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Stern's life, legacy celebrated at NYC memorial

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Published in Basketball
Tuesday, 21 January 2020 16:36

NEW YORK -- Just a city block and an avenue away from the Olympic Tower office where he had peered out over a metropolis, if not the entire world, dreaming up ways to grow the sport of basketball, the life of former NBA commissioner David Stern was celebrated Tuesday.

A crowd of thousands filled the lower bowl at Radio City Music Hall, as people from all corners of the sport -- players and coaches, referees and agents, public relations staffers and journalists, family and friends, league executives and team employees, Hall of Famers and the entire current New York Knicks roster -- gathered to honor Stern's 30-year tenure running the NBA.

Stern, who died earlier this month at age 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage, was memorialized by 10 speakers in a nearly 2½-hour ceremony, starting with current NBA commissioner Adam Silver and culminating with deeply personal -- and equally witty -- words from his two sons, Eric and Andrew.

Perhaps no presenter was as moving as Los Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson, who in a tearful tribute detailed how Stern stood by him when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991.

"In a time of need 29 years ago -- the toughest time in my life, the darkest moment in my life -- my commissioner turned into my angel and he was able to throw me a lifeline," the normally effervescent Johnson said, with emotion and conviction dripping from every word.

Johnson, who spoke from the cuff without consulting any notes, recalled a phone call he received from Stern ahead of the 1992 All-Star Game, inviting him to participate in the weekend's grand event despite having already retired because of the uncertainty surrounding his diagnosis.

"That game saved my life," Johnson said. "It gave me the energy that I needed to carry on and to live on and knowing that David paved the way for me to actually play in that game. ... We used to talk about it all the time, how we changed the world and how we changed HIV and AIDS on that particular day, as well as we saved a lot of people's lives that day."

Johnson revealed that Stern leaned on him to convince Michael Jordan and Larry Bird to join him on the USA Basketball "Dream Team" at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona -- the first time NBA players competed in the event.

If the trio of Johnson, Bird and Jordan (who was also in attendance Tuesday) made the NBA a mainstream sport in America during Stern's watch, the Dream Team made the league popular around the globe.

Stern's innovation, not just in growing the sport internationally, but in diversifying the sport domestically by championing the WNBA and NBA Development League (now the G League), was a constant theme.

"For all the advancements in women's team sports since [the WNBA debuted], I hope historians will write that it was women's basketball and the WNBA that did it first and blazed the trail," Val Ackerman, who worked as Stern's assistant for many years before serving as WNBA commissioner, said while fighting back tears. "I hope they'll write that David, while always quick to deflect credit, was the most important figure in the women's sports movement since Billie Jean King."

Golden State Warriors president and COO Rick Welts worked in the league office for 17 years under Stern.

"What we were doing could be important and meaningful, even as it was entertaining," Welts said. "We were all in awe of his intellectual curiosity. He went from being the NBA's best lawyer to the NBA's best marketer to a media expert. All self-taught."

Attendees were presented at the entrance with basketball-shaped lapel pins featuring Stern's distinctive signature. They were treated to a video to begin the ceremony that showed a mustached Stern being interviewed by an Afro-sporting Greg Gumbel when he first took over as commissioner in 1984 and included clips dating to his childhood as the son of a New York deli owner.

Laughter flitted throughout the concert hall when Stern was shown trying on LeBron James' oversized white sports coat on the night of the seminal 2003 NBA draft and when Stern playfully held the championship trophy out of arm's reach from Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach's eager hands following another Boston title in the 1980s.

Silver, who honored his former boss by saying he learned from "a master at the top of his game," rattled off a list of snackable Stern wisdom he referred to with affection as "Davidisms."

"'You have to be willing to step into traffic' -- his way of saying, 'You better be willing to take risks,'" Silver said. "'If you stand still, you go backwards' -- his way of saying, 'We better keep innovating.' ... 'Micromanagement is underrated' -- clearly one of his favorites. ... 'Relentless pursuit of perfection' -- I'm sure he stole it from a Lexus ad, but it was our mantra for years."

Stern's business acumen was trumpeted by Pat Riley, who shared how his playing career started with the San Diego Rockets, a franchise that has since moved to Houston and is worth 1,000 times what it was back then. And Stern's irascible side -- which straddled the line between cunning and adroitly comical -- was detailed.

"One [member of the media] even wrote me to say that the 'F--- you!' phone call from David was the best he ever received," Silver said. "Sorry, that was David."

If that quip by Silver got the room going, Stern's youngest son, Eric, brought the house down by exuding his father's same irreverent sense of humor.

"He didn't speak until he was 4 years old -- that's true," Eric Stern said. "And as my mom likes to point out, once he did start speaking, he didn't shut the f--- up for the next 73 years."

Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, David Robinson, Bob Lanier, Bill Bradley, Bill Walton, Earl Monroe, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and Yao Ming were among the luminaries who turned out.

Stern was also eulogized by longtime friend and neighbor Michael Cardozo, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs Kathy Behrens, and acclaimed jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, as Stern's wife of 56 years, Dianne, looked on.

Marsalis and other members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Quartet closed the proceeding by playing a bluesy New Orleans jazz funeral tune onstage -- the same stage where Stern once helped arrange games to be played by both USA Basketball and the WNBA.

And Johnson's message stayed with attendees as they exited into the cold, winter afternoon.

"I'm going to miss my friend, I'm going to miss my angel," Johnson said.

ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.

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