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David Stern was all business, and that was good for the game

Oct 25, 2012, 10:37 PM EDT

NBA Commissioner Stern holds a news conference before Game 1 of the NBA Finals basketball series between the Dallas Mavericks and the Miami Heat in Miami Reuters

David Stern said Thursday as he talked about stepping down as commissioner that he is not a big fan of the “L”word — legacy. So we’ll call it his story. It could make a good novel.

David Stern’s story is a uniquely American story. His is a story about a smart, savvy, businessman chasing the dollar on behalf of the other, richer men that hired him. He could be genial, he at times was ruthless.

David Stern was all business with the NBA.

The result features so much good — you can argue he saved the NBA and today players and owners prosper because of his vision. But there is a ying to the yang — two lockouts to start with, there are fans in places like Seattle left wanting. Good or bad, everything on his ledger is a result of him chasing money. He will tell you about the good of the game, but for him what is good for the game is seen through the prism of dollar signs.

Ultimately, how you look at Stern’s legacy speaks to how you look at America’s corporate culture. Above everything else Stern was he was a businessman. Adam Silver, the incoming commissioner when Stern steps down in 2014, both embraced and praised that about Stern.

“David has transformed an industry, not just the NBA, and he has done it over 30 years plus…” said Silver at a press conference Thursday, adding that Stern had been the NBA general council before he became commissioner. “I think David is the one who turned sports leagues into brands, if you want to speak business. As (Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor) pointed out, 40-fold increase in television revenue, all kinds of other business metrics we can look at that would define David as one of the great business leaders of our time.”

Stern was a great business and marketing mind, and what great business minds do is seize on an opportunity.

That opportunity came first in the form of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, then Michael Jordan after them. Those were transcendent personalities, people who made you want to tune in and watch basketball because it was fun and graceful and part work of art. Then they could sell the game afterwards.

But Stern knew how to market those men and to lift the entire NBA by doing so. In 1981 four of the six NBA finals games were shown by CBS on tape delay, but a few years later the NBA was must watch television. Stern knew how to market his stars and while some complain about the NBA being star driven not team driven, the bottom line is that stars drew eyeballs.

If it had not been for Stern and his vision for the television product, the NBA would not be close to what it is today.

He was a marketing man, and that made the NBA owners a lot of money. You don’t get to keep your job as commissioner for 30 years unless your bosses are happy, and the owners have been happy. Franchise values rose with those television deals, which led to new arneas, which led to more and more revenue streams. He grew the league by adding team. He grew the revenue by pushing the league internationally

And the players benefitted, too — they get a cut of all of that revenue. Players’ salaries are required to be a part of the league’s revenue.

But any chase for money has unpleasant consequences.

It was how share all that revenue which led to Stern’s darkest hours — the two NBA lockouts under Sterns watch. His rich owners wanted more money and Stern was happy to be their bulldog and get it from the players. To take that profitable league he built and say how owners couldn’t make money any more came off as condescending, but it didn’t slow him down.

Stern was good was finding rich owners and not really worrying about what they wanted — which led to Seattle being screwed out of a franchise, and the five other cities that saw teams move while Stern was owner.

Even down to the simple things — the NBA’s dress code of a few years ago was aimed at softening the hip-hop image of players and making them more palatable to the older, more conservative, more suburban people paying for the ever-more-expensive luxury boxes and corporate seats near the floor.

In the end, that chase for the almighty dollar may have hurt some but it left us with a better game. It’s a game we can now see for free on our HD televisions almost nightly. The NBA’s rule changes — like the no hand checking on the perimeter — opened up the flow of the game and made it more entertaining. Even things like taking the three-point line from the old ABA helped space the floor and has led to a better product. David Stern understood how to get a product that fans want and could be more easily sold.

The NBA and basketball in general are better off and more popular because of Stern. His legacy is not without scars and tarnish, but in the end the league was better off because of his nearly 30 years in charge.

And through it all, David Stern was all business.

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