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Stern to step down, after transforming NBA’s business

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David Stern, credited with transforming professional basketball from an also-ran sport into a $5 billion a year business, is stepping down. The NBA commissioner says he’ll retire in February 2014, marking the end of a 30-year career at the helm of the league.

“It’s been a great run,” Stern said at a Thursday press conference. “The league is in, I think, terrific condition.”

Many in the NBA agree. Even the players union boss, who tangled with him on tough contract talks over the years, says Stern “will always be synonymous with the phenomenal growth and success of the NBA.”

Phenomenal indeed. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 80s, the NBA Finals weren’t even broadcast live. Now broadcasters spend a fortune on rights. The average player salary grew from $250,000 to $5 million during Stern’s tenure. Seven new teams took the court and the league has seen enormous growth internationally. Stern can’t take all the credit, of course; he relied on phenomenal on-court talent to sell the league.

“His ability to do that was largely dependent on the high quality of players that happened to emerge when he arrived: Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson,” says Kenneth Shropshire, who directs the Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Stern’s tenure wasn’t without its troubles. Like all professional leagues, the NBA had its share of labor disputes. Some players also complained that Stern adopted a paternalistic attitude at times, perhaps best captured by the dress code he put in place in 2005. The notion of a grandfatherly white man ordering a group of mostly black players not to wear hip-hop gear stirred up racial tension.

But overall, players, team owners and athletic brands largely hail Stern as a genius, because he made them all remarkably rich.

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