By: John Mignelli- Assistant Sports Editor
Despite its melodiously catchy jingle, the NBA on CBS was struggling mightily. Between 1978 and 1981 the NBA Finals didn’t even crack double digits in the Nielsen Ratings – a measure of how many people were tuning in to the broadcast. Enthusiasm was so low that multiple playoff and Finals games in this time were broadcasted on tape-delay. But it wasn’t just the NBA on CBS that was barely treading water; the NBA itself was at the zenith of its most infamously unattractive era.
The late 70s and early 80s were a time made recognizable by disinterest from America as evidenced by the poor ratings. It was a time when surefire superstars – Roy Tarpley, David Thompson, Michael Ray-Richardson and John Lucas for example – had their careers steered past the point of no return by cocaine abuse. A time when a scornful eye was turned on Black America after Kermit Washington almost killed Rudy Tomjanovich with a freak punch, merely trying to protect himself in an on-court scuffle. To put it quite frankly – it was a time when the majority of White America was not interested in watching young black men – presumably all delinquents who were high on cocaine – play basketball.
Although it may not have looked like it at the time, the NBA was about to go through a major resurgence and launch itself into the stratosphere. A young Earvin “Magic” Johnson was capturing the hearts of every female in America with his infectious smile, and Larry Bird was winning the allegiance of every working-class American nationwide with his blue-collar and hard-nosed game. Shepherding in this popular duo was the intoxicatingly cool Julius Erving, and suddenly basketball was bouncing back from obscurity.
But they couldn’t save the league themselves. Their game – majestic as it was – wouldn’t solve the drug problem running rampant throughout the league. Johnson, Bird and Erving could power the ship but they needed someone to steer it, and it didn’t look like it would be then-current slipshod NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien. However, the young Executive Vice President David Stern – who was the driving force behind many of O’Brien’s achievements – was soon to take over as commissioner in 1984.
Stern’s first year at the helm of the NBA was the beginning of the league’s best period. He was on the podium throughout the decade, personally welcoming in legends like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Scottie Pippen among other sensational talents.
Not without hitches, Stern would go on to be accused of falsifying the 1985 Draft Lottery, being a central figure in multiple lockouts, and more recently, vetoing a blockbuster trade for reasons that were considered to be in the league’s own interest and not the involved teams’.
But it was Stern who intensified drug testing and mercilessly doled out suspensions and bans. He expanded the game to the world, unleashing an arsenal of talents to dormant audiences with Jordan, Johnson, Bird, and Barkley leading the 1992 Olympic Dream Team in Barcelona. Stern instated a dress-code to the game’s players, sharpening basketball’s image and appeal to the league’s cynics. These among other feats like sponsorship and revenue sharing didn’t just save the NBA, they transformed it from a desolate association at the brink of ruin to the vehemently rejoiced institution of athletic entertainment that it is today.
It was absolutely darkest before Stern’s dawn. He cradled the league and nursed it, giving his best intentions every step of the way and is now handing it off for the start of the next generation. We’re indebted to Stern for his undeniable triumph, but alas; the show must go on.