In 1984, when David Stern took over as commissioner of the National Basketball Association, there were only 23 teams in the league. The NBA was the second smallest league in terms of teams as Stern took helm; the NHL had 21 teams, Major League Baseball had 26 teams and the NFL had 28 teams.
As I mentioned before, Stern--with the new budding star power in Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan--was able to help the NBA grow its television presence through the '80s and into the '90s. Eventually he took the popularity of the game and expanded into Miami, Orlando, Charlotte, Minnesota, Vancouver (eventually Memphis) and Toronto. There were a handful of relocations, but we'll get to that on Friday.
Looking at the size of the markets, it's almost amazing that Miami didn't have an NBA team until 1988. Stern oversaw this growth within the North American borders with the league growing to 30 teams, the same size as MLB and NHL (the NFL is now 32 teams).
Very few games were played internationally; the Washington Bullets played only four, to be exact, before 1980. In the 1984 preseason David Stern scheduled the New Jersey Nets, Phoenix Suns and our beloved Seattle Supersonics to go to Europe to play 12 games against various International Basketball Federation (FIBA) teams. Then there wasn't another international game played until 1987, but slowly the games began to pick up speed.
What was the event that triggered this, though? What made David Stern realize that the NBA could compete with soccer as the world's sport?
In 1989, FIBA head, Boris Stankovic, approached Stern about letting NBA players play in the Olympics for the first time. Up until this point the United States only sent college/amateur players to the Olympics. The world wanted to see the best, though; they wanted to see Jordan, Bird, Magic and the rest. This wasn't Stern's idea, but he didn't stand in the way either.
During the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the Dream Team took the world by storm. Many heralded this as the greatest basketball tournament of all time, despite the Dream Team winning by an average of almost 44 points throughout the tournament and winning the gold medal over Croatia by 32.
Without the Dream Team and Stern's blessing of letting pros play in the Olympics, we might not have seen stars like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili. Those three were just kids in 1992 during the Olympics and credit the Dream Team for starting their love of basketball. We'd have a markedly different league right now.
After the '92 Olympics, Stern continued to push the game internationally. Eventually regular season games started being played overseas. How could we forget Halloween 2003 when Rashard Lewis dropped 50 points on the Clippers in Japan? Then of course this past year the Nets played the Hawks at the O2 Arena in London, and even more regular season games are planned for overseas in the coming years.
Other major American sports like football and baseball haven't taken off internationally the way basketball has. Outside soccer (youth through professional), there isn't another sport that rivals it like basketball does in league numbers around the world. All because David Stern made sure to push his stars into the European and Japanese markets, and capitalized on the Chinese market with Yao Ming and so forth.
Despite what you might think of the man himself, you can't deny that with his shrewd moves and persistent push into other markets, David Stern has made basketball the sport of the modern world.