RIP David Stern — NBA Mourns The Loss Of Former Commissioner At 77

He transformed the NBA.

How Did David Stern Die? New Details On Death Of Former NBA Commissioner At 77 Getty

David Stern was the Commissioner of the NBA from 1984 to 2014. When he took over the league, it was struggling. He turned the NBA into the first American professional sports league that's internationally popular. He ushered in the era of the basketball superstars and negotiated the broadcast rights that soon brought profitability to the league. On Wednesday, January 1, 2020, Stern passed away. He was 77. 


How did David Stern die?

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In 1984, the NBA was lagging far behind the NFL and MLB in revenue, television broadcast rights, and popularity. During his three-decade reign, Stern took the league from the brink of folding and disappearing completely to a $5 billion business. Television revenue also increased under Stern's watch — the NBA's television profits increased more than 40 fold to over $1 billion. Stern turned the NBA into one of the biggest entertainment entities on the planet. Stern was the longest-serving commissioner of a major North American sports league. Let's take a look at his life, his amazing career, and his death. 


1. Stern was a lifelong basketball fan.

Stern was born on September 22, 1942, in Manhattan. He grew up in Teaneck, Jersey. He grew up a New York Knicks fan. His father ran a Jewish deli in New York City. Stern worked in his family’s New York City delicatessen, Stern’s Deli. He worked his way through college behind the counter of the deli. He graduated from Teaneck High School in 1959 and went on to Rutgers University, graduating in 1963 with a B.A. in history. He went on to law school at Columbia University and graduated in 1966. He went to work for the law firm Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn (now known as Proskauer Rose), which has been the NBA's law firm for decades. 

2. He started with the NBA in 1978.

Stern became the NBA's General Counsel in 1978. At the time, Larry O'Brien was the league's Commissioner. By the early 80s, Stern had been promoted to Executive Vice President for Business and Legal Affairs, which meant he was in charge of marketing, television and public relations for the NBA. Stern was integral in implementing two landmark policies with the NBA Players' Association: the team salary cap and drug testing. The salary cap put all the teams on an even playing field in that they all had the same amount of money to pay their players. In 1980, it was revealed that somewhere between 40% and 75% of NBA players were using cocaine. Stern was instrumental in putting a drug testing policy in place. The NBA was the first of the major North American sports leagues to have a drug testing policy. 

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3. He changed the focus of NBA marketing from teams to stars. 

It's hard to imagine a time when NBA stars weren't celebrities but that's exactly how it was back in 1984 when Stern took over the league. He turned the focus of the league's marketing away from the teams and onto its stars. Stern realized the talent of individual players made the sport appealing. He arrived in the Commissioner's office at a pretty magical time. The 1984 NBA draft took place shortly after he took over as the top executive in basketball. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were part of the 1984 NBA Draft. 


4. He supported Magic Johnson when he revealed he was H.I.V. positive in 1991.

In 1991, the world was shocked when Magic Johnson revealed that he had tested positive for H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS. Back then, a positive diagnosis was still a death sentence. Stern never missed a beat with Johnson. The Most Valuable Player for the 1991-1992 season was Magic Johnson. Stern presented him with the trophy at the 1992 All-Star game in Orlando and supported Johnson's decision to participate in the game despite backlash over his disease and the fact that Johnson retired when he announced he was H.I.V. positive. With Johnson's participation in the game, that year's All-Star weekend turned into an HIV and AIDS education and awareness event. About that weekend, Johnson said that without Stern, “I wouldn’t be standing here today. He gave me my life back.”  

Johnson took to Twitter to elaborate on how much Stern's support meant to him, writing:

5. He introduced seven new franchises and the WNBA.

During Stern's time as NBA Commissioner, seven new franchises debuted, including two internationally. In 1995 the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies (which have since relocated to Memphis) made their NBA debut. By 2004, the league — which had just 24 teams when Stern took over — had expanded to 30 teams with the introduction of the Charlotte Hornets (now Bobcats). The other teams that debuted under Stern are the Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans and the Orlando Magic. Stern also created the WNBA in 1997 and the NBA's development league, the G League in 2001.


By the time Stern retired, the NBA had offices in 15 cities outside of the U.S. and agreements to televise NBA games in more than 200 countries in 40 languages. Stern took a struggling league and made it a global phenomenon. That has, in turn, reflected in the league's players. When the 2019-2020 NBA season kicked off, it was the sixth consecutive year the league had more than 100 players from outside of the U.S. Thsi year, there are 108 players from 38 countries and territories on NBA rosters. 

David Stern's impact on the NBA cannot be understated. He did more for the game and the league than anyone in history. 

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5. How did David Stern die?

On December 12, 2019, Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage and underwent emergency surgery. He died on January 1, 2020, in Manhattan. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Dianne Bock Stern, and two sons, Eric and Andrew. 


6. Tributes to him are pouring in.

Stern spent his entire professional life working with or for the NBA. Tributes to him are pouring in.

Writer Stephen A. Smith wrote: "Just arrived back in town for the New year and found out about the passing of former NBA Commissioner, David Stern. A devastating loss for the entire basketball world. The man was a leader, an innovator and the architect of the global, iconic brand we marvel over today."

Oklahoma City Thunder player Chris Paul wrote: "For people who didn’t have an opportunity to know David or understand his impact on the business of the game, I hope you’re seeing it now. The game is where it is because of him."


Legendary former San Antonio Spurs player David Robinson wrote: "We all lost today with the passing of David Stern. What he did for the game of basketball is remarkable! ...I salute you, Mr. Stern, and I thank you for your vision, your fortitude, and your passion. Most of all, I thank you for your friendship. R.I.P."

Amy Lamare is a writer covering entertainment, pop culture, beauty, fashion, fitness, technology, and the intersection of technology, business, and philanthropy. You can find her on Instagram and Facebook.