During a trip Stern made to Japan to supervise some quasi-official basketball exhibitions by NBA players in the early 1980s, when he was deputy commissioner, he began to envision a day when there would be a significant NBA presence in countries outside North America.
“I just was always surprised at how knowledgeable people were and how well received our sport was,” he says. “And each time I had occasion to interface with something international, it was confirming of the fact that this sport, long before I became involved with it, had an enormous international following, warmth, and potential.”
The potential just needed nurturing, and Stern became its godfather.
Terry Lyons, a 26-year NBA employee who served as the league’s vice president for international media relations, recalls a time in the early 1980s when a young TV executive in Italy made weekly trips to NBA headquarters in New York to gather videotape of NBA games. He’d then show them to Italian basketball fans who were anxious to see Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and other NBA stars in action.
“Andrea Bassani happened to be the son of a TWA pilot,” Lyons says. “His very early role in the NBA’s TV agreement with Italian TV was to use his flight privileges to fly back and forth to get videotapes of NBA games. At that time, these were CBS tapes, because they had the international rights. But David, in one of his smartest moves, resecured those rights back to the league office. Thus was born a very important piece of the globalization of the game, which was TV exposure internationally.”
When Bassani would return to Italy, Dan Peterson, the U.S.-born coach of the successful Tracer Milan team in the Italian League, would then provide Italian language voiceovers for airing on Italian TV.
“Without question,” Lyons says, “international TV was the first important bridge to building the viable businesses and everything the NBA does around the world. A lot of people think it was about selling T-shirts and hats, but the proof is in the player development, which grew from those European players being able to see the game played at the highest level.”
Today, NBA television programming reaches 215 countries and territories, and games are broadcast in 45 languages.
And Stern has watched the rosters of his league’s teams swell with players born outside the United States. In the 1983- 1984 season, there were eight international players on the NBA’s 23 rosters; by the 2006-2007 season, there were 83, from 37 different countries and territories.
The greatest increase, season to season, occurred after Parker joined the Spurs in 2001 and became a starter for them, one of the league’s best teams, as a precocious 19-year-old rookie. The very next season, the number of international players increased from 52 to 68.
Parker is one of nine French players now active in the NBA. That France, a country so crazed about soccer, could suddenly produce more NBA players than any other nation but the United States is no accident.
“What happened is easy to explain,” says Olivier Pheulpin, U.S. correspondent for L’Equipe, France’s leading sports periodical. “After the Dream Team in 1992, many of our best athletes began playing basketball instead of soccer. Simple as that.”
Indeed, the phenomenon that was the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team, the first to include American NBA players, had a dramatic effect on the worldwide popularity of both basketball and the NBA.
Led by Jordan, Johnson, Bird, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, and John Stockton, the American team stormed through the Olympic tournament in Barcelona, Spain, enjoying international celebrity status.
Most believe that USA Basketball, the U.S. representative to the international basketball governing body, Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA), had petitioned to allow NBA players on the U.S. Olympic roster after the Soviet Union defeated an all-amateur U.S. team in the gold-medal game at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.
The truth is that Boris Stankovic, secretary-general of FIBA, had lobbied for many years for the inclusion of NBA players on the rosters of all teams in international competitions.
“I see the ’92 Olympics as the bookend to the 2008 Olympics,” Stern says. “On the one hand, it was like Team USA was a circus. We had the Tournament of the Americas (in Portland, Oregon), and play stops so the Brazilian players [can] get their pictures taken with the Americans. It was very funny.
“I remember everyone saying, ‘It’s ridiculous. … Why would the United States do this? … They’re going to humiliate the world.’ But I said two things at the time. One: ‘We’re actually honoring the world.’ Boris had said to us, ‘The only way we’re going to get better is to play against the best.’ And I said that we understood that.
“Number two: ‘You know what? The world is going to get better faster than you think, because this is an easy sport to learn, and we’re being followed very carefully.’ “
Stern was right. The Dream Team won its eight games in Barcelona by an average of 43.8 points, but even teams that were blown out appeared to regard it as an honor to have been humiliated.
In relatively short order, great athletes who had never considered any sport but soccer began playing Dr. Naismith’s game. The world began to catch up to Team USA.
“We were derided for some period of time,” Stern says, “until, for consecutive times, we lost badly in the  World Championships and badly in the  Olympics.
“So, we were right, and all of a sudden, there was a beatification of that Dream Team. They deserve to be lifted on our shoulders, because they did a great job. They competed. They represented. They were very good. That was important, because that helped us get to the point where we could begin distributing our games internationally. We’re now in 215 countries and 45 languages.
“That was a key liftoff point for that, and in some ways, probably more profoundly, a key liftoff point for millions of potentially elite basketball players around the world deciding to bounce the ball rather than kick it -- which is something I often say, and which I think is true.”