The NBA had enormous problems. Drug abuse among players was believed to be rampant. Many arenas were half-empty or worse on game nights. Most franchises were losing money. Some were on the cusp of folding. And when games were on television, nobody was watching.
That was how the 1980s began.
The 1980s became a transformative decade for the NBA, which is celebrating its 75th season. Television audiences reached new heights, the financial picture changed and the league — instead of shedding teams — expanded into new markets. People were putting VCRs in their homes, and the league came up with an entity called NBA Entertainment to give basketball fans with those devices plenty of content.
The average player salary in 1980 was around $180,000. By the end of the decade, it was around $900,000. The seeds were planted; today’s average salary is around $8 million.
Bird, Erving and Johnson were all champions by the midpoint of the decade, and in Stern’s first draft as commissioner, he saw a treasure trove of talent — Hakeem Olajuwon, Jordan, Charles Barkley and John Stockton, among others — enter the league at once.
The dollar figures — what teams are worth, what they sell for, what players make — have soared every since.
“David Stern is the reason why the league is in the position that it is in today,” said Wilkins, named one of the Top 75 players in NBA history. “He started taking the game global. We were the first team, the Atlanta Hawks, we were the first NBA team to play international basketball. We played against Russia. We played two games over in Moscow. That all was David Stern, really introducing the NBA game worldwide.”
It was a meteoric turnaround. For unsteady as the NBA’s footing was early in the decade, with the influx of talent and Stern’s guidance, the league — just like Magic and Larry — did a lot of winning in the 1980s.
(Photo credits to: Fremont Tribute)