NEW YORK — The many facets of former NBA commissioner David Stern were presented by selected speakers at his memorial service Tuesday, but only one referred to him as “my angel”: Magic Johnson.
Stern’s sons, Andrew and Eric, talked about David Stern, the witty and occasionally foul-mouthed and irreverent parent.
Former WNBA commissioner Val Ackerman talked about Stern, the man who championed and pioneered the WNBA’s existence in the late 1990s.
Miami Heat president and former Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley spoke about the battles the two had over officiating and the integrity of the game — among other topics — in a stream-of-consciousness speech whose length dwarfed all others on the day.
It was Johnson, though — and to a different degree, Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts — who presented a picture of a supportive man who naturally took the sides of things that were right, believing the rest of the world would follow suit.
Welts is a former league employee who often caught the brunt of Stern’s famous micromanaging style. He was also a once-closeted gay man during a time when homosexuality was so taboo that Welts couldn’t bring himself to tell his boss of the deep loss he was carrying every day.
Welts noted his partner died of AIDS in 1994, and he put a notice in a Seattle newspaper to take donations for a scholarship fund in his partner’s name, but Welts never stated his own name.
As he opened donation envelopes on his flight back to New York, he discovered a check for $10,000 — from Stern and his wife, Diane.
“I don’t know how he found out,” Welts told the packed house at Radio City Music Hall. “And we never spoke of it.”
It wasn’t until recently, months before Stern’s unexpected passing, that Welts introduced Stern to his now-husband, Todd Gage, and the topic was discussed.
“I told [Stern] I loved him,” Welts said. “And I never said the words until that day.”
The love wasn’t always evident from Stern, given his gruff exterior and sarcastic wit that required thick skin from contemporaries, subordinates and even his players. But when Johnson contracted HIV in 1991 and had to tell the world he was retiring, Stern had to relinquish his armor.
Stern sat next to an icon on a November afternoon and together the seeds were sown for a relationship, a friendship, that would extend until Stern’s death.
“David came out, we held a press conference together,” Johnson said. “After the press conference, we went into a little room and [he] told me the league and himself would be there for me. I didn’t know what it meant at that time. [Current NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver] said if he was your friend, he would always support you. Adam was exactly right.”
The 1992 All-Star Game was months away, and Johnson was voted in by the fans. Stern wanted to send a message that his game would start a realistic conversation surrounding HIV and AIDS, as opposed to the stigma and misinformation that were so prevalent at the time. He also likely wanted to help Johnson re-emerge into the NBA spotlight the Lakers superstar helped grow throughout his career.
“David said, ‘When people want to engage the world in a conversation, they turn to sports,’ ” Silver said.
The rest was history, as Stern’s feelings were prophetic.
Johnson put together a memorable All-Star performance that Sunday afternoon in February, as Stern hugged him and handed him the MVP trophy.
Magic was smiling again, with a large assist from his “angel.”
“That day saved my life,” Johnson said. "It gave me the energy I needed to carry on and live on.
“When you’re dealing with a life-or-death situation, you need support and a support system from your brothers, the league and a friend. If it wasn’t for David allowing me to play in that game and those players who decided to play against me because there was so much indecision.
“David was able to educate them and calm them down and let them know it was OK to play against me and with me. David paved the way for me to play in that game. We talk about it all the time, how we changed the world and changed HIV and AIDS on that day, as well as saving a lot of people’s lives that day.”
Johnson’s anecdote about Stern strongly imploring him to persuade Michael Jordan and Larry Bird to play on the famed Dream Team in 1992 prompted laughs, but it was Johnson’s tears that touched a crowd featuring so many luminaries of the league’s past and present.
A photo slideshow of Stern’s tenure played in the background in the hour before the service began, with the doors opening some 90 minutes prior. It showed Stern handing MVP trophies and the Larry O’Brien Trophy to championships winners of all eras. It also showed the places Stern took the game: to China, which opened the doors for an international relationship, one that has recently come under scrutiny during the preseason, to meetings with late South Africa president Nelson Mandela, who famously fought apartheid for decades.
He took the game places very few could imagine, especially considering where it was when he took over as commissioner in 1984. And it took him places he likely couldn’t have expected when he was a newly branded lawyer at Proskauer Rose in the early 1970s.
“I’m gonna miss my angel. Sometimes God puts somebody in your life — and you don’t know the reason why until something serious happens in your life,” Johnson tearfully said. “You know a true friend when something bad happens. I don’t care about the championships. The man was great because he understood what every individual needed and he was able to provide that. We know he’s the greatest commissioner to ever live, but he’s going to go down for standing for what is right.”
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