NEW YORK – Adam Silver called them David-isms, the words and phrases former NBA commissioner David Stern used to make a point.
“You have to be willing to step into traffic,” the current commissioner said, echoing what he heard from Stern numerous times over their decades of friendship. “His way of saying, you better be willing to take risks.”
Musician Wynton Marsalis delivered a beautiful and philosophical remembrance of Stern, who died Jan. 1 at 77 following a brain hemorrhage three weeks earlier.
“David was a revolutionary cloaked in a garment of a gatekeeper,” Marsalis said. “When you thought he was one thing, he was actually something else altogether. … Though we are brought here this morning by the icy beckoning of death, life is all around us, beginning and ending all rolled into one moment of tragic recognition and joyous reaffirmation – a circle that completes the cycle. …
“Although he is gone, he is all around us and all at once.”
Friends, family and co-workers – Silver, Marsalis, former WNBA president Val Ackerman, Magic Johnson, friend Michael Cardozo, NBA executives Rick Welts, Kathy Behrens and Pat Riley and Stern’s sons Eric and Andrew – paid tribute to Stern at Radio City Music Hall, one block from Stern’s old office at NBA headquarters.
The Jazz at Lincoln Center Quartet played as attendees took their seats. It was a collection of NBA luminaries: Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Bernard King, Steve Nash, Bill Walton, Dikembe Mutombo, Johnson and a collection of owners and executives from teams across the league.
Marsalis and jazz band musicians concluded the event with a New Orleans jazz funeral.
Using broad strokes and fine touches, speakers painted a vibrant portrait of Stern. These are the words Silver used: warm, brilliant, charming, optimistic, cantankerous, bold, demanding, tireless, tough, tender, fearless, determined, compassionate, brave, visionary.
In a celebration of Stern’s life, the stories revealed not only who Stern was but what made him who he was, faults and all, poking fun at his micromanaging, demand for perfection and temper. And speakers backed it up, from Welts, the influential NBA executive, who was on the receiving end of one of Stern’s outbursts, and Ackerman, who feared she might hear one of his famous tirades while waiting for him in an office.
In Stern-ian fashion, F-bombs were uttered. Eric Stern said his dad didn’t speak until he was 4 years old.
“As my mom (Dianne Bock Stern) likes to point out, once he did start speaking, he didn’t shut the (expletive) up for the next 73 years,” he said.
Andrew Stern spoke of the fatherly David Stern, the man no one knew much about because Stern the dad was protective of his family.
“From the earliest days, the lesson was always the same: It was about what mattered and what didn’t,” Andrew said. “His family mattered. His parents mattered. Stuff and fancy things didn’t matter.”
He also lauded his mom, calling her a force of nature who introduced her husband to a life of culture outside of law and sports. Stern became a board member at the Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Said Silver: “She played a critical role in every decision David made.”
Pat Riley, who ran afoul of Stern from time to time, reinforced with story after story after story that Stern reminded him in very specific terms and warnings that no one was bigger than the game. It helped shape Riley’s direction of the Miami Heat as team president.
“He understood what culture meant and how to build one,” Riley said. “Culture is nothing more than people who have shared visions of how to move forward and what is next.”
Ackerman spoke of Stern’s push for equality especially with the advent of the WNBA, and Behrens highlighted Stern’s desire to do good in the community through charitable works.
“David lived and believed by the creed that every one of us has an obligation to make the world better in whatever way we can,” Behrens said.
Welts was thrilled that he got to tell Stern, who supported Welts long before Welts revealed publicly he was gay, that he loved him at their lunch in November.
Cardozo, his longtime friend and law school classmate, relayed the story of how Stern got involved in the NBA. A lawyer who handled NBA cases for the firm Proskauer Rose was leaving, and Stern rushed to a senior attorney, saying he wanted to take NBA cases. That move changed the course of professional basketball.
With emotional reverence, Johnson – Stern called him Earvin – recalled when Stern stood by him in 1991 when Johnson revealed he was HIV-positive.
“In a time of need 29 years ago, the toughest time of my life, the darkest moment of my life, my commissioner turned into my angel,” Johnson said.
Johnson said playing in the 1992 All-Star Game months after his diagnosis saved his life.
“Sometimes, God puts somebody in your life that you don’t know the reasons why,” Johnson said, unable to stop the tears, “until something serious happens in your life. You know a true friend when something bad happens in your life. I don’t care about the championships. The man was brilliant because he understood what everybody individual(ly) needed, and he was able to provide that.
“If he was your friend, he stood there right next (to) you no matter what people said. Even though he was the greatest commissioner to ever live, he’s going to go down as a man who stood for what is right. And that’s what I love about David. … I’m going to miss my friend. I’m going to miss my angel.”
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