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“There was a lot of drug use” — Larry Bird on how David Stern kept the NBA afloat before being commissioner

According to Larry Bird, David Stern made two key moves that saved the NBA.
Boston Celtics guard Larry Bird and NBA commissioner David Stern

Larry Bird and David Stern

We regard the NBA today as the best basketball league in the world. But some 40 years ago, it was a league renowned for its drug use. According to NBA icon Larry Bird, former commissioner David Stern took key steps to clean up the league.


Bird wasn’t one of those kids whose eyes were glued to every NBA game. Instead, he kept track of the other popular basketball league back in the day, the ABA. The likes of Ricky Barry, George Gervin, Moses Malone, and Julius Erving were some of the prominent cats from the ABA. From his periphery, Bird saw the NBA making key strides.

I really didn’t know much about the NBA when I came in. I didn’t really follow it. I always watched the ABA and followed them. … Coming in, I didn’t think much about it, but as a few years went by you could see it progressing. And I could really look back and say 1984, when David Stern took over as commissioner, is where it really took off,” Bird said, per andscape.

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Stern became commissioner in 1984. Interestingly, this was also the time Michael Jordan entered the league as the third overall pick in the NBA Draft. Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, too, were in that historical batch. According to Bird, the entry of several generational athletes boosted the NBA’s reputation.

Keeping it afloat

Pre-1984, the league had drug problems. And if you know a thing or two about drug tales, they don’t usually end well. Before Stern became commissioner, he was the league’s executive vice president for business and legal affairs. He organized drug tests across the NBA, making it one of North America’s first major sports leagues to carry out a drug testing policy.

In addition, promotional spiels focused on individual talent rather than the team. Besides Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan were the most marketable players in the 80s. Bird also recalled the simple yet effective way Stern tried to keep the league afloat: giving out free tickets.

You got to remember, when I came into the league they had cocaine problems … so there was a lot of drug use. I can remember David Stern saying in 1981 he had to give away tickets for people to come to the All-Star Game. But once ’84 hit, you could tell it was a shift in the feelings of the NBA and how it was perceived,” Bird added.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the NBA case is in the syllabus of the top business schools in the world. It didn’t just rely on the arrival of Jordan and other remarkable basketball talents. The NBA made an internal effort to revive its business and improve its reputation. It was the perfect mixture of fate and initiative. 

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