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Taylor said there’s been a “40-fold” increase in revenues from the league’s national TV contract, and that the average player salary will have had grown from $250,000 when Stern took over to $5 million by the end of the current collective bargaining agreement.

Stern was the league’s outside counsel from 1966-78, then its general counsel before becoming executive vice president of business and legal affairs from 1980-84. He replaced Larry O’Brien to become the league’s fourth commissioner, getting a boost in taking the game mainstream with the popularity of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and soon Michael Jordan. The league began marketing its stars, and Stern found the desire for them was greatest in some far-away lands.

The real explosion came in 1992, when those three headed the Dream Team that led the U.S. to the Olympic basketball gold medal while winning fans around the world. The NBA has gone on to play games in 17 countries, staging 114 international games.

“He’s done a remarkable job,” Major League Baseball Commission Bud Selig said at the World Series. “To think of what the NBA was when he came in and what it is today, most people judge him very, very highly.”

There were rough patches, particularly the brawl between Indiana Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans in 2004, and the betting scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy. Stern had already passed off most of the heavy lifting to Silver by last year, but he was the one absorbing the criticism during the lockout for the second shortened season in his tenure.

He sometimes appeared worn down during the negotiations, even missing one critical bargaining session while sick, but insists he’s got plenty of energy to keep working now.

“I feel great,” Stern said. “I’m enjoying my job, but I’m looking forward to doing some other things. I’m stepping down, I’m not retiring.”

Stern just recently returned from China, Germany and Italy, and plans another overseas trip next season, and will remain an adviser to the league in retirement on international matters.

“We just think that his leadership will be important to our future,” Taylor said.

It’s meant everything to the league’s past.

The league has reported huge increases in ticket and merchandise sales, and TV ratings are at an all-time high. Last season’s lockout, the second time the league lost games to a work stoppage, hardly made a dent in the league’s business or in fans’ interest.

But even for Stern, business has always taken a back seat to basketball. He’s sought changes to improve the product on the court, such as the elimination of isolation play that bored him, to implementing penalties that go into effect this season for flopping.

“For the most part it’s been a series of extraordinary experiences and enormous putting together of pieces of a puzzle and it goes on forever,” Stern said. “And there will always be another piece of the puzzle and so the question is at what point do you decide that, let someone else do it? That’s the point that I’m at now.”

Taylor and Spurs owner Peter Holt, who is replacing him as board chairman, said the owners will work to have a contract with Silver by April. Silver, who served a variety of positions before becoming deputy commissioner, was the lead negotiator during the lockout and Stern has relied more heavily on him in recent years, even turning to Silver to answer questions on tougher topics.

Stern said he wouldn’t leave until he knew there was a successor ready, and he has repeatedly said Silver is ready for that role. Stern said he would always remain available to take a call and help the league.

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