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David Stern's Legacy

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One of the recent trends in sports is to assemble some of the greats of a game onto an athletic version of Mount Rushmore.

David Stern, who died New Year’s Day of complications from a brain hemorrhage last month, would likely hate an attempt to place him onto such a lofty spot. The games are about players and coaches, Stern was often heard to say.

But as the book of American sports history is written and we come to the chapter on great authority figures, Stern’s name and visage will be prominently displayed, and rightfully so.

While men like former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who preserved the integrity of his sport, and former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who moved his game into the modern era deserve their spots on the mountain, Stern does too, for duplicating Rozelle and Landis.

Stern, who ran the NBA for 30 years, took a league that carried the perception that many of its players were drug-addled and a part of the criminal element and molded it into a behemoth.

Yes, the NBA was blessed to have such transcendent talents as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant during Stern’s tenure, Anyone could preside over a league with players of that skill level.

But Stern’s marketing skill turned basketball into the world’s second most popular sport, after soccer. Indeed, under Stern’s leadership, NBA players became stars on every continent, thus extending its brand beyond American shores.

And he made the players richer than anyone could imagine. In the 1984-85 season, Stern’s first as commissioner, the salary cap for each team, meaning the amount the club was permitted to spend on all player salaries, was 3.6 million.

As we approach the midway point of the current season, the median salary per player, meaning the middle value of all salaries, is 3.5 million, while the average salary per player is 7.6 million.

Stern, who worked pro bono as a lawyer on an anti-housing discrimination case in the 1970s, was politically active and encouraged the players to take up causes, making the NBA the most progressive of leagues.

He also championed the advancement of women in NBA offices, and helped clear the way for the creation of the WNBA, the world’s longest existing professional women’s sports league.

Along the way, Stern became a benevolent dictator, fiercely shielding the NBA and its reputation against perceived enemies, both outside of the league and in.

He was accused of behaving paternalistically towards the NBA work force, especially in instituting a dress code for players when they were not in uniform.

Stern certainly had the courage of his convictions and wasn’t afraid to meet his challengers and critics head-on. Once, he accepted an invitation from then New York Times columnist William Rhoden to meet at a Harlem barbershop.

There, Stern took questions from Rhoden and the gathered audience about the league’s policy about not allowing prospective players to enter the NBA right out of high school, a dress code and player salaries.

Whatever you call David Stern – and the names are many – it’s not a stretch to say that at the end of the day, you have to call him the greatest.

And that’s how I see it for this week. You can reach us via email with your questions and comments at Sports at Large at gmail.com. And follow me on Twitter at Sports at Large.

Until next week, for all of us here, I’m Milton Kent. Thanks for listening and enjoy the games.