Remembering what Stern did, and how he did it

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He is not in the Hall of Fame, he never played in an All-Star game and he is about a foot shorter than most NBA stars.

But try to find an NBA legacy more lasting than David Stern‘s.

The game is about the players, and nobody understood that better than the commissioner, who is retiring Saturday after exactly 30 years on the job. He would likely say that the league is where it is because of Bird and Magic, Kobe and Shaq, Michael Jordan and now LeBron James.

Players wouldn’t forget to include Stern on the list.

“I think he is the greatest person in NBA history. He made everything happen,” said Yao Ming, the former Houston center from China and one of the most important of the many international players who found homes in Stern’s NBA.

A league that had been struggling just to find its footing in the U.S. - in the early 1980s weekday games of the NBA Finals were shown on tape-delay - is now one of the most popular in the world, a $5.5 billion industry with the highest-paid team athletes in sports. Now Stern, 71, hands it over to Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, his longtime top aide.

Stern is leaving quietly, refusing most interview requests because he isn’t interested in discussing himself. But others have had to plenty to say about what he accomplished, and how.

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THE REINVENTION

The man who ended up with the most important job in basketball was an attorney when he joined the league in 1978, saying he figured he could return to his legal career if the NBA didn’t work out.

Columbia Law School couldn’t have prepared Stern for everything he would need to know after replacing Lawrence O’Brien and becoming the league’s fourth commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. So Stern simply dedicated himself to learning it.

“He reinvented himself in my mind. He was a young, very highly thought of lawyer when he came into basketball. And he made himself a marketing guy. He just put his mind to it and he really got himself involved in new technology like cable television, which was a kind of a new thing back then. So he was prepared to take the league to another level.” - USA Basketball chairman and former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo.

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THE EXPERT

Asked before this season about the NBA’s plans to put nicknames and sleeves on some uniforms, Stern made it clear he wasn’t involved, adding that the league’s decision was influenced by “so-called branding experts.”

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