MIAMI — David Stern thinks that when it comes to the NBA Finals, his last might be the best.
Stern's 30-year reign as NBA Commissioner will end Feb. 1, making this Miami-San Antonio series the final championship matchup of his tenure overseeing a league that has grown into a wildly successful international corporate giant under his watch.
Still, there's plenty of items remaining on Stern's to-do list, which is one of the reasons why he hasn't turned his final months into a victory lap of sorts.
"I'll savor it when it's over," Stern said Thursday in his annual pre-Finals news conference. "I'll look back on it. I do know every day that I have the best job in the world ... and I will remain committed to the continued success of the NBA. That's the thing I think about more than I think about looking backwards. I'm actually looking forward to helping the NBA in any way possible as it rises to continued new heights."
His last Finals might help the league reach those heights.
The Miami-San Antonio series features four former NBA Finals MVPs in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. It will almost certainly have a tremendous international following, because James is a global marketing icon, Wade wears shoes from a Chinese company and more than half of the Spurs' players were born outside the United States.
"I would say this is probably the most anticipated Finals in, who knows, 30 years," Stern said. "We've had a great run up to it."
Under Stern's watch, the league has become a $5 billion annual industry, with the NBA Finals broadcast in 215 countries — instead of being shown on tape-delay, as was the case in the early 1980s.
The NBA had 23 teams when Stern began; it now has 30. The Heat weren't even an idea when Stern began his tenure, and they're now a global brand themselves, having made the title round four times in the last eight seasons.
"He saved the league," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "People forget how drug-riddled and really on how much thin ice the league was on in the 1980s. Obviously, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were the talents sort of behind that movement, but without David's marketing genius the league wouldn't be in its present form. He turned a small, professional, struggling league into a global giant. And it's not just about basketball anymore."
Stern announced last year that he would retire and be replaced his longtime deputy, Adam Silver, who has worked with him in five different capacities over the last 22 years.
Silver, in Stern's eyes, is more than ready for the job, and the current commissioner said providing for a plan of succession was vital.
"At some time an organization can use an infusion of different ideas," Stern said. "And at the same time, along the 30 years, there are a group of colleagues that now work at the NBA who have been doing it for a while, but they're very, very young at heart and push us and push each other. And I think it's their turn to shine as well a little bit more. So it's time to step down and step aside, while at the same time being willing to assist in any way I can, particularly internationally."
The global game has been of importance to Stern for years. He has often spoken of the idea of having European teams in the NBA, which many people in the league believe will eventually happen. NBA players have starred in the Olympics since 1992, the league has had over 100 games contested in international cities, and Stern will keep trying to expand the league's reach abroad after he retires.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has already seen Stern's fingerprint on the game around the world.
"I've seen that when we go to the Philippines every summer," said Spoelstra, who is of Filipino descent. "You go into any sports store now anywhere in the world, you see NBA paraphernalia. And just the interest worldwide, how our game has grown globally, not only international players but the interest outside. Even though I was just a kid, I remember what the NBA was like before. And it was a far cry from right now. He deserves a large part of the credit."
Stern touched on a number of other issues, including:
—The league is looking into changing how it handles replay reviews in-game, including possibly having them handled off-site in a broadcast center. "We've got to find a way to make it a little smoother," Stern said.
—Flopping, which was a key point of emphasis for the league this year, will be discussed again at the league's competition committee meeting in San Antonio next week. "There's always a challenge of getting it right," Stern said.Comment on this story
—He called coaching changes, which have been plentiful since the regular season ended and even including the league's reigning coach of the year in Denver's George Karl, "a natural consequence" of a team having expectations to win immediately.
But most of Stern's final address revolved around memories, such as what the league went through in recent years with its most recent labor stoppage that led to the current collective bargaining agreement, and some of the other unforgettable moments of his tenure, like his fear for Magic Johnson when he learned that he had the HIV virus in 1991 and retired, followed by the joy of watching Johnson win the All-Star MVP award in Orlando a few months later.
No regrets, Stern said.
"I would just say that you look at the body of work and you say that he steered the good ship NBA in a productive way," Stern said. "We have had a lot that we've had to deal with in terms of crisis on the one hand and opportunity on the other. And we've dealt with the crises to protect the motherlode. We've dealt with the opportunity to take this league to a place we not only couldn't have anticipated, we couldn't have imagined."