David Stern once predicted that the NBA would have a division in Europe within 10 years. A few years later, he said it again. And a few years after that, he said it yet again.
It never happened.
That was a rarity in Stern’s life and career. Usually, when he wanted something, he got it.
He wanted the league to grow under his watch, and it did. He wanted the game to grow internationally, and it did. He wanted players to dress more professionally, and the pregame show in locker rooms now is akin to a fashion show. He was a basketball tour de force, doing it in suits and wing-tips instead of jerseys and sneakers, and unquestionably is why the league is so successful today.
Stern died Wednesday, nearly three weeks after a brain hemorrhage made the end inevitable. He was the NBA’s commissioner for exactly 30 years — from Feb. 1, 1984, through Feb. 1, 2014 — and turned a league that was having its biggest games shown on tape delay into the multibillion-dollar global juggernaut that it is today.
“We all sit here and we have these jobs and we all owe a great deal and a great debt to him for making all of our lives better,” Basketball Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said. “He truly was, and is, the father of what the NBA is now.”
Thomas said those words on NBA TV — which, without Stern, probably wouldn’t exist.
Stern began building the bridge that connected the NBA and China, which has been a mutually beneficial relationship financially and likely will remain that way once the rift that was born this fall over political differences calms down. He took the league from 23 to 30 teams. He championed the birth of the WNBA.
“For those of us who have made a life from this league, words don’t do justice to what he meant,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank wrote on his personal Twitter account. “He was unique, brilliant, tough but maybe most importantly he stood by what he believed every time no matter the personal cost.”
Stern never sought popularity. He seemed to embrace conflict. When a tough decision had to be made — vetoing the trade of Chris Paul, for example — he welcomed it and accepted the repercussions from whoever was going to complain. He also was the calm in the eye of storms, such as leading the support for Magic Johnson after the Los Angeles Lakers great retired in 1991 after being diagnosed with HIV.
“When he first took over, the league was not as popular as it is now,” Hall of Famer Grant Hill said. “There were challenges. There were problems. And I think him coming in ... his vision, his leadership, he fought for the game of basketball. He fought for this league. He had a vision that this league could really transcend, that it could reach all people.”
He was right, and his words carried enormous weight.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra remembers when the Portland Trail Blazers — his father, Jon Spoelstra, was a member of that team’s front office — drafted Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic, international talents who might not have ever gotten to the NBA if not for Stern.
Jon Spoelstra had a million of those stories for his son, telling him that Stern was “a brilliant visionary.” So when Erik Spoelstra became coach of the Heat in 2008, he found himself in a meeting with Stern and still acknowledges being intimidated.
“But I went up to him and told him that, and just to let him know that there are a lot of people that really benefited from his vision and his leadership,” Spoelstra said.
Stern also had the gift of being simultaneously gruff and gracious.
He was acerbic and often acted like the smartest guy in the room, usually because he was the smartest guy in the room. He ruled with an iron fist. If you worked for the NBA, you worked for him and you were going to do things his way.
That was his cover, anyway.
He tried to hide that he had an enormous heart.
When an NBA employee's family member was diagnosed with brain cancer, Stern got word of it and had that relative in front of experts at renowned Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center within hours after making a couple of calls. When staffers would accompany Stern on business trips, he’d act like a flight attendant, completely ignoring the fact that the private plane actually had a flight attendant. He’d ask his travel companions if they wanted anything, over and over. He morphed from boss to host on those trips.
And when he got wind that another league employee desperately wanted to meet country singer Toby Keith, Stern found himself at an event with the recording star. He told Keith someone wanted to meet him, called the employee over and surely enjoyed how tongue-tied she was by the surprise encounter.
There are tons of stories like those that will be told in the coming days. Most NBA players towered over him, of course, but Stern is unquestionably one of the league's — and one of the game's — absolute giants.
“We owe him,” the National Basketball Players Association said. “And we will miss him."
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org