NEW YORK -- There was a certain poignant irony in Magic Johnson speaking Tuesday morning at David Stern’s memorial service.
So many years after what had been one of the NBA’s most panicked, unexpected and challenging episodes, there was some measure of order restored forever with Johnson on stage at Radio City Music Hall, eulogizing the league’s most powerful and accomplished commissioner ever.
Rather than the other way around, a real possibility and the presumption of many when they heard the stunning news in November 1991 that Johnson had contracted the HIV virus.
“At a time of need 29 years ago, my commissioner turned into my angel,” Johnson said at what was billed as a celebration of Stern’s life.
Johnson was just 32 years old then and Stern 49 in his eighth year as the NBA’s chief executive. As he spoke to an audience that filled most of the famous auditorium’s 3,500 seats on the main floor, Johnson did so at the robust age of 60. No one would have been happier about the chronology than Stern, who died Jan. 1 at age 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage three weeks earlier.
Stern had rushed to Los Angeles to be with Johnson at the news conference in which the Lakers’ MVP and championship point guard went public. It was a moment so searing that many people still recall where they were when they saw it.
Stern’s unflagging support of Johnson and his determination to educate fans (and other NBA players) about HIV, AIDS and the transmission of such diseases led the commissioner to invite Johnson – who abruptly retired upon learning of his diagnosis – to return for the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando. After Johnson starred in a joyous, MVP performance, Stern famously and immediately hugged him, a demonstration that such contact was not to be feared.
“That game saved my life,” said Johnson, later tearing up. “It gave me the energy I needed to carry on. … I’m gonna miss my angel.”
Missing Stern has been a state of mind and a sad distraction for so many in the NBA community this month. The event Tuesday was a shared opportunity to spin it backward and forward at the same time, enjoying memories of Stern while appreciating his work and the lessons that will endure as the league marches on.
At a time of need 29 years ago, my commissioner turned into my angel
The setting was terrific. Radio City Music Hall sits on Sixth Avenue between 50th and 51st street. That’s just one long block, current commissioner Adam Silver noted, from Stern’s former office at the NBA headquarters building on Fifth Avenue.
The Art Deco auditorium is grand and big enough to hold all who came. The great proscenium arch rising 60 feet above the stage and Tuesday’s speakers is shaped as a gaping semi-circle, bathed in orange light -- which made it look like a tremendous basketball, the perfect backdrop for the day.
Fitting, too, since Stern’s tenure as commissioner and his impact figure to have more legs than the Rockettes who more traditionally work this room.
The stage and arch actually were designed to resemble a setting sun, also appropriate. The tributes to and remembrances of Stern that came in the immediate wake of his death rightfully focused on his career, the heavy lifting he did in taking the NBA from a struggling, third-rate league whose championship games couldn’t crack prime time to the global sports juggernaut it is today.
Much of it, he had accomplished before he stepped down in February 2014, exactly 30 years after he ascended to the commissioner position. So news accounts of his passing included talk of his personality, generally focused on his tough and sometimes intimidating business style. While often not user-friendly, it served the NBA and its players well.
“How many millionaires did that man help create?” Larry Bird wondered in a conversation with NBA.com. “With all the things he did for this league, a bunch of basketball players got really, really rich.”
What attendees heard Tuesday, though, filled in the cracks and revealed facets of Stern’s life and ways about which most basketball fans -- and many in attendance -- knew little or nothing.
We learned that he had a middle-school’s love of juvenile and bawdy jokes. That he drove a 1977 Buick station wagon with wood-grain paneling long past its useful life. And that Stern and his wife Dianne, in the personal story shared by Golden State team president Rick Welts, made a considerable donation in the memory of Welts’ partner Arnie Chinn when Chinn died in 1994. It would be several years before Welts, a Stern protégé in the NBA hierarchy at the time, would come out as gay, and the Warriors executive says he still doesn’t know how his boss learned of his loss.
Greeted in the great hall by a jazz quartet from nearby Lincoln Center, where Stern sat on the board, and played out into the afternoon by a Mardi Gras-style brass band, the guests cut across decades, generations and all levels of luminosity of NBA life.
There were more Hall of Famers in the room than typically show up on Enshrinement Night each year in Springfield, Mass., on hand to pay respect to the man who helped keep their marvelous engine running. Among the many: Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Bill Walton, Wayne Embry, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd.
There were plenty of others, some recently retired, some in Stern’s orbit in roles other than players. Elton Brand, Rod Stickland, Dallas owner Mark Cuban, agent David Falk -- frankly, random players, head coaches, GMs and/or executives from the league’s 30 franchises. The Knicks and the Lakers, who play Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, skipped practice to attend. There were little shots mingling with bigs, and folks from Stern’s assorted realms of law, commerce, broadcasting, media and marketing.
Reflections were offered by Silver, Johnson and Welts, along with jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, former WNBA executive Val Ackerman, friend Michael Cardozo, NBA president of social responsibility Kathy Behrens and Miami Heat president Pat Riley. Stern’s two sons Eric and Andrew also spoke.
Here are a few of the highlights:
- Silver shared a list of “David-isms” that Stern used around the office. The one that drew the most knowing laughs: “Micromanagement is underrated.”
- Marsalis described Stern as “pure caring, concealed in vinegar.” He talked of the circles in life, from cradle to grave, and said: “Though he is gone, he is still around us -- and all at once.”
- Ackerman, currently commissioner of the Big East conference, became the first president of the WNBA in 1996. She recalled the “informed impulsiveness” that Stern, after the time for fact-finding and debate was over, often would let carry the day in his decision-making process. And as far as his importance in birthing and supporting the WNBA, she said: “David was the most important figure in the women’s sports movement since Billie Jean King.” Then, lapsing into the sort of lingo Stern apparently loved off-camera, Ackerman added: “We broads truly owed him.”
- Johnson shared that Stern recruited him for the 1992 Olympic “Dream Team” not simply to play or further the HIV message but to recruit Jordan and Bird, neither of whom was so inclined. “The man was great,” Johnson said, “because he understand what every individual needed.”
- Welts and Behrens expanded on Stern’s vision of sports as more than fun and games. He built the league “with a moral compass as much as a business plan,” Welts said. Behrens recalled Stern saying, “Shame on us if we don’t do all we can with the [social] platform we have.”
- Riley described his first actual meeting with Stern as a chewing-out he got as Lakers coach, after getting too vocal in criticizing officials and foul calls between Finals games. “David said many times to me, ‘Pat, you are not bigger than the game,’” Riley recalled. “ ‘The game is what it’s all about.’” Riley also recalled being fined for multiple transgressions, with sums of $50,000 or $100,000. “He would tell me, ‘If you’re good, no more T’s, care what you say, I’ll give you the money back,” Riley said. “I never got a dime back. He’d say, ‘We need it. It’s an expensive league.’ “He was a tough, honest man and a leader who you trusted,” Riley said. “He wanted everybody to flourish, and we did.”
- Andrew Stern said his father tried as much as possible to remain a regular dad despite his high-profile position. He reflected on two moments when he was still in grammar school. First, he got to research a school paper on Watergate by being introduced to Stern’s predecessor as commissioner, Larry O’Brien, who was heading the Democratic national committee whose offices were breached in that political scandal. Later he got to secretly listen in to the conference call in which the Celtics traded for Robert Parish and the pick that would become Kevin McHale in 1980.
- Eric Stern told several humor tales about his father, including one about Stern not speaking for the first four years of his life. “Mom would say, once he did start speaking, he didn’t shut up for the next 73 years.”
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