NEW YORK — David Stern was remembered Tuesday as a mentor and a leader, a Little League parent and a loyal friend.
To Magic Johnson, he was an angel.
Johnson tearfully recalled Stern’s firm support after the Hall of Fame player learned he had HIV, and how it was the former NBA commissioner allowing him to play in the 1992 All-Star Game despite some players’ fears that kept his spirits up during the darkest time of his life.
“That game saved my life,” Johnson said.
Johnson was one of the speakers at a memorial service for Stern, who died Jan. 1 at age 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage a few weeks earlier.
Radio City Music Hall was filled with what Commissioner Adam Silver called one of the greatest collections of basketball talent in one location, from mighty big men Bill Russell and Yao Ming to dazzling distributors such as Johnson and Isiah Thomas.
They listened to stories hailing Stern not only for his brilliance as a businessman, but for his commitment to social responsibility and his love of his family. Speakers, ranging from colleagues in the league to friends from before he arrived there, talked of how Stern would help people arrange doctor’s appointments and score All-Star tickets, and how he loved to offer his assistance – especially, Silver noted, when it hadn’t been asked.
Stern spent 30 years as commissioner, the league’s longest-serving leader, and Silver noted that few people in the room would have had the opportunities they did in life without Stern, whose longtime office at NBA headquarters was just a block away.
“He belongs on this big stage,” Silver said. “He changed the world.”
The 2+-hour ceremony began with Silver and ended with remarks by Stern’s two sons. Eric Stern revealed his father’s love of crude jokes, while older brother Andrew recalled how Stern refused to part with his wood-paneled station wagon, even long after he could afford BMWs.
They both noted Stern’s desire to be at their events, even if long hours at the office meant he had to miss the beginning.
Of course, not everybody saw that side of Stern. Few escaped a foul-mouthed tirade if they didn’t meet Stern’s high expectations, and Pat Riley got tongue lashings and fines for criticizing referees, saying Stern would constantly tell him he needed to be better.
Making things better was a mission of Stern’s. The more the NBA grew and the further its reach expanded, the more that Stern insisted it increase its commitment to help others. Pictures and videos shown before the speakers seemingly depicted as much footage of NBA Cares events as of basketball events, with Stern helping to build houses or read with children in libraries.
“Shame on us, he would say, if we don’t do all we can with the platform we have,” said Kathy Behrens, the NBA’s president of social responsibility and player programs.
Stern began at the NBA at a time when the league was fighting for attention, plagued by drug problems in the 1970s and struggling to gain the interest of mainstream America when nearly three-quarters of the players were black.
But Stern drove employees at the league and on its teams to work through that, to turn the league into what he thought it could become.
“No one had a better crystal ball than David Stern,” said Val Ackerman, the commissioner of the Big East who previously was an assistant to Stern at the NBA.
Ackerman choked up when discussing Stern’s dedication to women’s sports, how he was at the first WNBA game in New York in 1997 and remained a champion of the league even when there were early detractors.
“For all the advances in women’s team sports since that auspicious night, I hope historians will write that it was women’s basketball and the WNBA that did it first and blazed a trail,” Ackerman said. “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.”
Then, with King in attendance, Ackerman wrapped up her remarks by reading from a email Stern had sent her touting the WNBA’s accomplishments.
“As usual, I’m unable to say it better,” she said. “We broads truly owe him.”
So does Johnson, who said Stern would constantly check up on him to make sure he was healthy, and ask Johnson’s wife if he was eating right.
“I’m going to miss my friend. I’m going to miss my angel,” Johnson said, “and now who’s going to be there at the All-Star Game to make sure I’m OK?”