Like him or not, Stern has been the best commissioner of my lifetime. I know that Pete Rozelle was the commish of the NFL in my younger days and did some very outstanding and groundbreaking things, but to me what Stern did even outshines him. Remember that Stern took over a league that saw its Finals on tape delay. A league that was known more for drugs than dunks to the average person. Essentially a niche league.
In the exactly 30 years since, the NBA has become a global beast. Obviously the league has exploded in wealth ... but so has the other major leagues. He also saw work stoppages ... but so has the other major leagues. However, he took a league that not many cared that much to watch and made it into a giant. Seriously, ask those old enough to remember what the NBA was back in 1984 when he took over. Imagine the MLS now (I mean no offense to MLS fans) and that was the NBA then.
Sure, having the first Magic-Bird Finals happening a few months after taking over and the drafting of Michael Jordan happening just weeks after that was some really, really, really good fortune. Sure, the rise of ESPN and cable sports like TBS helped move his league along. Still, there were stars in the NBA prior to those three and the league still hadn't reached the levels Stern steered it to.
That will ultimately be Stern's legacy. His ability to market and sell the league to the entire world was second to none. It can be argued that basketball trails only soccer as the world's game. I know Stern wasn't totally on board with the Dream Team, but look at the level of international play from 1992 to today. From a time when the Dream Team demolished everyone and spent time signing autographs for their opponents to a time when a team made up of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant didn't exactly coast to win a gold medal in the London Olympics. There was NBA TV before there was NFL or MLB Network.
Kids in China wear Kobe jerseys. Dirk Nowitzki wins the NBA's MVP award. The game is played everywhere. That will be Stern's legacy.
Again, he had missteps, yet some of them turned out better than originally perceived. Remember the dress code controversy?
Well, there was the two work stoppages. Up to that point, the NBA was proud that they had never missed a game due to a labor issue. They nearly lost a season to it. There was Stern's condescending demeanor towards some in the media whenever they crossed him. Stern's NBA had the least amount of parity among all the major sports. If you think about the 30 years he ran the league, SEVEN franchises (Lakers-8, Bulls-6, Spurs-4, Celtics-3, Pistons-3, Heat-3, Rockets-2) won 29 of the championships.
For comparison, 18 franchises won a World Series, 14 different franchises won a Super Bowl and 15 franchises won a Stanley Cup during that span.
There's always those conspiracy theories. The cold envelope, the Jordan Rules, the microfiber ball, allowing the SuperSonics to relocate to Oklahoma City, buying the New Orleans Hornets from George Shinn and blocking the trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers. I can't say he's perfect at all and there are times where I think he does go overboard and rather tyrant-y ... but there are always black marks on any executive's resume when helming a sports league like this for 30 years.
I hope Adam Silver does a good job moving forward. I love the NBA and want to see it continue on this upward trend.
Congratulations on your retirement, Mr. Stern.