Jordan era featuring six championships between 1991-98. Stern also ushered the NBA into a new digital age, allowing fans everywhere to watch games via NBA League Pass and NBA.com, which also hosts NBA League Pass Broadband.
5. NBA All-Star weekend. Taking place in February each year, it’s been decades since the midseason showcase was viewed as just an All-Star Game. The three-day, weekend-long extravaganza – which also includes a rookie game, skills challenge, three-point shootout and dunk contest – attracts global media attention and has become an enormous event for the sport.
6. Small-market viability. Under Stern’s watch, cities such as Portland, San Antonio and Salt Lake City have enjoyed immense success in the NBA, despite lacking the giant size of a New York or Los Angeles. The NBA has also been a hit in numerous other one-major-pro-team towns including Oklahoma City and Sacramento.
7. An even playing field. Speaking of small-market success stories, the NBA was the first league to adopt a salary cap in the 1980s, giving cities a realistic shot of competing for championships regardless of their size. Based in the 37th-largest TV market in America, the San Antonio Spurs have won four championships since 1999 and are commonly regarded as the league’s model franchise.
8. The Finals. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the league’s best-of-seven championship series was infamously carried on tape delay by CBS, which didn’t want to bump some of its popular shows from their prime-time slots. A national network giving preference to a sitcom or reality show over the NBA Finals now seems unthinkable, with the two-week Finals annually drawing outstanding TV ratings.
9. North American growth. The league only consisted of 23 franchises prior to the late 1980s, but since then seven teams have been added, dramatically increasing the NBA’s footprint across North America, including Canada. Once a bit indifferent about basketball, our neighbors to the north are now a must-visit for NCAA scouts. Canada produced the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft, Toronto native Anthony Bennett, as well as two-time league MVP Steve Nash.
10. Diversity. While other sports were slower to integrate on and off the field during the latter half of the 20th century, African-American head coaches and general managers have been commonplace in the NBA for decades. In fact, they are so prevalent that the racial background of coaches during the summer hiring season is a complete non-story in the NBA – not yet the case in other leagues. The NBA has also been at the forefront of the movement to treat everyone equally, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.