Stern, the influx of talent led to the transformation of the NBA in the 1980s | Basketball
By TIM REYNOLDS – AP Basketball Writer
The NBA had huge problems. Drug addiction among players was considered endemic. Many arenas were half empty or worse on game nights. Most franchises were losing money. Some were about to bend. And when the games were on TV, no one was watching.
This is how the 1980s began.
“This league,” said Hall of Famer Jerry West, “was in trouble.”
Saviors, many of them, were coming.
There were stars so bright they could have only one name: Doc, ‘Nique, Michael. Another was a bespectacled little man in a suit and wingtips, someone who changed the game without ever dribbling or shooting a basketball.
But the change really started with two more members of the club who only need one name; a flashy black standout with a skill set the hoop world had rarely, if ever, seen alongside a quiet white phenom who could shoot from anywhere.
Magic and Larry. Black and white, West versus East, Lakers versus Celtics.
The 1980s became a transformative decade for the NBA, which is celebrating its 75th season. TV ratings soared to new heights, the financial situation changed, and the league – instead of getting rid of teams – expanded into new markets. People were installing VCRs in their homes, and the league created an entity called NBA Entertainment to provide basketball fans with a lot of content on these devices.
“At the beginning of this decade, I think the NBA was in a very difficult position in terms of stature and relationship with fans, networks and sponsors,” said Russ Granik, who was one of the main executives of the NBA at the time. “And by the late ’80s, I think things had changed quite dramatically.”
There were stars all over the country: Julius Erving in Philadelphia, Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta, Jack Sikma in Seattle, and mid-decade Michael Jordan was heading to Chicago.
“The 1980s were a turning point,” Erving said. “But we haven’t forgotten the shoulders we stood on.”
The springboard for much of that growth can be traced to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, first rivals who couldn’t have seemed more different, then friends who realized they were bringing out the best in one another. the other.
Their battles began in the 1979 NCAA championship game, Michigan State vs. Indiana State, and they’ve been joined at the competitive hip ever since. They have faced each other three times in the NBA Finals, and the 10 championship series held this decade have included either Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers or Bird’s Boston Celtics.
“The Lakers and the Celtics were about as hated rivals as you could have in any sport,” said Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers for much of the 1980s and is now president of the Miami Heat. – one of the expansion teams that arrived in the NBA in the late 1980s.
The racing component was an added complexity to the Magic-Bird storyline.
Bird was “French Lick’s hillbilly,” the small-town Indiana asshole who often said he couldn’t run or jump. In a league made up mostly of black players, he was the Great White Hope. And the Celtics – who had two elite white players in Bird and Kevin McHale – also had just played in a city that had been rocked by violent racial protests in the 1970s and 1980s as public schools were forcibly desegregated. by court order.
Sometimes opposing players made their position clear. In the 1987 playoffs, when the Celtics ousted Detroit, two Pistons — Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas — suggested there was a double standard when it came to Bird’s place in the basketball landscape.
Rodman suggested that if Bird was a black player, he would be considered less of a star. Thomas added that Bird “is a very, very good basketball player. I think he’s an exceptional talent. But I have to agree with Rodman. If he was black, he’d just be another good guy.”
The Pistons watched as the Celtics headed to the NBA Finals to face the Lakers again with racial issues continuing to divide the country – as they always do. But the respect Bird and Johnson had for each other demonstrated on a national platform how people of different races and backgrounds can compete, even be rivals, and still co-exist.
The invincible David Stern put it all together for the country to witness.
He became NBA commissioner in 1984, inheriting control of a league that some corporate America — and probably mainstream America, too — considered too black, too drugged up, not dominant enough to command a significant portion of the sports landscape. Stern knew that for the game to grow it had to be in front of the eyes, and the way to do that was through television, especially with cable starting to take hold around this time.
“I think it was 1983 to 1984, we only had three CBS games scheduled for the whole season, so it wasn’t a period of splendid participation or focus,” said Stern, who died in 2020. , during an All-Star. Game several years ago. “It was really our world. … It was a good time, though, because it was Larry and Magic. But it was also — and people tend to forget that, there were Hall of Fame teams at that time.
The league finally had a product to sell and the stars were becoming pitchers. At the end of the decade, Spike Lee was Mars Blackmon, asking Jordan if it had to be the shoes. But it wasn’t the first shoe phenomenon of the 1980s; Bird, Erving and Johnson starred together in a Converse ad, lightheartedly arguing over who the shoe was for.
Erving was asked to help endorse everything from lip balm to soda.
“And actually, I ended up being a Coca-Cola bottler during that time as an entrepreneur,” Erving said. “It was kind of an extension of ABA, one for all and all for one.”
And it was going fast. Stern was the NBA’s executive vice president in the early 1980s when a landmark revenue-sharing deal was struck, an agreement under which players would receive 53% of gross proceeds. When he became commissioner, the players already loved him.
“I don’t think I could ever imagine things being what they are right now. I didn’t have that type of vision,” Erving said. “But the players, I think David Stern’s willingness to do a deal for a percentage of the gross, that was the big kahuna. Gross, I think in any business transaction, if you can get a percentage of the gross instead of a fraction of the net, you’ll be fine.
The average player salary in 1980 was around $180,000. By the end of the decade, it was around $900,000. The seeds have been planted; the average salary today is around $8 million.
Bird, Erving and Johnson were all champions by mid-decade, and in Stern’s first draft as commissioner, he saw a treasure trove of talent – Hakeem Olajuwon, Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton, among others – come into the picture. the league at once. .
The dollar figures — what teams are worth, what they sell, what players earn — have since skyrocketed.
“David Stern is the reason the league is in the position it is in today,” said Wilkins, named one of the 75 greatest players in NBA history. “He started to take the global game. We were the first team, the Atlanta Hawks, we were the first NBA team to play international basketball. We played against Russia. We played two games in Moscow. All of that was David Stern, who really introduced the NBA game to the world.
It was a dazzling turnaround. As unstable as the NBA’s position was at the start of the decade, with the influx of talent and Stern’s guidance, the league — much like Magic and Larry — gained a lot in the 1980s.
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