The commissioner's lasting legacy
David Stern will be remembered for his exploration of international opportunities
The NBA commissioner is seeking to grow his business in a new, complicated way
The league's long-term outlook is bright in part because of Stern's work overseas
One hundred years on, when most of today's famous names are gone and forgotten, David Stern will be remembered. Never mind his role in instituting a salary cap or his rash insistence on marrying his league to hip-hop -- all of that will be forgotten too. Of lasting importance will be his vision for the NBA as a global entity, and in generations to come he will be remembered around the world for exploring international possibilities that no one else saw coming.
When Stern became NBA commissioner a quarter century ago, we Americans were outsiders to the world of sports. We had our view of sports, and the rest of the world had theirs. We viewed games at the highest level as entertainment, another business from which to profit; the rest of the world viewed games as contests that were more important than money. With no small thanks to Stern, the surrounding world is beginning to see things our way.
That's not entirely a good thing. At the moment, basketball in Europe exists for a small but loyal and marvelously loud audience of fanatics who really, truly love it. To attend an evening of pro basketball in Athens or Istanbul or Bologna, as Stern has done scores of times, is to realize that the relatively passive American fans of the NBA are uninspired and cynical in their devotion to the game and its players. American fans expect to be entertained for their money as they sit back and wait for Michael or Kobe to dunk for them; the fans in Europe chant and sing to inspire their teams to greatness. That foreign dynamic will be neutered as the NBA inevitably expands to Europe over the decades ahead, introducing higher ticket prices, larger audiences and a new perspective on basketball as mainstream entertainment.
But changes abroad are inevitable, and many fear the death of basketball in Europe unless it learns from the NBA example. In 2006, former NBA star Sarunas Marciulionis of Lithuania called on Stern to preside over a summit to overhaul basketball in the Old World. "I think David could unite Europe,'' Marciulionis said. "I think they would listen to him."
Stern declined that offer, saying he was unwilling "to intrude'' in the affairs of the Euroleague and FIBA, the international basketball federation. In diplomacy, Stern has developed an instinct for when to push and when to hold back. NBA players didn't participate in the Olympics until they were invited by FIBA, and with the corresponding end of the Cold War, the advent of the 1992 Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird was welcomed behind the Iron Curtain like a new kind of liberating army.
Now Stern's international work is entering a more complicated and dangerous era. After laying down a foundation of "friendships'' around the world over the past two decades, Stern is seeking to grow his business in a new way. By uniting with the Chinese government to build a new NBA-sponsored basketball league in China, and by opening new channels of cooperation elsewhere in Asia and the Middle East, Stern is opening himself to charges of collaboration with unsavory partners. He is tiptoeing across a narrow bridge; last summer, Stern appeared to encourage NBA players to speak their consciences in denouncing China's implicit support of the Darfur genocide. But Stern's own constituency of NBA owners will be less interested in the political and moral risk, and much more anxious to realize a big profit from Stern's foreign forays.
This exploration out beyond North America has been entirely of Stern's choosing. None of the NBA owners sent him on any of his fact-finding missions overseas or insisted that he develop a meaningful relationship in the 1980s with FIBA chief Boris Stankovic. Stern alone was intrigued by these opportunities, and over the years he has often seemed to be rewarding his own curiosity. Negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the players or sitting in judgment of the Detroit brawl is draining, thankless labor; exploring new places and partnerships has been, by contrast, exhilarating.
He used to travel in a small party, like any number of American CEOs handing out business cards and trying to stake out a new claim. Now he voyages abroad like a head of state. During a seven-day tour of five countries to attend eight preseason NBA Europe Live games, Stern flew in a private plane with a party that included Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, who was accompanied by two Vegas showgirls.
Stern's foreign experiences have provided him with a wider view that influences his management of basketball at home. Against his own instincts, he has opened the door for an NBA team to eventually set up in Las Vegas, knowing that it won't be the end of the world because he has seen how soccer and sports betting coexist in Britain and other countries.
The long-term outlook for the NBA is much stronger than it would appear within North America, where it remains mired as the No. 3 pro league behind the NFL and MLB. But neither of those rivals has the skeletal makings of the NBA's framework stretching to all corners of the world, and in the next era of TV-via-internet -- creating a global audience that is truly interconnected -- the NBA will be positioned to grow like no other sports association in our country. Basketball is already the No. 2 team sport of the world (trailing behind soccer), and in these early days of globalization, NBA-based stars like Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki and Yao Ming are among the most popular athletes in their home countries.
Stern won't be commissioner when the NBA realizes the profit from his investments. But the short-term benefits have themselves been worthwhile. It is with thanks to Stern that basketball in Argentina, Spain and other nations has so improved that USA Basketball needed to overhaul its own selection and training processes in order to keep up. His Basketball Without Borders initiative has dispatched more than 300 NBA players abroad to work with more than 1,300 young players from at least 100 countries and territories. Stern is responsible for opening an international pipeline that runs in both directions: The current infusion of 75 international players from 32 foreign nations has forced the foundation nation of basketball to acknowledge that the fundamentals really do matter, while also creating new pools of talent while the NBA has expanded by seven franchises over the last two decades.
David Stern's NBA is far more cosmopolitan and interesting than Larry O'Brien's used to be, and the differences are expressed in all kinds of unpredictable ways, big and small. The other day in the Dallas Mavericks' locker room, I watched as one of his countrymen interviewed the 2006-07 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who over the last 11 years has singlehandedly created a new style of NBA power forward. They spoke in their native language as the reporter videotaped the interview on his cell phone, and then he removed his sneaker for Nowitzki to autograph it with a Sharpie. That's something you just wouldn't see from the journalists in America, and as the foreign correspondent was bending down to untie his shoe, Nowitzki smiled with a mild shake of the head. "These Germans,'' he said.