NEW YORK (AP) — David Stern had basketball as a passion and law as a profession, one he figured he could return to if a job at the NBA didn't work out.
He never did.
Instead he went to Europe, Asia and plenty of other places around the world, bringing with him a league that was previously an afterthought in the United States, and turning it into a global powerhouse.
Stern, who spent 30 years as the NBA's longest-serving commissioner and one of the best in sports history, died Wednesday. He was 77.
"Without David Stern, the NBA would not be what it is today," Hall of Famer Michael Jordan said. "He guided the league through turbulent times and grew the league into an international phenomenon, creating opportunities that few could have imagined before."
Stern suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12 and underwent emergency surgery. The league said he died with his wife, Dianne, and their family at his bedside.
"The entire basketball community is heartbroken," the National Basketball Players Association said. "David Stern earned and deserved inclusion in our land of giants."
Stern had been involved with the NBA for nearly two decades before he became its fourth commissioner on Feb. 1, 1984. By the time he left his position in 2014 — he wouldn't say or let league staffers say "retire," because he never stopped working — a league that fought for a foothold before him had grown to a more than $5 billion a year industry and made NBA basketball perhaps the world's most popular sport after soccer.
"Because of David, the NBA is a truly global brand — making him not only one of the greatest sports commissioners of all time, but also one of the most influential business leaders of his generation," said Adam Silver, who followed Stern as commissioner. "Every member of the NBA family is the beneficiary of David's vision, generosity and inspiration."
Lakers forward LeBron James echoed Silver.
"We lost a great visionary," James said. "He and Dr. James Naismith are the two most important people for the game of basketball. Dr. Naismith because he invented the game and David for his vision, his vision to make this game global."
Thriving on good debate in the boardroom and good games in the arena, Stern would say one of his greatest achievements was guiding a league of mostly black players that was plagued by drug problems in the 1970s to popularity with mainstream America.
He had a hand in nearly every initiative to do that, from the drug testing program, to the implementation of the salary cap, to the creation of a dress code.
But for Stern, it was always about the game, and his morning often included reading about the previous night's results in the newspaper — even after technological advances he embraced made reading NBA.com easier than ever.
"The game is what brought us here. It's always about the game and everything else we do is about making the stage or the presentation of the game even stronger, and the game itself is in the best shape that it's ever been in," he said on the eve of the 2009-10 season, calling it "a new golden age for the NBA."
One that was largely created by Stern during a three-decade run that turned countless ballplayers into celebrities who were known around the globe by one name: Magic, Michael, Kobe, LeBron, to name a just few.