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In Memoriam: David Stern

Basketball players in court/ JWS

Former NBA commissioner David Stern passed away on New Years Day at the age of 77. While Stern may be most famous for growing the NBA into a global phenomenon during his 30-year tenure as commissioner, he also made a dramatic impact on women’s sports by launching the WNBA in 1997. Val Ackerman, the first WNBA president, called him the “mastermind,” saying, “Without his vision and engagement, the league wouldn’t have gotten off the ground.” (Stern, on his part, called Ackerman the league’s principal “navigator and guide.”)

Tributes to Stern have been pouring in from across the basketball world, from players like Candace Parker and Chiney Ogwumike, to executives such as Kelly Krauskopf and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

Known for being an iron-willed businessman, Stern took a hands-on approach to everything, including the WNBA, a league he proudly championed throughout his career. Stern was known for aggressively lobbying media editors for better coverage of the WNBA, saying, “We felt the WNBA didn’t get the respect that we thought it deserved.”

That doesn’t mean Stern always played nice. He famously hard-balled the WNBPA during CBA negotiations in 2003, threatening to cancel the season if he didn’t get his way. In retrospect, his anger over what he perceived to be a lack of appreciation from the WNBA’s players now seems insensitive at best.

But Stern was ultimately a big-picture thinker, and in light of his passing, it’s only right to likewise judge his career from a big-picture perspective. The fact is he didn’t just open doors — he created them. To this day, he remains the only commissioner of a major professional sports league in America to launch a professional women’s league. While the WNBA has been and continues to be fueled by the tireless work of countless determined women, there’s no doubt that without Stern’s initiative, the league wouldn’t have been founded when it was and wouldn’t now be heading toward its 24th season.

Stern saw women’s basketball as both an important social cause and a legitimate business interest. That kind of allyship and vision from those in power remains absolutely essential to the growth of women’s sports everywhere.