David Stern – Thank You

3 01 2020

I haven’t written here in a while…but it feels healthy to write some of my thoughts upon the passing of David Stern.

He globalized the game.  He understood and created a vision for social responsibility.  He launched the WNBA and D-League (now G League).  He was a tremendous leader, always on-point, and progressive.  His work and legacy speak for itself, but when I think of former NBA Commissioner David Stern, I’ll remember him as an amazing person that was fun, caring, and witty.  I’ll remember how he encouraged me, challenged me, appreciated my thoughts, and generally made me feel like a friend.  The word mentor is too formal…“Work-grandfather” feels a little closer to accurate, but it doesn’t truly capture the relationship either.  Regardless of the term, these are the things I remember.

Upon completing the 2003-2004 basketball season (my junior year), I was accepted into the NBA internship program.  Before my first day on the job, Coach Jones let me know that the Commissioner had helped me get the internship.  I didn’t know how to process the information.  I wanted to earn and deserve everything I ever received in life.  But at the same time, the commissioner knew who I was!  I didn’t overthink it and carried on.

In my first week on the job, I found myself in his office.  He said, “Have a seat.  Would you like something to drink?”  (There was no way I was going to ask him for something to drink).  He spent some time learning about me and what my experience in the office was so far.  It was a simple interaction, yet genuine.

He reminded me that he went to Columbia Law School and then tried to ruffle some feathers, “So are you guys going to win any games next year?”   We had some nice banter as we talked about the upcoming Columbia basketball season.  We probably talked about the team longer than any IVY league basketball analyst did that summer.

We continued to connect and develop a relationship.  Soon thereafter, it was time for the annual NBA family picnic.  The picnic was outdoors and had numerous activities that employees and their families could enjoy.  My mom joined me and as we made our rounds, we started playing ping-pong.  I wasn’t messing around and was letting forehand winners run rampant.

Then I looked up.  There he was.  Commissioner Stern.  He said, “Why don’t you pick on somebody with a little experience?”  And so the battles began.  He was better than I expected, and he made sure to let me know that he had been the Rutgers class champion (or something that provided me with more ammo to tease him with).  Our in-game dialogue was likely similar to Bill Laimbeer and Michael Jordan in 1989 conference finals.  He was really good, but I certainly didn’t share that thought.  The games were close, and felt epic.  In my mind, hundreds of people gathered around to watch.

I didn’t realize it at the time but this ping-pong match-up would become the preface or conclusion to every email exchange or conversation we had from that point forward.

“Take care Jeremiah…P.S. I hope you’ve found a good ping-poing coach somewhere.”

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After graduating in the spring of 2005, I joined NBA’s Associates Program.  We continued our conversations, we exchanged holiday gifts (well he gave me a gift and then I tried to return the favor), and I quit working at the NBA.  What?!?  Yes.  Somehow after 16 months I left potentially the best job in the world.  I decided to leave and pursue playing basketball overseas.

I expected a tough conversation.  But he looked me in the eye and said my decision was absolutely terrific.  And more, knowing that I was likely going to play in Brazil that year, he asked me to continue updating him and share about the league and structure, the arenas, the rules, the community interest, attendance, and anything and everything related to Brazilian basketball.

Every summer I would visit the office and we would continue our basketball chats and the anticipated raillery.  We talked about my experience playing in Switzerland, and his favorite hiking spots outside of Geneva.  I would share how after every game in Switzerland they awarded a player of the game award to a player from each team, and the gifts were completely random – insert hair products, bottles of champagne, or maybe a stuffed basketball.  He gave me a jab that I probably never received one.  We continued and laughed about the McDonald’s McFondue burgers.

We shared stories about China and India. We talked about international salaries and accommodations.  He asked my thoughts on the 2011 Chris Paul trade.  I inserted my jab.  He would tease me because I had yet to learn Mandarin. I would remind him that he hadn’t either.  I would always walk out of the office with a smile.

There wasn’t a conversation that we had that did not include him asking about my mom.  He always made sure I was happy with what I was doing.  He always challenged me to think about where I wanted to be in the future.  I intentionally wouldn’t share all of my thoughts, but on one trip I mentioned that coaching might be a healthy transition out of playing for me.  Within a few days, I was on the phone with a Spurs coach and quickly found myself in San Antonio to work their mini-camp.

He cared.  I’ll never know why I was so fortunate.  He was a just a good person.  Somehow I fell into his presence, and I became better because of it.  I’m indebted.

Thank you for being good enough to make for a semi-competitive ping-pong game.

But really, thank you.

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