Visionary or villain? 5 ways of looking at David Stern's NBA legacy

The polarizing commissioner pledges to step down on Feb. 1, 2014, leaving behind a complicated legacy

David Stern
(Image credit: Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images)

On Thursday, NBA commissioner David Stern shocked much of the sports world when he announced that he would step down on Feb. 1, 2014 — 30 years to the day after he took over the league. Replacing Stern: Deputy commissioner Adam Silver, Stern's longtime right-hand man, who was unanimously picked as his successor by the NBA's Board of Governors. When Stern took over the NBA in 1984, the league was a far cry from the $4 billion powerhouse it is today — and Stern made plenty of enemies in his decades-long fight to build his basketball empire. Indeed, when Stern, 70, was asked Thursday if he had any regrets about his tenure as commish, he took the opportunity to jokingly hum the Frank Sinatra line "Regrets, I've had a few..." from the tune "My Way." Here, five ways of looking at Stern and his polarizing legacy:

1. Stern broke down barriers

"David Stern successfully sold the 'blackest' sport to a white audience," says J.A. Adande at ESPN, turning the NBA into a global brand. Sure, he's had his fair share of hiccups — Seattle was robbed of the SuperSonics, and last year, the league was damaged by an aggravating lockout — but still, Stern made the NBA what it is today: A superstar-driven league. He made the players, most of them African-American, "wealthy, famous, and influential." Indeed, perhaps that's why, "when he exits the vehicle, it feels like he will be leaving through the passenger-side door."

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2. But he was a real jerk

"Call him a villain. A bully. A jerk. [A] puppet master who mercilessly pulled the strings on the NBA for three decades, leveling enemies, dictating his own terms, molding the league with brute force of personality so polarizing he was often loathed," says Bill Reiter at Fox Sports. But the truth is, that's why Stern was so successful. He reversed the NBA's early '80s slide into irrelevance and used the Magic-Bird rivalry to create a golden era of basketball. Clearly, the idea that you have to be likable to be successful is false. The NBA today is a "moneymaking machine that sells a game and fame and an escape from real life" — and that's all because of Stern, a "suit-wearing, ambitious, hard-charging, cutthroat champion."

3. Give him some credit for being humble

Like coaches, politicians, and CEOs, commissioners get "outsized credit for a sports league's success," says Sean Gregory at TIME — "and probably get hit too hard for the failures." Fans don't fill up NBA arenas to see Stern in the stands; they come to watch LeBron. Stern summed it up best himself: "I'm not a big believer in the L word, legacy… I just want people to say that he steered the good ship NBA through all kinds of interesting times." Stern didn't care about credit. And for that, we were lucky to have him.

4. And he had an obsessive eye for opportunity

"Stern's story is a uniquely American story," says Kurt Helin at NBC Sports. And his most important strength was recognizing and seizing opportunity. He saw the NBA and its "transcendent personalities" as something "fun and graceful and part work of art" — a product singularly bred for television that lots of people would care about. He tinkered with the little things: A player dress code to open the NBA up to an older, more conservative audience; instituting the three-point line from the old ABA. Realy, he transformed the NBA from something you'd see on tape delay to must-watch TV, making lots of owners and players a lot of money.

5. Love him or hate him, he was the best ever

The NBA goes up against the NFL and the NHL every year, says Doug Thonus at Chicago Now. And every year, the NBA prospers. Unlike other team sports, Stern marketed the "individual brilliance" of the league's stars — the Magics, the Birds, the Jordans — making America, and the world, "fall in love with NBA basketball." There aren't "enough superlatives to throw around about David Stern's role as a commissioner," so I'll just say it: David Stern is easily the best commissioner in U.S. sports history.

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