Paul Lambert had been working at the NBA League Office in New York two months when he met David Stern.
He was freelancing for the NBA coming up to a couple of years. The League Office would turn his freelance contract into a full-time one, allowing Lambert to grow professionally.
After working late one night, Lambert got in the elevator to head home. Who would hop on the elevator before the ground level would be then NBA Commissioner David Stern. After an exchange of hellos, Stern would lean into Lambert and ask, “Better to be a full-time employee than a freelancer?”
Lambert was stunned.
“Wow,” Lambert said to himself. “I remember stammering out a “thrilled to be here” response. It was astonishing that he knew me.”
Lambert, who now serves as the Vice-President of Enshrinement and Community Services at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, would work at the NBA from 1990-2002. When speaking with him over the phone, it is that memory of Stern that Lambert remembers vividly. Having that ability to know who his employees were, regardless of position, exemplified Stern as a person.
It was that attention to detail and global foresight of where basketball could go that enabled the former Commissioner to grow the game into the second most-watched sport in the world. With his recent passing on January 1st, Stern leaves behind a legacy that will be hard to replicate.
Whether it is a League office in China or the formation of the Toronto Raptors franchise, it is because of Stern’s vision that allowed these pipe dreams to transform into reality.
“David had an incredible drive for perfection,” said Lambert. “We always wanted to be the best.”
When David Stern took over as NBA Commissioner, the league was in shambles. During the 1982-83 season, before Stern took over, NBA revenues were $118 million. Playoff games, including the NBA Finals, were tape-delayed, a dark reality for a league looking to compete with baseball and football.
Stern knew that in order to grow basketball, it needed to start domestically. He shifted the marketing focus of the League away from the teams and onto its players. Without the stars of the NBA, there would be no league.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) January 1, 2020
Stern’s era began in concert with Michael Jordan when he was drafted by the Chicago Bulls in 1984. Harnessing the rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, along with the big-name talents like Jordan, Charles Barkley, Reggie Miller, and Patrick Ewing, allowed basketball to soar in popularity.
The NBA went from the financial doldrums to a $5-billion enterprise. Television contracts are now valued at $2.7 billion per year with ESPN, ABC and Turner Sports and the NBA Finals as a broadcast property is worth $24 billion. The average NBA player salary is now $7.7 million. This is all thanks to Commissioner Stern, who relied on his instincts to build a strong foundation of basketball stars and fans in America.
The most enduring impact of Stern’s Commissioner tenure was his ability to inject the game in markets that many deemed to be impossible for basketball. Seven new franchises were created under Stern’s watch, including two from Canada: the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Basketball in Canada was the distant third cousin in terms of reach and marketability. Compared to hockey, Canada’s most revered sport, and baseball, riding the wave of the Toronto Blue Jays’ back-to-back World Series championships, basketball possessed a niche following. Many thought professional basketball would be doomed to fail in a Canadian market.
When team proposals were made for new teams, Stern was incessant that Toronto acquired an NBA franchise. It was Stern’s influential hand that guided the application process, making sure that Toronto had its own NBA entity, not borne out of franchise relocation. He knew the historical relationship between basketball and Canada, dating back to Dr. James Naismith from Almonte, Ontario inventing the game in 1891. Flash forward to 1995, Stern was unlocking the potential for a basketball boom that would occur across the country.
The Commissioner would end up choosing Canadian businessman John Bitove’s proposal, which would eventually become the Toronto Raptors franchise we see today.
“He knew Toronto was a great market,” said Bitove for a piece in The Athletic. “He knew it was one of the fastest-growing cities in North America. It was just a matter of looking back on it now, who was going to have a commitment to the sport beyond just the basketball team. MLSE, with Bell, Rogers and current owner Larry Tanenbaum, have done a fantastic job of growing the sport (in Canada). People look at the success of the sport in Canada, it’s all being driven by the Raptors.”
It took a while but basketball has now tapped into the consciousness of Canadian society across the country. The Toronto Raptors winning their inaugural NBA championship was the exclamation point for a grassroots movement of Canadians who are passionate about basketball.
For the first time in NBA history, a Finals series would occur in a nation that was not the United States. Non-sports fans could not turn away from the Raptors dethroning the three-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors, evidenced by the multiple “Jurassic Parks” that popped up across the country. TV ratings across Canada for the Raptors soared during their championship run, with eight million people tuning into the series-clinching Game 6 of the NBA Finals, making it the country’s most-watched NBA game ever.
This success in growing the game of basketball in Canada is in large part due to Stern’s leadership. The profound social impact of Stern injecting his influence in Canada through various initiatives is undeniable.
Paul Lambert recalls when he was in charge of taking the NBA Jam Vans on the road throughout Canada. Players like Charles Barkley would show up to a Sears parking lot in Vancouver, and people would be mesmerized. Events such as the 1998 NBA Draft in Vancouver or the 2016 NBA All-Star Game in Toronto demonstrate Stern’s focus on building the players’ brands in order to drive league-wide prosperity.
“The fans had a first-name relationship with the stars of our game,” said Lambert. “This is why events such as the National NBA Jam Van tours were such a success in Canada. It speaks to David’s genius of focusing on the players and putting them in the best possible light to succeed.”
When young Canadians watch Steve Nash win two NBA MVPs or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, R.J. Barrett or Kia Nurse have global success, there is an inherent belief that they could be like them. This is because of Stern’s stewardship in enabling the growth of the sport in Canada, as well as being the lead pioneer for the WNBA.
It isn’t just Canada where more individuals are actively participating in basketball at all levels. Basketball has reached various parts of the world that were previously untapped markets.
I can not put into words what the friendship of David Stern has meant to me but many others. He changed so many lives. David was a great innovator and made the game we love what it is today. This is a horrible loss. Our hearts are with Dianne & their family. RIP my friend. @NBA pic.twitter.com/mbnneqm18s
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) January 1, 2020
In the Stern era, the NBA has opened offices in 15 cities outside of the United States, from Mumbai and Johannesburg to Beijing and Taiwan. With television contracts for 200 different countries in 40 different languages, it is not surprising that 108 players from 38 nations are currently playing in the NBA. Stern had the vision to not just limit basketball in the United States but make it accessible and profitable in all parts of the world.
Lambert remembers sitting at the airport with Stern after an exhausting event in Tokyo, Japan. He was “philosophical and reflective about the work we were doing together.” But possessed the knowledge that more needed to be done.
Stern’s drive and determination have left the game as a global sports giant compared to when he started as Commissioner. Thousands of jobs were created worldwide for people in basketball, all thanks to David Stern. Stern changed basketball forever and his legacy continues to make the sport alive, even despite his death.
“Working in the NBA when he was at the helm of it was an honour and I think that he absolutely changed our game with the amount of vision that he’s had around what this game can be internationally,” said Raptors 905 head coach Jama Mahlalela.
“Everyone who plays works in or watches the NBA owes a debt of gratitude to Mr. Stern. He was transcendent,” Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri said in a press release. “Mr. Stern oversaw the expansion of our league to Canada. He knew there was basketball talent around the world and he saw an opportunity for players and fans everywhere. He is a great, global giant in sports.”