David Stern was the commissioner of the NBA for 30 years, from 1984 to 2014. During that time, he helped transform the league, bringing it out of a slump into a period of greatness. Under Stern’s leadership, NBA stars achieved international stardom as he sent recordings of games to China for broadcast there and championed superstar players like Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley. It was Stern who lobbied for professional basketball to be allowed in the 1992 Summer Olympics, creating the unstoppable Dream Team. And during his tenure, the average NBA player salary rose steeply to today’s multimillion-dollar levels. Stern famously supported Magic Johnson after the star player was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, and his highly public support helped change the debate about the then-misunderstood disease.
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Died: January 1, 2020 (Who else died on January 1?)
Details of death: Died in Manhattan of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 77.
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Not a player: Stern loved the sport of basketball — he grew up a New York Knicks fan — but he wasn’t a player himself other than a brief period when he played in the New York Lawyer’s League. He injured his knee playing there and subsequently stuck to practicing law, which he had studied at Columbia Law School. He came to the NBA via the law, joining the league as general counsel in 1978. He became executive vice president in 1980.
Stern on the NBA’s evolution: “I am so happy because when I took over the NBA, our players’ reputations were, I would say, in the basement of the pyramid of celebrity. And now they’re at the tippy-tip of the celebrity pyramid. They’re the most listened to, the most beloved, in some ways, and the most important athletes in all of sports.” —from a 2019 interview with the Undefeated
What people said about him: “David Stern was such a history maker. When I announced in 1991 I had HIV, people thought they could get the virus from shaking my hand. When David allowed me to play in the 1992 All Star Game in Toronto and then play for the Olympic Dream Team, we were able to change the world.” —Magic Johnson
“David was a driving force in sports for decades and helped the NBA soar to new heights around the world. I called him the dean of commissioners, not only for his longevity and his vision for the NBA, but for his willingness to offer advice when I first stared as NBA commissioner.” —NBA commissioner Roger Goodell
“David had a deep love for the game of basketball and demanded excellence from those around him — and I admired him for that. I wouldn’t be where I am without him.” —Michael Jordan
Full obituary: The New York Times