Legends Of Sport’s Classics presents our tribute to the late David J. Stern with a reprise of our 2019 audio podcast interview and a newly released full-length videocast. Stern was widely recognized as an advocate for the sport of basketball and left a lasting impact on the NBA and throughout the world. When Stern took over as Commissioner in 1984, the NBA was in disarray– plagued by financial trouble and had an image problem. During his time as NBA Commissioner, Stern expanded the NBA, brought an international audience to the league, helped establish the WNBA and G-League, created NBA Cares, and much more.
Bernstein began working with the NBA one year before Stern became Commissioner and documented the growth of the league throughout Stern’s 30-year tenure. Stern and Bernstein discuss the Commissioner’s legendary career and the many miles traveled together to events all over the world. Stern passed away on January 1, 2020 after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
David J. Stern grew up in Manhattan and worked at his parent’s deli during the summers, while attending Columbia Law School. When asked which sports he played growing up, Stern replied,” Basketball, basketball, basketball.”He worked with Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, now Proskauer Rose, the law firm which represented the NBA. Stern worked on notable cases including the NBA-ABA merger.
“I got the opportunity to work on some basketball cases while I was at the Proskauer firm,” Stern said. “By the time Larry O’Brien in 1978, asked me to come be the general counsel of the NBA. I was spending probably 85 percent of my time on NBA matters.”
As Commissioner, Stern pushed to allow NBA players to compete in the Olympics which led to the creation of the 1992 Dream Team, expanded the league to Canada, and created some of the league’s most-loved events.
“We had an enormous amount of fun,” Stern said. “We went out there…Let’s have a slam dunk contest. Let’s have a three-point shot contest. Let’s make all-star into a weekend. Let’s make it into a week. Let’s have an international game. Let’s do crazy stuff.”
Stern is remembered as an advocate for players as well as a champion of the game of basketball. In describing one of his top three accomplishments, Stern said: “I would say number one is the current reputation of our players. I like to say they were in the basement of the celebrity pyramid when we started and now they’re at the top of the celebrity. They have more Instagram followers, Twitter followers, and you name it. They’re very respected and that’s very important to me,” Stern said.
Stern’s commitment to players helped create a better public understanding of HIV at a time when there was a great deal of stigma around the virus. After Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive in 1991, Stern made history by inviting Johnson to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game.
“Number two, I would say is what happened with Magic. More specifically, that we were able to participate in changing that debate about HIV and AIDS, because the stricken figure was a beloved sports figure. That helped me to understand the power of sports,” Stern said.
Inspired by a visit with Nelson Mandela in 1993, Stern founded NBA Cares, the league’s philanthropic arm that promotes community outreach and social justice issues.
“We met with Nelson Mandela in 1993 in South Africa, that’s when he said that he thought sports can change the world…that led to that led the NBA Cares and the whole idea that sports should be an instrument of good in an integrated community.”
In addition to promoting community responsibility throughout the league, Stern shaped the NBA’s international presence. He helped bring live broadcasts of NBA games to China. He built a long-lasting relationship with the Chinese Basketball Association and continued to be a mentor to Yao Ming throughout his career in the U.S. and his return to China as the CBA Commissioner.
Hear Stern discuss some of his favorite photos with Bernstein and the never-heard-before story of how Bernstein captured a photo of Shaquille O’Neal and Stern to commemorate Shaq’s MVP award.