NEW YORK — For the past several years, with words and actions, David Stern had laid the groundwork for his departure from the job he’s controlled and defined since 1984. He formalized it Thursday, announcing his intention to step down as the longest-tenured commissioner in professional sports.
During the NBA’s Board of Governors meetings in midtown Manhattan, Stern advised the league’s owners of his intention to retire on Feb. 1, 2014, the 30-year anniversary of his taking the job. In doing so, Stern, who turned 70 last month, has stayed very much in the character he’s developed during those three decades.
He made it clear he will remain in charge of league operations for the next 15 months, mentioning that arrangement several times, and making sure his hand-picked successor will be installed. The owners said they will begin negotiating with deputy commissioner Adam Silver to take over for Stern — a decision they came to unanimously — when those 15 months end. The plan is for Silver’s appointment to be ratified at next April’s board of governors meeting.
“It’s been a great run. The league is in, I think, terrific condition,” Stern said. “I’d like to think I did an adequate job. But one of the things I did best was provide a successor. I’m not going anyplace in the next 15 months, but this gives us the opportunity to have a very smooth transition.”
This day has been foreseen for some time as Stern scaled back in recent years. He has been grooming Silver, 50, to replace him for at least the past six years. Stern allowed Silver to take a lead role in negotiating the challenging collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union that was settled 11 months ago after a lockout wiped out 16 games of the 2011-12 season.
At the time the agreement was finalized, Stern said the deal that guaranteed at least six years of labor peace would outlast him as the league’s boss. Silver, who has worked for the league in various capacities for more than 20 years, has long been considered the favorite to take over the job. Stern said he decided six months ago to formalize the transition process.
“The opportunities for this league are limitless,” Silver said. “I’m honored, thrilled and will do my absolute best to grow this league or try to do it the way David has done over the last 20 years. To the NBA family, I look forward to serving you.”
Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who gave up his seat as chairman of the board to the San Antonio Spurs’ Peter Holt on Thursday, came to the announcement armed with two pieces of data to illustrate Stern’s impact on the league. During Stern’s tenure the league’s annual revenue from its television contract increased 40 times, and the average player salary jumped from $250,000 a year in 1984 to more than $5 million.
“David has set the standard for not just the NBA but for all sports,” Taylor said. “He’s done things not only to benefit the owners but also the players.”
Stern’s fingerprints can be found across the league’s operations, most notably on strong revenue growth, the expansion from 23 to 30 teams, the movement into small markets such as Sacramento, Memphis and Oklahoma City, the spreading global reach spurred on by the league’s backing of letting its players take part in the Olympics, and the establishment of the WNBA.
Stern also oversaw the implementation of drug testing that helped root out a major league issue in the 1980s. Repeating on Thursday something he’s said often in the past, Stern said some of the lowest moments of his time as commissioner were banning players from the league because of positive drug tests.
He developed a reputation for being a ruthless negotiator even before he took over as commissioner, working as one of the league’s top attorneys starting in 1966. That carried over during negotiations with players over the years, which featured a strengthening — if expanding — salary cap and ultimately led to two work stoppages.
Meanwhile, the value of franchises soared. When Stern took over, teams were being sold in the $20 million range. In 2010, the Golden State Warriors set a record when they were sold for $450 million.
Although he works for the owners, Stern has long been seen as the most powerful presence in a league that depended on star players to drive ratings and revenues. He was known for being strong on discipline, conscious of image and trying to protect the NBA brand.
Not always popular with players, fans and even the owners who served as de facto bosses for his tactics, there is no doubt Stern will leave his post having played a central role in turning the NBA into a multibillion-dollar business.
“There’s no doubt that you’ll be remembered as the best of all time as commissioners go,” Silver said to Stern. “You’ve set the standard not even just for sports league commissioners but all CEOs.”
There were other orders of business handled at the meetings, including:
” The owners unanimously approved the sale of the Memphis Grizzlies to California businessman Robert Pera, making him the league’s youngest owner at age 34. Pera, who reached a deal to buy the team from Michael Heisley in June, assembled an ownership group that includes local Memphis businessmen and athletes with ties to Tennessee, including Peyton Manning and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
The deal will ensure the Grizzlies, whom Heisley moved to Memphis from Vancouver after he bought the team 12 years ago, will remain in Memphis. The Grizzlies have a lease at the FedExForum through 2021.
“The future of the NBA in Memphis looks very bright today,” Stern said. “Robert has put together a group with strong Memphis ties.”
” Last week, the Seattle City Council approved a plan to build a new downtown arena led by businessman Chris Hansen, who wants to bring the NBA back to the city. Stern, however, did not offer much on the issue and said currently no team is considering Seattle.
“I don’t have any current view on where such a team comes from,” Stern said. “We think it is a great development in Seattle and we’re very excited about it, but there is no current team in play. That is going to be an issue for the owners to consider.”
” The owners discussed but decided to table a decision on selling ads on jerseys. Stern said in recent interviews that he no longer favors such a plan.