The walls were lit basketball orange, matching the crushed velvet seats, the iconic Radio City Music Hall curtain and the magnetic buttons everyone wore on their lapels.
How do you memorialize a life like that of legendary former NBA commissioner David Stern?
You begin, it turns out, with a subtle touch of color choice.
You pack one of the nation’s most famous venues with people like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson. You fill it with NBA coaches and general managers, star agents, announcers and former referees. You make sure old co-workers, people he mentored and berated, were there.
You remember. You cry. You pay tribute and offer condolences. You listen to jazz. You laugh.
You playfully f-bomb.
“That,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said, “was David.”
All these people — Silver, Johnson, Jordan, Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, Lakers coach Frank Vogel, Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, to name a few — gathered Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the former NBA commissioner, Stern, who died on Jan. 1 after he had a brain hemorrhage in December. He was 77.
Stern oversaw the NBA as it grew into a viable domestic and global product. He negotiated big-money television deals, organized the league offices to include 13 around the world, handled multiple crises and work stoppages, and put a focus on marketing and international exposure.
“So many of us in this room would not have had the same opportunities if it were not for David,” Silver said.
Chief among them might be Johnson, who fought back tears while thanking Stern for his support during the worst period of his life — when Johnson announced he had contracted HIV in 1991.
“What a blessing it is to think about all the tremendous times I shared with David. 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,” Johnson said.
It was a tender moment when Johnson had to fight back tears, thinking about how he wouldn’t be able to share time with Stern at the upcoming All-Star game — a ritual the two men had kept every year since Johnson’s historic performance.
“Sometimes God puts somebody in your life that you don’t know the reasons why until something seriously happens in your life. You know a true friend when something bad happens in your life,” Johnson said. “… If he was your friend, he stood right there next to you no matter what people said.”
It wasn’t all sadness and longing.
From the moment the doors opened Tuesday, people walked into Radio City and were greeted by a photo slide show on three giant screens, with photos of Stern in the biggest moments of his players’ lives, shaking hands on draft night, handing over MVP awards and celebrating NBA championships.
In addition to Jordan, Russell, Robertson and Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, David Robinson, Clyde Drexler, Hakeem Olajuwon, Isiah Thomas, Bernard King, Alonzo Mourning and Bill Walton all attended the memorial. Joey Buss, Rob Pelinka, Kurt Rambis, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a host of NBA executives, owners and coaches — including the Mavericks’ Rick Carlisle, whose team played Tuesday night in Dallas — also attended.
Current members of the New York Knicks, including former Laker Julius Randle, sat in the audience.
The show — and it was very much a show, complete with a soundtrack from the Jazz at Lincoln Center quartet — began with Stern’s own words, a video package celebrating his achievements during a 30-year run as commissioner of the NBA.
Speakers that followed would celebrate Stern for spearheading the founding of the WNBA and NBA Cares, for his tireless pursuit of perfection and his commitment to social responsibility. Co-workers casually quoted Stern from speeches he gave decades ago and praised him as a visionary.
They also, as his son Eric put it, remember that he could be a “pain in the …”
Stern was “pure caring coated in vinegar,” musician Wynton Marsalis said.
Other speakers included former Lakers coach and current Miami Heat executive Pat Riley, former WNBA president and current Big East commissioner Val Ackerman , lawyer and former co-worker Michael Cardozo, Golden State Warriors chief executive Rick Welts and Kathy Behrens, president of social responsibility and players programs for the NBA.
In the end, Stern was remembered by his children, first Eric, his youngest, and then Andrew. They talked about his love of dirty jokes, the way he was enthused by the law, how he made time to be at baseball games and how he loathed limousines, preferring his wood-paneled Buick wagon.
“It was about what mattered and what didn’t matter,” Andrew said.
For two-plus hours, through the laughing and the crying, the remembering and the listening, there was one thing that was unavoidable — David Stern mattered a lot to a lot of people.