By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
NBA Commissioner David Stern resigned at the end of January ending a remarkable 30-year run as professional basketball’s leading man. Stern, thumbing his nose at George Orwell’s troubling prophecies, defiantly assumed the NBA’s helm in 1984. Stern inherited a league with limited television presence and that was, with the NFL and MLB as reigning kings, little more than a niche sport. Much has changed. The game now has global appeal, its players literally hail from all over the world and its stars shine as bright as those in any sport. And unlike its competitors on sports’ stage, the NBA has had no era lost to Performance Enhancing Drugs and its future lacks the alarming realities of concussions.
I want to be careful to not give too much credit. Stern was a good Commissioner, but he was no savior. He didn’t walk on water or turn water into wine. His tour began and was defined by an abstract force necessary for any successful endeavor: luck or, more politely, good timing. He inherited a couple young studs named Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird. Stern’s first NBA Draft netted the league Hakeem Olajuwan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and some raw, athletic shooting guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan. Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing arrived a year later. The ’87 Draft scored Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller and the United States Naval Academy’s David Robinson. And just like that, a generation of great basketball, one that would establish the NBA as a major sport with unprecedented reach across the globe, was born – Stern or no Stern.
As the years since 1984 have passed, the mantle of “Greatest Player” has passed from Magic, to Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James – not bad. Shaquille O’Neal arrived and proved that having the biggest dude on your team works not just in the neighborhood but also in the pros. The dominant franchises have included the Showtime Lakers, the Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls, the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the fabulously boring Spurs and the Miami Heat. It’s been quite a run for the bouncing orange sphere.
But that is just the game on the court. Limiting one’s consideration of the last 30 years of NBA basketball only to those players with first name recognition – Magic, Larry, Michael, Kobe and LeBron – or those aforementioned team dynasties minimizes the sports exponential increase in cultural influence during Stern’s regime.
Bird and Magic were great individually, but each man was better for the other’s existence. The one-upmanship of their careers is a microcosm of the American spirit. Accomplishment breeds complacency, unless an equally powerful force exists to constantly enhance the standard. To understand the influence of passion, competitive fight and self-confidence on success and reaching one’s full potential, look no further than Michael Jordan. Magic Johnson opened eyes to the non-discriminatory nature of the HIV virus and life with the disease. The Dream Team swelled national pride in 1992. The death of Maryland’s Len Bias, just days after the 1986 NBA Draft, was a brutal example of the dangers of drug abuse. And the game, perhaps more than any other, has annihilated petty differences in personality, background, race and nationality. Basketball once united a quiet white kid from Indiana (Bird) and a gregarious African American kid from Michigan (Magic); it now routinely congeals men from literally all around the world. That ability to trivialize personal contrasts and bind people around a common purpose represents the best of sports – and the NBA is the standard.