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My Dinner With David

A friend remembers the former NBA commissioner, who answered the question “Can a ball change the world?”

Squawk Box - Season 20 Photo by: Adam Jeffery/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

When men hit their 50s, they begin to lose the “older men in their lives,” the ones who simply and unselfishly cheer them on. The ones unafraid to say, “Sure, I’ll help you,” “I’ll make that call for you,” “I’ll give you my advice,” or even just, “I’ll be there for you.” The ones who believe in your values, your work, and your work ethic without needing anything in return. They’re self-aware enough to know they “get it.” They have more wisdom than you. They made their mark. They don’t believe in quid pro quo.

And when these men pass on, your own mortality comes into question. Just as significantly, life isn’t quite as much fun. Their voids keep multiplying for me as I get older. Ben Jobe, Gary David Goldberg, Teddy Steinberg, John Scanlan, Bernie Brillstein, and this week, my friend for nearly 40 years, David Stern. He was, appreciate the expression or not, “the smartest guy in the room.” Everyone always knew it.

David wasn’t a mere commissioner. He was a leader with Ted Williams–like vision. Any silly media-made, internet-infused debate about the “greatest commissioner of all time” is pure nonsense; Stern could have planned D-Day. He was far from an easy boss. Rick Welts, a member of his “Dream Team of executives” (along with Russ Granik, Val Ackerman, and Adam Silver), once said, “With David, you knew it was a dictatorship.” To see that side of him was part of the process. “Publish or perish,” as they say in academia. He plotted victory and achieved it.

David caught a break leaving the NBA in 2014, after his unforgettable 30-year reign, right as our culture was beginning to shift for better and for worse. He and the PC generation would have been oil and water. He was a GIANT with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, not just a celebrity. He had an intellect combined with the street sense of the boy who worked behind the counter at his father’s small deli, no. 2 pencil lodged behind his ear, riffing out the prices of Sunday-night takeout orders, adding them up as if Pac-Man. He wasn’t about the gesture, but he fully understood its value.

His list of achievements have been eulogized and written about by those he liked: the great Harvey Araton and the streetfighter Peter Vecsey, as well as by some journalists that he didn’t respect even a little. He pulled the league out of the doldrums of the late ’70s, and embraced globalization, salary caps, and technology far ahead of all other sports entities. He did it by listening and molding his talented 10 percent.

David never received enough credit for championing the underdogs. His embrace of HIV-positive Magic Johnson led to a subsequent disdain for the game’s fearful country boys. The father of two sons, married to Dianne, his forever bride, a man of profound wit and verve and steel balls, his greatest achievement had to do with women. His creation of the WNBA was a veritable bill of rights, a declaration of independence, a 13th, 14th, and 15th amendment all rolled into one. Don’t waste your time complaining about attendance figures or relocating franchises. What matters for every mother, father, and daughter in America is that special night more than 20 years ago when the experiment premiered. In front of a packed audience at Madison Square Garden, Stern stood up and stared, quietly chilled. The doors were then open for good.

“Mama,” Rebecca Lobo’s little girl would marvel to her 10 years later, “I didn’t know boys played basketball too.”

Commissioner? Give me a break. Stern was the artist who performed night after night, the teacher whose wrath would inevitably explode, but whose will to build, to succeed, and to grow rendered him closer to FDR than to Pete Rozelle.

We shared one night at the spectacular Central Park West home of Michael Sonnenfeldt and Katja Goldman, a couple who remain deeply committed to Earthjustice, Dianne Stern’s cause célèbre. My wife, Abbe, was there, as well as David and his wife, Adam Silver and his talented wife, Maggie, and maybe 80-some others. After a performance by the genius singer-songwriter Paul Simon, the dinner chatter at our table was filled with laughter and conversations about politics, the election, a divided nation, love, loss, and mishaps. Paul joined us and reconnected with David, two Jersey-born guys who’d hit it big in New York. And Adam was right there, the protégé flanked by his mentor and father figure. Even in the moment, it felt like an unusually special New York evening. Dianne had hoped to raise roughly $600,000. The total number came closer to $4 million.

A beaming David felt like the big winner, with Adam on his right and his lifelong love to his left. He was still limping from a recent knee replacement. God forbid anyone made the mistake of even casually referring to his post-NBA years as his “retirement”; since David was still sitting on the boards of several nonpublic companies, they would be rightfully met with a bark or one of his patented sarcastic remarks. Fortunately for me, David was the lead trustee on my soon-to-be-built charter high school in the Bronx. He took visitors and calls, made investments, and guided countless others. He had his act down pat. His assistant Linda Tosi, his driver, and his lifelong boyhood friends remained. A master teacher, if you listened.

Retire? David Stern was never going to “retire.” Oh sure, he and Dianne continued to take their adventurous vacations around the globe. I never quite believed him when he spoke about mountain climbing or even skiing. But I’m more than willing to be told “you’re wrong.” They would go to Herb Allen’s Sun Valley retreat, to the Aspen Institute and to Davos, where he took part in a conference, “Can a Ball Change the World?” He would work until he died. Everyone expected that to be true. He just died way, way too early.

And that’s the cruelest thing for me: David passed at a stage at which he had time ONLY to give. That’s the legacy he passed down to Adam, Rick, Russ, and Val, as well as to his own contemporaries like Jerry Colangelo and Herb Simon. He was always “David”—never “Mr. Commissioner”—to Denenberg, McIntyre, Bass, Charlie, Hirschy, Ski, and countless others who worked for him. He was a humanist with a temper.

One time, I had been helping a friend’s daughter who was majoring in film in college. She had a passion to do a short film on the extinction of wolves in and around Yellowstone. I hadn’t met her, but appreciated her willingness and desire. To my surprise, Dianne and David knew this issue inside and out. “Would you take her call?” I asked them. Of course. They ended up speaking to her often. David was always available. Way more than anyone believed, actually. It’s one of the many reasons why David’s loss—so sudden, so unexpected, so barbaric, so inexplicable—has been such a hard pill to swallow.

I kept hearing about his “legacy” this week, and everyone nailed the usual beats. Bird and Magic, drug reform, prime-time Finals games, the WNBA, All-Star Weekend, the Olympics, the international boom … it went on and on. Everything was true. But “giving” was David Stern’s true legacy: the offering of knowledge, his knowledge. The man never had time for fools or nine-to-fivers. How could he? Why would he? Once upon a time, he led the charge and proved that the answer to the question “Can a ball change the world?” would always be “Yes.”

Postscript: On January 3, 2020, I received a check for $2,500 to the Lewis Katz New Renaissance Basketball Academy, the school we are building in the South Bronx, from David and Dianne Stern. He’s still giving.

Dan Klores is a Peabody Award–winning filmmaker and playwright.