A massive audience filled with some of the NBA’s greatest players and the sports industry’s top executives bid farewell to David Stern at a poignant ceremony that focused less on the sport and more on the former NBA Commissioner’s work to make the league more inclusive.
“It is clear everyone has a story about David Stern,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, holding forth at a convocation Monday at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. Various people who sent him comments showed that Stern, known for a relentless drive to push the basketball league into new frontiers, contained multitudes. Stern was described as “tireless,” “tough, “tender” and “cantankerous.” Silver, who noted Stern’s penchant for “micromanagement” and “the relentless pursuit of perfection,” said his predecessor “relished a challenge” but “always kept it fun.”
Stern is credited with taking the NBA into new lines of business, setting up the WNBA and bringing the league to prominence in overseas markets. Under his aegis, the NBA added seven new teams, expanding to 30 overall. He died January 1 in New York, after suffering a brain hemorrhage.
A crowd of hundreds filled the space, with NBA greats Bill Russell and Yao Ming among those in attendance. The New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, slated to play each other Wednesday in New York, cancelled practice so players could attend the ceremony.
Stern’s famously intense business personality was not ignored. Val Ackerman, the first president of the WNBA who is now commissioner of the Big East conference, told the story of being summoned to Stern’s office as a younger executive, left to wonder what she might have done wrong (Stern only wanted to give her a new role working for him more directly). Every piece of fan mail delivered in an era before email communication had to have a response, she recalled. Sports, Stern told her, were “built one fan at a time.” Jazz great Wynton Marsalis described Stern as “pure caring” that was enveloped in “vinegar.”
Earvin “Magic” Johnson took to the stage for an emotional speech recalled how Stern stood behind him after he revealed in 1991 publicly that he had contracted HIV. “My commissioner turned into my angel,” said Johnson, noting that Stern made it possible for him to take part in the NBA’s 1992 All-Star Game. “I will miss my angel.”
Marsalis also honored Stern with a speech that emphasized how much larger the executive was than the sport that he led. “”You thought that he was one thing,” said the musician. “But he was something else altogether.”