Yesterday, I attended the memorial service of commissioner emeritus of the NBA – a boss, mentor, friend to so many, David Stern. It was perhaps one of, if not THE most fitting tributes I’ve ever been to. It was positioned as a celebration of life – not a funeral – & it lived up to that billing, & some.
The NBA hosted the event at Radio City, & the owner of the NY Knicks, James Dolan, donated the building (which he owns) & covered all costs for the nearly 3 hr event.
Entering the building, & finding seats (imagine having such an impact on ppl that you fill all of the entire lower bowl of one of the most iconic theatres in the world) it was a “whose who” of the basketball world.
From Marv Albert to Dirk Nowitzki, Oscar Robertson to Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe (in our row w national writer, Jackie MacMullan), David brought together so many ppl from so many diverse backgrounds. Prob more important than the “big names” to me, were so many of the former coworkers from the various leagues & teams I was able to catch up with. David was a connector – & his life’s work had brought all these ppl together. It felt like one big family reunion.
I have shared previously & truly believe that all of us in that room needed that event – for the purposes of rejoicing the life of a great man, but also for closure.
I didn’t sit there & take notes – that would’ve been weird, not to mention the antithesis of being “mindful.” However, each of the speeches/tributes hit me so profoundly, that I decided to share one key phrase or story from each. For those in attendance, please forgive me if my memory misrepresents any of the event. Chronologically – here were the speakers:
Adam Silver (current Commissioner of the NBA/worked as David’s Deputy Commissioner for years). In previous tributes, I’d shared that DJS was known for hugging you & ripping your head off, all at the same time. Adam’s speech touched on just that. This part I did research to make sure I got right, but take a look at all the adjectives he used to described David: “warm, brilliant, charming, optimistic, cantankerous, bold, demanding, tireless, tough, tender, fearless, determined, compassionate, brave, visionary.”
So fitting, Adam said that a league partner once called him back after a call w David’s & shared: “Well I just got the ‘Fuck You’ call from David, & it was actually one of the best/most pleasant & productive Fuck You calls I’ve ever received.”
Wynton Marsalis (jazz Musician icon who became close w David in their work together on the Board at Lincoln Center). Wynton’s speech, not surprisingly, was the most artistic of the day. He spoke in analogies & metaphors about David’s life, & life in general. He said: “When you thought he was one thing, he was actually something else altogether…although he is gone, he is all around us.” Wynton used the number zero to describe David’s mind: you could see it as just a #, but it’s also a score, it’s also the letter O, it’s also a form of measurement, etc. That was a great representation of the vision & creative mind that David himself, had.
Magic Johnson (doesn’t need much of an intro, but one of the greatest basketball players of all time, & one of two league icons when David became commissioner in ‘84, along w Larry Bird). Magic spoke straight from the heart – no notes. He shared many stories – but his greatest story was how he said David was his “angel.” He said ppl come into your life & you don’t know why. When Magic was diagnosed w HIV, he said his world could have ended – he thinks he may have died (not from the HIV specifically), but from how his world felt like it was about to crash.
The way David stood by him, at his side – at the initial press conference, to play in the All-Star Game & convince other players they weren’t in danger, to play w the Dream Team in the Olympics – David’s loyalty & friendship saved Magic’s life, & as a result of their collective advocacy work on HIV/AIDS, has saved the lives of millions of others.
Val Ackerman (first commissioner of the WNBA in ‘97, former staff attorney & then special assistant to David even before the WNBA was launched). Val talked about David’s relentless pursuit of making sure women had a place to play professionally – a thriving league, that girls & women of all ages could look up to & aspire to be a part of – as a player or in management. She shared that the one time she ever saw David quiet for a full minute, was the WNBA’s opening game, at MSG, a sold out crowd – it was as if he couldn’t believe his eyes, seeing his vision come to life on such a grand stage.
Michael Cardozo (close friend since law school, colleague at Proskauer Rose Law Firm where David first went to work, & long time family friend). Michael talked about how David originally came to the firm w no marketing or sports training background. Another associate had left the “NBA Account” & David raced to ask a partner if he could be put as the new associate on that client.
When David got a chance to take a full time job w the NBA (a flailing league at the time), his colleagues described the move as “crazy” – & that was putting it kindly. But the man had vision, & after working on the NBA’s staff for numerous years, when Larry O’Brian announced his retirement, David was voted in by the owners, & the rest – since 1984, is history.
Rick Welts (one of the first League employees David hired – out of Seattle as a young “kid,” who would later go on to be President & my ultimate boss in Phoenix w the Suns, then President w the Warriors for their recent run, & a major figure in sports as a senior executive, openly coming out as gay).
Rick shared how early on, David’s directive to everyone in the small league office, was to talk only about where the league was GOING, not where it had been. David taught him & the staff that if THEY believed it, communicated it, & kept consistent w the details, others in the media & sports world would get the vision & catch on to what they were building. If they defended & harped on the past, they wouldn’t be able to move society’s perception of the league forward.
Kathy Behrens (head of all of community relations for the NBA – someone who was side by side w David as they grew the game, & made an enormous social impact, in communities all around the world). Kathy talked about the trips & impact made, & the RESPONSIBILITY he felt that the sport of basketball had (bc of how it connects ppl), & bc of the platform it had grown to be, to make a positive impact in so many areas of society.
Kathy shared that David wanted to change the title of her department, & her own title, from Community Relations to “Social Responsibility.” Though she was hesitant at first, as she thought it was a bit pretentious & hard to understand, when David offered her a promotion – on the terms she changed the name of her dept to Social Responsibility, she obliged. Thus changed the course of how “community relations” is now referred to in a more proactive way than ever before, throughout all of sports.
Pat Riley (iconic Hall of Fame coach, team executive, former player). Pat shared a story about when he was first coaching the Lakers, & was a “hot shot” in “Showtime” w the LA Lakers. Pat had been upset at the discrepancy of calls against his team by officials one night, & decided to go to the media w the names & stats of fouls called in uneven #s, by specific refs in a game.
David (not yet commissioner at the time), met with Riley, along w Larry O,Brien, & chewed out Riley so hard for his actions, he remembers it like it was yesterday. David’s message – no one is bigger than the integrity of the league & the game. No one person is a star that the league can’t live without. What Riley had done – was damage to the goodwill the league had been building & David would not stand for that.
Though Riley continued to have his run-ins w league disciplinarians, he said it taught him a lesson about how the game & the growth & ultimate success of the game was THE most important thing to honor.
Eric & Andrew Stern (David’s two loving sons, spoke separately, but so fittingly to end the celebration). Each has bits & pieces of their dad in them – mannerisms, delivery, comedic timing, sarcasm, heart – it was beautiful. They shared about David the Dad.
We learned that David was born w a disability – not being able to talk until the age of 4. They joked that his mom said – “yeah & he didn’t shut the fuck up for the next 73 yrs.” We learned about the old station wagon w paneling on the sides that David held on to & preferred to drive to the “newer” cars he was able to purchase once his compensation grew. We heard about how David never wanted to be seen in limos bc of the message it sent of preferential treatment, how he coached his sons teams, how he would take special care to make sure they had father/son moments.
Both shared that perhaps his greatest trait was that he didn’t care about things. He talked about family, friends, experiences, being what is of utmost importance in life.
The older brother ended by saying – what David built, was represented right there in that very room – a group of ppl from all over the world, connected together, all different background, feeling like family. He would live on through us, & the connections he’d help us form. It was a beautiful note to end on.