Chicago • As news of NBA commissioner emeritus David Stern’s death spread on New Year’s Day, tributes began to pour in for the man who, above all others, helped shape the modern league into what it is today.
His legacy includes the stabilization of a previously financially shaky enterprise, the popularization of a sport whose championship series had previously been relegated to tape-delay viewing, and the globalization of a game owing largely to the worldwide interest gained via the participation of the Dream Team in the 1992 Olympic Summer Games.
It also included unparalleled domestic expansion and relocation — something the New Orleans/Utah Jazz franchise knows a little something about.
Stern proved instrumental in bringing professional basketball back to Utah, and would become a trusted sounding board for coach/general manager/team president Frank Layden over the years.
“I knew him prior to being the commissioner. He was the lead counsel for the NBA, and we had interaction with him, of course, when we made the move from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. And he really helped us a great deal,” Layden told The Tribune on Thursday. “And I was new at being a general manager — he was very good and very helpful with me with with contracts and also the ticketing and so many things.
“He was very helpful to us,” Layden added. “And from that standpoint, I'll always be indebted.”
With Stern greasing the wheels, the NBA became a league that could support and sustain franchises in such small-market locales as Salt Lake, as Sacramento, and, later, in the likes of Orlando, and Oklahoma City.
Jazz coach Quin Snyder noted the incalculable impact Stern had on lives simply by solidifying and, subsequently, expanding the NBA.
“I think he had a vision for the league, and that shows the way the league grew, both in terms of its scope globally as well as something as simple as the number of the teams, the expansion. And that growth was managed and very calculated,” Snyder said. “I think people have benefited from that — players and coaches probably primarily, in addition to cities that didn’t have teams. He just impacted so many people.”
Some of them now play for the team.
Reserve center Ed Davis said that as a young fan of basketball, Stern was a visible and recognizable presence. And so becoming a first-round selection in the NBA Draft and getting to interact with a man he grew up mythologizing proved an indelible moment.
“I was a lottery pick, so I shook his hand. You know, growing up, that's like one thing I feel like that a lot of guys dream of, walking across that stage and shaking David Stern's hand,” Davis said. “That was a cool moment in my life that I'll never forget, for sure.
“I knew his name when I was in elementary school. Even though he was a commissioner, he had a face,” Davis added. “People knew who he was, you know? … David Stern, he separated himself.”
The international popularization of the game under Stern’s watch subsequently paved the way for the likes of Rudy Gobert to go from a small town in France to a first-round selection who also got to walk across the stage and see his dream made official by the diminutive former attorney.
“He allowed a lot of us to be able to dream about coming to the NBA. Like, 30 years ago, international players, it wasn’t normal for us to think that we could be in the NBA. Now, I wouldn’t say it’s normal, but no matter where you are in the world, you can dream of having a chance to play in the league,” Gobert said. “… For me to be able to shake his hand when I came in the league was a dream of mine. You watch all the guys who have been through that — it was a dream of mine. Basketball is gonna miss him.”
Layden noted that Stern’s success with the NBA inevitably led to offers from every other major sports league for him to jump ship and switch sides. But he noted that Stern was far too invested in the product he helped to grow.
While successor Adam Silver has earned mostly positive reviews for how he’s steered the ship since taking over in 2014, Stern inevitably gets deserved credit for taking a league that, for a time, appeared untenable and turning it into a global phenomenon.
“He definitely has to go down as the best commissioner in sports ever,” Davis said. “And I don't know that someone can take that throne away from him.”
Beyond that, however, Layden wants people to remember more about the man than his acumen for turning sport into show business.
The Jazz icon recalled that whenever he went back to New York, he and Stern would inevitably get together for lunch and discuss everything from baseball to theater to how they were keeping themselves busy in retirement.
“We’re going to miss David Stern. Not so much for what he brought to the NBA; the NBA will go on, it’ll be better or it’ll be worse — I think it’s going to be better with Adam Silver,” Layden said. “But, I’ll tell you what, he was a fine man, he was a good man, he was an honest man — and we’re gonna miss him for that. He’s a friend that’s left us way too early.”