On New Year’s Day, former NBA commissioner David Stern tragically died three weeks after suffering a brain hemorrhage. As news spread, tributes started pouring in; players, executives, and fans all hailed Stern for transforming the league into a global presence. Magic Johnson, however, had a much more personal memory of the late commissioner.
While David Stern changed the face of the NBA forever, he also changed the world by standing alongside Johnson when many others ran in fear.
David Stern’s time as NBA commissioner
Fittingly for a man who would shape global basketball, David Stern was born in New York City in 1942. He grew up in New Jersey, attended Rutgers, and then moved on to Columbia Law School.
In 1966, Stern joined Proskauer, Rose, Goetz & Mendelsohn, LLP; while the firm had its fair share of clients, the young lawyer started working with the NBA. He was the lead attorney when Oscar Robertson sued the league in 1970, and, in 1978, he switched sides. Stern left the law firm and became the NBA’s General Counsel. Two years later, he became the commissioner. The league never looked back.
While there were some notable hiccups—including brawls, franchise relocations, crooked referees, and an infamous dress code—Stern’s tenure transformed the league. As recently as the 1980s, the NBA Finals were tape-delayed; today, regular season games are appointment viewing all over the globe.
Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement
As NBA commissioner, David Stern oversaw plenty of stars and unforgettable moments. Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement, however, struck a much different tone.
In November 1991, the Los Angeles Lakers guard held a press conference to announce that he had HIV. While Johnson said he didn’t know how he had contracted the virus, the impact was clear. He retired from basketball, effective immediately; rather than taking the court, Magic vowed to “battle this deadly disease.”
While it might seem naive now, HIV/AIDS still carried a heavy social stigma at the time. Many thought that only gay men could contract the disease; others thought Magic Johnson was on the brink of death. David Stern, however, didn’t run in fear. He stood alongside the Lakers’ guard and hired a leading AIDS researcher to help enhance the league’s perspective; the diagnosis became an opportunity to educate people about HIV/AIDS.
Magic Johnson remembers David Stern’s support
On Wednesday evening, Magic Johnson took to Twitter to remember David Stern. Unsurprisingly, his memories focused on the aftermath of that fateful day in 1991.
While Johnson retired before the start of the season, NBA fans still voted the guard into the All-Star Game. Despite several players—including some of Johnson’s own teammates—argued that he shouldn’t play due to safety concerns, David Stern’s support never flagged; the entire event turned into a send-off for one of basketball’s beloved stars. Magic would also suit up as a member of the Dream Team during the 1992 Olympics and would briefly return to the NBA, allowing him to retire on his own terms. But something even more important happened; a global perception started to change.
“[The aftermath of Johnson’s diagnosis] confirmed to me the power of sports to educate and to change people’s minds on issues,” Stern explained to amFAR. “It was a huge, huge opportunity, and I think that Magic, with a little help from us, changed the debate on AIDS in this country and possibly around the world.”
While it’s easy to look at David Stern’s impact on the game of basketball, his support of Magic Johnson helped change the course of history.