David Stern, dead at 77, transformed the NBA into a global powerhouse. He also helped ease the stigma of HIV.

Former NBA Commissioner David Stern
(Image credit: Mandy Cheng/AFP via Getty Images)

David Stern, who fundamentally transformed professional basketball during his 30 years as NBA commissioner, died Wednesday. He was 77 and had suffered a brain hemorrhage Dec. 12. When Stern took over as head of the NBA in 1984, the NBA championship game was such a non-event that a few years earlier no network would even broadcast it live. By the time he stepped down in 2014, the NBA was a $5 billion-a-year global juggernaut and basketball one of the world's most popular sports. "David Stern earned and deserved inclusion in our land of giants," said the National Basketball Players Association, with whom Stern sometimes sparred.

Stern oversaw the creation of the WNBA and the expansion of the NBA to 30 teams from 23. The players helped popularize the sport, of course: When Stern took over, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry, led by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, respectively, had captured the nation's attention, and Michael Jordan joined the NBA a few months after Stern was named commissioner.

Stern is being remembered for his marketing talent and hard-nosed business acumen, but his "most humane, poignant act as commissioner," says Jeff Zillgitt at USA Today, was when he decided to stand by Johnson "when Johnson announced he was HIV-positive on Nov. 7, 1991." Here's how Johnson remembered the moment on Wednesday:

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"Nearly 30 years ago, most of the public didn't have a clear understanding of AIDS and HIV," Zillgitt explained, and everyone, including Stern, "thought Johnson was going to die. Stern could have distanced himself and the league from Johnson. He did the opposite. He embraced Johnson, figuratively and literally, and took heat for it." Stern hired experts to educate himself and the league. "Somewhere along the line," Stern told amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, in 2016, "we realized that this was an opportunity to educate the world and to calm down the fear that anyone with HIV should be treated like a leper."

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Peter Weber

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since the website launched in 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian and plays bass and rhythm cello in an Austin rock band. Follow him on Twitter.