Before former NBA commissioner David Stern’s arrival in the league, drug abuse was a common theme in the ’70s. There were a handful of players who dealt with drug addiction. It was so common that The Los Angeles Times estimated that 40% to 75% of players in this era used cocaine, and one in 10 smoked or freebased the drug. It was a widespread problem that affected the players and product of the NBA as a whole.
“We needed someone to come in and put things in order,” Spencer Haywood, an NBA Hall of Famer, said. “We were at a point where you had to do a number of things to get the drugs out, and to get the fighting out.“
So when Stern became the NBA’s General Counsel under Commissioner Larry O’Brien in 1978, the lawyer made it a goal to solve the drug issue that dominated the league. How did he do that? By enforcing strict policies and implementing multiple programs that would treat drug addiction.
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The beginning of a new era
Stern started to eradicate drug usage in the league by contacting law enforcement officials in each NBA city to track down the drug dealers that were in contact with the players. He also put up free counseling, rehab, and treatment centers for players dealing with addiction.
The programs didn’t click at first, so Stern resorted to implementing a strict policy that would ban players if they were caught under the influence of illegal substances.
“So that was like the beginning of the new era of basketball because prior to that, to be honest, we had decay in the NBA, decay in a sense that we had been infested by drugs,” Haywood told Jackie MacMullan in the “Icons Club” podcast. “I was a victim of it. We had gotten stale. It was just—it was not a good look for basketball, it was not a good thing,” Haywood said.
One of Stern’s best achievements
Before Stern eradicated the use of drugs in the league, many front office executives believed that O’Brien (yes, who the NBA championship trophy is named after) wasn’t doing his best job to solve the drug problem that the league went through. O’Brien, who served as commissioner from 1975 to 1984, received some flack for not being too aware of how serious the drug issue was.
When Stern replaced O’Brien’s seat as commissioner in 1984, the drug problem that once dominated the league lessened thanks to his long-term efforts in implementing strict politics and programs since his arrival in the league. It also helped that the Magic Johnson and Lary Bird rivalry brought rise to the NBA during Stern’s tenure, which enabled players to fix their priorities because of how serious the competition got.
Stern may not have been the perfect commissioner, but there’s no denying that he helped save the NBA in more ways than one.