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The Legacy of NBA Commissioner David Stern: The Rise of the NBA on Television

Despite what NBA Commissioner David Stern did to Seattle, he has been amazing for the sport of basketball on the whole. Today we take a look at him taking the game from tape delay to broadcasting every game live on numerous mediums.

Edited by Tiffany Villigan


Throughout the 1970s and the early 80s, the NBA wasn't the global force that it is today. The NBA Finals and most of the NBA playoffs were shown on the CBS Network. Amazingly they were hardly ever shown live, but were mostly shown on tape delay to not disrupt the high-drawing situational comedies (sitcoms) or shows like "Battle of the Network Stars."

As some of you older fans of the Seattle Supersonics may remember, two games of the 1979 NBA Finals were shown on tape delay on the west coast, but weirdly both the Central and Eastern Time Zones got to watch those games live.

You may also remember that those tape delayed playoffs and NBA Finals games were shown at 11:30pm at night, coming on just after your late local news. Back in the 70s and 80s, who is going to be able to stay up to watch those games? Definitely not the kids you need to become enamored with the game to grow it.

New NBA Commissioner David Stern knew that if he wanted the sport to grow, he had to reach a broader audience. He had to reach the younger generations, grow their love for basketball and let them become the future players and money spenders as they grew older.

He knew the league had to be more visible in its pre-draft and draft processes. People would be interested in seeing how the NBA draft lottery process played out, and in 1985 it was televised for the first time. The 1985 Draft Lottery is probably the most notorious one in history. The New York Knicks were down and needed a franchise player; when the envelopes were being dropped into the drum you can see one thrown with a bit more gusto and a corner get bent. (You can see the video here.) The conspiracy theories have been running wild for almost thirty years now.

Another reason Stern had to get the NBA on more television sets in homes across America was the budding rivalry between stars Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Johnson and Bird would go on to win nine of ten championships in the 80s, with the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics playing each other for the championship three of those times.

Stern also had this guard from North Carolina in Chicago who was starting to do things no one had ever seen before on a consistent basis. Michael Jordan would go on to become the NBA's more marketable star, making himself and the NBA both untold millions of dollars in their partnership together.

There was still quite a lot of room to grow in the television market. For example, during the 1993 NBA Playoffs, the Sonics-Jazz game 4 was scheduled at the same time as a Bulls game and NBC chose to run with the Bulls game instead. Those of us in Seattle had to listen to the Sonics game on the radio. I remember shooting baskets in my backyard listening to that game instead of sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching it.

Not all local Sonics games were on television either, and eventually if you wanted to watch home games on TV, you had to buy them on pay-per-view. Of course my dad paid to watch the home games on TV. I almost said "we," but I was 14 and didn't have a job. It was still quality time with my dad.

Fast forward to today: teams like the Knicks have their own cable channel; Time Warner Cable signed the Lakers for $3 billion over 20 years for the rights to broadcast all local Laker games in the Southern California market; NBA TV is a channel dedicated to showing classic NBA games, live games, news and great breakdowns on everything before and after, as well as "The Starters"; and each team in the league has all 82 of their games broadcast on television, the internet and whichever medium you so choose to watch a game on. I'm watching the Dallas Mavericks play the Detroit Pistons on NBA League Pass.

David Stern has grown the game so much on television that only English Premier League soccer games are shown on more screens worldwide than the NBA. In America the NBA might only be the fifth most popular sport, but across the world it only trails soccer as the world's game, and grows bigger every year because of David Stern aptly growing the game in the right direction.

For this I have to thank you, David Stern. Because of you I can watch hundreds of hours of NBA basketball during the course of the week if I so choose. My future divorce attorney also thanks you for the big check I'm going to write him in four years after my wife leaves me to find someone who watches a normal amount of basketball.

The views expressed in this article do not represent all views and feelings of SonicsRising staff.