John Smallwood: Stern might be the best sports commmissioner ever

Don't think that date National Basketball Association commissioner chose to

retire was arbitrary.

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David Stern talks with the media after announcing that he will step downas NBA commissioner in February 2014. ALEX TRAUTWIG / GETTY IMAGES

Feb. 1, 2014, will mark to the day a 30-year tenure Stern, 70, will have had as commissioner.

Even if this provides for a 15-month transition period, you don't set a retirement date for the middle of the season unless you want to make a clear line of distinction for what did and what did not occur during your tenure.

Stern wants his legacy to be exactly 3 decades. When people look back, Stern wants a 30-year review - not one a little more or one a little less.

"I told the [NBA board of governors] that it's been a great run that will continue for another 15 months," said Stern, who announced his retirement Thursday. "I think the league is in terrific condition.

"I said I'd like to think that I did an adequate job."

In nearly 2 decades of writing about the Sixers and the NBA, I've interviewed Stern many times and never found him to be overly modest.

Still, he's selling himself short if he thinks - which he really doesn't - the job he did was just adequate.

Stern will go down in history as arguably the best commissioner in American professional team sports.

The late NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, whose record tenure of 29-plus years will be broken by Stern by a month, is the only other who can rival Stern in terms of increasing a league's stature.

Rozelle's foresight for the NFL as a television sport and his push for revenue-sharing propelled the NFL into the most popular professional sport in the United States.

But Stern's tenure also provided financial boons for the NBA.

During his tenure, Stern has led the NBA to unprecedented growth in team value, player salary and international marketing.

A league that once struggled to maintain its place in the United States is now a global powerhouse that has made basketball a world game, second only to soccer.

All of that happened under Stern's watch.

When Stern took over from Larry O'Brien in 1984, the NBA was just starting to recover from the perception that it was "too black" and filled with drug users.

The arrival of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had sparked public interest, but games during the 1980 Finals featuring Johnson and the 1981 Finals featuring Bird aired on tape-delay.

Not to take away from Stern, but he did have the extreme good fortune of taking over at the same time the 1984 draft class came along. That class featured Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and some other guy named Michael Jordan.

Stern recognized the commercial appeal of Jordan, and, to the chagrin of a lot of traditional fans, the NBA made a conscious effort to market its individual stars. That business decision changed the NBA.

You can argue over whether the "me-first" attitude the league marketed was good for the game itself.

But off the court, the icon status reached by Jordan, Johnson, Bird and others lifted the NBA to record profits.

Under Stern, the league has added seven new franchises - the Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors and, after the Hornets moved to New Orleans, the Charlotte Bobcats.

In 1992, the participation of a Dream Team of NBA stars at the Barcelona Olympics opened the way to the global marketing of the NBA.

Ironically, Stern and the NBA initially rejected the idea of sending its players to the Olympics - failing to foresee the international cultural impact. But once the Dream Team phenomenon began, the league was quick to ride the coattails of its players. Its international impact for the NBA is still being calculated.

Then, International Olympic Committee chief Juan Antonio Samaranch said the "most important aspect of the [Barcelona Games] has been the resounding success of the basketball tournament, as we've witnessed the best basketball players in the world."

Stern pushed the global initiative hard - sometimes to the complaint that he cared more about the NBA for the rest of the world than for the United States. The success, however, is undeniable.

Before Barcelona, there were 23 international players from 18 countries in the NBA.

At the start of 2011-12 season, there were 74 international players from 35 countries.

China's Yao Ming, Australia's Andrew Bogut and Italy's Andrea Bargnani have been No. 1 overall draft picks.

The NBA now has offices in 15 global markets and televises games in 215 countries and territories in more than 40 languages. It also has created 13 language-specific web destinations.

The league that was once deemed "too black" to market to America is now an international marketing powerhouse that even the NFL and Major League Baseball cannot top.

In 1988 and '89 the expansion price for the Heat, Hornets, Heat and Timberwolves was $32.5 million.

This year Forbes magazine estimated the value of every NBA team to be over $250 million.

Since Stern took over in 1984, the average NBA annual salary has risen from about $250,000 to around $5 million.

The NBA also created the WNBA and the NBA Developmental League.

Of course, there have been bad marks.

For all the good things that have happened on his watch, Stern also saw two labor disputes that cost games of a season, and the betting scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy.

And frankly, fans in San Diego, Kansas City, Vancouver, Seattle and New Jersey who lost teams to relocation during Stern's tenure are not too impressed by him.

But collectively, it will be considered an amazingly good run for Stern - arguably the best

ever for a sports commissioner.


Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/JohnSmallwood.