Anatomy of a Sport's Turnaround. David Stern has led the NBA from scandal and financial woe to worldwide popularity. INTERVIEW: BASKETBALL COMMISSIONER

CLEARLY, it's the sports success story of the '80s: The National Basketball Association (NBA) has achieved unprecedented popularity at home and is becoming a worldwide attraction as well. The chief architect of this phenomenon is commissioner David Stern, who may maintain a lower profile than his counterparts in other sports, but who can cut a deal or market his product with the best of them.

During a recent interview in his Olympic Tower office high above Fifth Avenue, Mr. Stern talked about the dramatic turnaround in the NBA's fortunes, the possibility of the league's expansion overseas, and the prospects for more female fans (and female players, somewhere down the line), among other subjects.

It seems hard to believe now, but as recently as 1982, the NBA was foundering in a sea of problems: headline-making drug abuse by players; serious financial difficulties faced by several teams; and a potential strike by players. Public interest had fallen so low that the final game of the championship series between Los Angeles and Philadelphia was aired via tape delay rather than live in prime time.

Now, only a few years later, the league is thriving as never before. Attendance, television ratings and revenues, and corporate sponsorships all have increased dramatically. Labor peace has been achieved via pioneering collective-bargaining agreements. And the drug problem has been met head-on with a good degree of success.

Stern can't take credit for all of this, of course, but as one who has worked with or for the NBA since 1967, he has obviously had a hand in a lot of it. In 1983, when he was the league's executive vice-president for business and legal affairs, he negotiated the historic bargaining agreement featuring the revolutionary ``salary cap'' that limited every team's total payroll.

Stern was also involved in the creation of the league's anti-drug program, which many observers consider a model for combining firmness with compassion.

The first time a player comes forward and admits a drug problem, he continues to receive his salary, and the rehabilitation program is free. The second time, the rehabilitation is still free but the player's salary is withheld. If there's a ``strike three,'' said Stern, the player is banned for at least two years, after which he can apply for reinstatement.

If there is reason to believe that a player who hasn't come forward has a drug problem, an independent expert can be consulted and the equivalent of a ``search warrant'' obtained to require a drug test. A positive test, or a refusal to take the test, is ``strike three,'' Stern said.

``In effect, then, we have mandatory testing upon showing of probable cause,'' he said. ``It's not random testing.''

Nor is it a ``negotiated'' program, which would imply an adversarial relationship between the NBA and the players, he said. It's ``a joint program co-developed with the players to adapt to the realities of the world.''

`AS for the success of the program, it depends how you measure success,'' said Stern. ``I've had the unhappy duty to ban five or six players. But I think the message has been delivered. Players with problems come in. And we've had good responsiveness from the fans.''

Since Stern's election as commissioner in 1984, the game has been on a steady upward spiral in terms of popularity. And he expects more of the same - especially if the league can maintain its current aura of peace on the financial, labor, and drug fronts.

``The game itself is always No. 1,'' he said. ``In the past, No. 2 has been crisis management - putting out brush fires. But now we have more time to think of and implement policies to assure continued growth.''

One area which he thinks hasn't been fully tapped yet, for example, is that of female fans.

``The traditional male audience derives from the fact that among today's adults, men are more likely to have played and watched basketball as kids,'' he pointed out. ``But many more girls are playing basketball today in elementary school, high school, and college, which means there is definitely growth potential for the audience in that direction.''

What about the possibility of one or more of these female players eventually making the NBA?

``I don't think it will be anytime soon,'' he said, ``but sometime one will come along who is good enough to play, and she will play.'' He sees a parallel in tennis: ``You see some exceptionally athletic and strong women in tennis, but they can't compete in the upper men's echelons yet. Ultimately they will, though, and ultimately they will in basketball, too. I don't doubt that. I view it as inevitable. But not for a while.''

Given the widespread televising of NBA games in Europe and elsewhere, the lionizing of NBA players, and the growing sales of NBA-licensed products, many wonder if the next step is expanding the league overseas. To some, it's more a question of ``when'' than ``whether.'' But if there are any blueprints or timetables for international expansion, Stern isn't telling.

``It's great speculation, but it's really not in our game plan right now,'' he said. ``Our present [international] strategy is to focus more on programming, and licensing, and promotional opportunities, supported by occasional games or other events.''

Taped telecasts of NBA games now reach more than 70 countries around the globe, with hotbeds like Italy and Spain getting 50 or 60 games a year. This year's All-Star Game was broadcast live to those two countries plus Greece and Brazil. Marketing and licensing of NBA-related products is becoming another major source of overseas revenue in recent years. Personal appearances by NBA teams have indicated a level of interest beyond even the most optimistic expectations.

`THE Celtics were overwhelmed by the hospitality and adulation of the fans,'' Stern said of the Boston players' reaction to participating in a pre-season tournament in Madrid last fall against three European teams.

Stern said the fans were very knowledgeable, and that Reginald Bartholomew, the US ambassador to Spain, was quite pleased with the entire venture.

``He told me one thing the [US] government encourages is the opportunity for foreign countries to be recipients of US business along with culture and the sharing of traditions,'' Stern said.

So where does it go from there? Will the NBA in fact have a European division by the turn of the century, as predicted recently in one national magazine?

``I'd describe that story as `whimsical,''' Stern said. ``Sometimes whimsy turns to reality, and sometimes it doesn't.''

Before even thinking about any such full-scale overseas operation, he indicated, a likely scenario would involve the playing of some regular-season NBA games in foreign countries. Also, he said, there would undoubtedly be increasing travel by coaches, referees, trainers, and other support people to such countries.

And beyond that?

``In the age of the Concorde, and with projections of hypersonic transport where you can have breakfast in New York, lunch in Tokyo, and be home for dinner, anything is possible,'' he conceded. ``But it certainly isn't our present plan or design.''

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