David Joel Stern was born in Manhattan on Sept. 22, 1942. It was the day after Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and the Nazi march east through Europe was grinding to a halt outside Stalingrad. Closer to home, the Dodgers topped the Giants, 9-8, in extra innings at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field.
The Knicks, the team Stern would root for as a boy, wouldn’t exist for another four years.
By the time Stern died on Wednesday, at the age of 77, basketball had become inexorably woven into the narratives of African-Americans and Jewish-Americans, of fans growing up in rural Indiana and in America’s cities. It had been exported to the farthest reaches of the globe and then back again; the N.B.A.’s most valuable player last year was a Greek born to Nigerian immigrants and its champion a Canadian team with contributors from three continents.
Basketball owes its ascendance to its players — to their dunks and their blocks, their 3-pointers and their air balls — but it also owes it to Stern, the son of a delicatessen owner. Stern’s nearly five-decade association with the N.B.A. drove it from a sleepy league to one with nearly unmatched global and cultural might.
Stern had many detractors, especially later in his tenure as commissioner, but his influence is clear. The story of the N.B.A. is the story of David Stern’s life.
Free Agency and the Salary Cap (1976 and 1983)
Upon graduating from Columbia Law School in 1966, Stern joined Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, which was then — and still is — the N.B.A.’s law firm. He first garnered public attention for his work on the Oscar Robertson antitrust case in 1976, which resulted in both the creation of free agency and the transfer of four teams from the upstart American Basketball Association to the N.B.A.
As executive vice president of the N.B.A. in 1983, he led the league in agreeing to revenue sharing — the players would get 53 percent of gross revenue — and a salary cap. Aligning the incentives for players and owners to work together to increase revenue became the economic foundation of today’s N.B.A., and ushered in 15 years of relative labor peace.
In the early years, players seemed not to view Stern as an antagonist, and respected his work on behalf of the league.
Magic vs. Bird (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988)
When Stern was appointed to succeed Larry O’Brien as commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984, the N.B.A. wasn’t in great shape. Stern’s big solution to the N.B.A.’s financial and reputational problems was to relentlessly market star players more than the teams. The rivalry of the 1960s and early 1980s between the Celtics and Lakers ultimately became the rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Plain Dumb Luck (1984, 1985)
Stern benefited greatly from a historic convergence of great players. Bird and Johnson were already stars, and Stern’s first draft as commissioner saw Hakeem Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton all chosen. Though Jordan was selected third, some were already envisioning greatness for him.
Few could have seen, however, how Jordan’s effortless style, boundless athleticism and vicious competitiveness — not to mention his and Nike’s marketing savvy — would captivate the public.
The 1985 draft would add to the rich talent pool, as Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Karl Malone and Joe Dumars were all chosen. The players who would lead the league toward the new millennium had arrived.
Cocaine (the 1980s)
In 1980, The Los Angeles Times reported that cocaine use was widespread in the N.B.A. It was a problem that repeatedly plagued the league.
In February 1986, Stern banned Micheal Ray Richardson, an All-Star guard for the Nets, from the N.B.A. for life after three positive drug tests. Later that year, Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose just two days after being selected by the Celtics with the second pick of the draft.
The next year three Suns players, and two former players, were charged as part of a wide-ranging investigation into cocaine trafficking. But the case eventually fell apart and nobody went to trial.
International Growth (1989, 1990)
Upon becoming commissioner, Stern immediately set out to increase the N.B.A.’s international presence. Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis and other Europeans debuted in 1989, a trickle of foreign players that would soon become a flood, in part because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and along with it the Eastern Bloc’s state-sponsored sports model.
Overseas exhibition tours increased in frequency, and in 1990 the league held its first regular season game abroad, in Japan.
“David will never be happy until he’s able to walk down the street in Peking and see on every kid’s head an N.B.A. cap,” said Pat Williams, the general manager of the Orlando Magic, in 1990. “And don’t think he won’t do it.”
Magic Johnson and H.I.V. (1991)
Magic Johnson suddenly retired before the 1991-92 season, ann