Quitting | David Stern (right) will step down as commissioner of the NBA 30 years after taking the job. Long-term protégé Adam Silver has already been elected as his successor (Image | Getty)

It is difficult to grasp quite how far the NBA has come in the almost thirty years that David Stern has been at the helm.

Stern became commissioner in 1984, when the league could not even get its championship series televised. Today, the NBA is a $5 billion business with a truly global appeal.

Stern will retire on 1st February 2014, 30 years to the day after he took charge. The 70-year-old commissioner will hand the reigns over to his deputy of six years, Adam Silver.

“I decided that things are in great shape and there’s an organization in place that will ultimately be led by Adam that is totally prepared to take it to the next level”, Stern said Thursday during a press conference following the league’s board of governors meeting. Stern reportedly made his decision to retire six months ago after guiding the NBA through a lockout that ended in December 2011.

Stern will leave behind a legacy unrivaled by any other commissioner in the history of sport.

Almost every forward step the NBA has made over the past thirty years has been his work – salary caps, league expansion, the formation of the WNBA, or even getting professional American basketball players into the Olympics, Stern has been a part of it.

However, Stern has not just become the measuring stick of sports commissioners; he’s also an exemplary CEO of a global business. Seven new franchises were added under Stern’s rule and the league has seen a thirty-fold increase in revenue.

More than anything, what abetted Stern over the course of his thirty year tenure was the explosion in marketability of the league’s stars. It started with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the ’80s. Then came Michael Jordan and the global brand in the ’90s.

This has continued to grow with Yao Ming, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitski, and LeBron James through the beginning of the 21st century. More than any other league in America, the NBA has become driven by stars and these stars have become icons.

The Dream Team of 1992 did more for the global development of basketball than any other single event has for any sport in history. The Dream Team’s performance in Barcelona inspired a generation of aspiring basketball players around the world. The NBA has now played 114 international games in seventeen countries – more than the NFL and MLB combined.

The NBA has been blessed with a series of globally recognisable superstars during Stern’s tenure, Michael Jordan being an obvious example (Image | Getty)

Stern has also been effective in breaking down the racial baggage that went along with the game of basketball.

He was able to market basketball to a mass audience, breaking down racial stereo types and empowering young athletes (more often than not African Americans).

Many critics would contend that the New York City native granted the players too much financial empowerment.

Over the years the NBA has seen more player holdouts and bargains than any other league. Look at, for example, the Carmelo Anthony leaving the Denver Nuggets saga or last season’s “Dwightmare”. Arguments that the players have too much power are forever popping up, but then again in league driven by stars, and the idea that you cannot win a title without a star, it is hardly surprising that this situation has arisen.

Stern has also received his fair share of criticism from NBA fans over the years, often being seen as a commissioner “all about the money”, having locked out players on several occasions.

Chris Paul’s trade from the New Orleans Hornets to the LA Clippers in 2011 also reflected badly on Stern. The Hornets were owned by the league at the time and many fans as well as elements of the press accused Stern of attempting to move Paul to a bigger market in search of bigger revenue.

Nevertheless, Stern will be remembered as a commissioner who has built the NBA into a global brand on par with that of the NFL and English Premier League. For better or worse, the NBA is now a star-driven league by Stern’s making. Don’t expect a NBA black hole anytime soon; the stars will continue to shine.

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