David Stern was on the phone, and I was rattled. Fumbling the receiver, fumbling for words, desperately trying to regain my composure. But not for the reasons you probably assume.
"Howard Beck?" came the voice.
"Yes?" I responded.
"David J. Stern," the voice said.
"Um, excuse me?" I stammered.
"David Stern," the voice said, rising with faint irritation. "The commissioner of the NBA."
"Oh. Hi. Sorry. Gimme a minute?"
It was a December evening in 1998, my second season as the Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Daily News. Except, there was no season. The NBA had shut down over a labor battle, and there was talk of canceling the remaining schedule. It was one of the most perilous moments of Stern's tenure as NBA commissioner.
I'd requested an interview but never heard back from league PR. Apparently, the answer was yes, because now Stern's distinctly authoritative voice—with that sharp New York accent and lawyerly tone—was crackling through my cordless receiver, sounding faintly perturbed.
Stern didn't know me at all. We'd never met. But he semi-patiently held as I gathered my wits and stalled while anxiously waiting for my PowerMac 6100 to boot up. (It took a while back then.)
And then I got a full NBA education. For 30 minutes, Stern regaled me with stories of past crises, of a league that was once considered "too black" and drug-plagued, with games played in half-empty arenas and the Finals on tape delay.
"Predictions of our demise were widespread," he said. This lockout? Just another temporary snag. "We're going to come out of it," he assured.
David Stern, who died Wednesday at age 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage less than a month ago, was probably everything you ever heard or perceived: brilliant, ambitious, visionary, defiant, combative, confident to the point of arrogance, condescending and sometimes profane, but also progressive, engaging, sharp-witted and, above all, an indefatigable advocate for his sport, which allowed those who care about the league to look past his less gracious attributes.
In two-plus decades covering Stern's league—first in L.A., later for the New York Times and Bleacher Report—I experienced the full gamut, his passion, his humor and his wrath. At his best, he was funny, glib and thoughtful; at his worst, vicious. If he liked a story, he said so. If I crossed him up, he cursed me out.
In 2005, the Knicks signed Eddy Curry to a $60 million contract, despite well-documented concerns over a potentially life-threatening heart condition. It was a serious issue for the NBA, one we covered extensively at the Times. But Stern felt we'd overdramatized it, and he called to let me know, employing a creative mix of F-bombs to make his point.
"I heard David really let you have it," one of Stern's lieutenants told me the next day, chuckling. "He said he might have gone a little overboard."
That was as close to an apology as I ever got, but I took it. I understood where David was coming from. And he was always "David" to everyone—reporters, employees, players—never Commissioner Stern or Mr. Stern. There was a humanity behind all that bravado, if you were patient enough to find it.
Stern cared deeply about what people wrote and said about his league—even more so if it appeared in the New York Times, the "paper of record." He was a dedicated subscriber and a piercing critic, which I learned well over the years.
"I expect better from the Times," Stern would say, bitingly, when he felt a story missed the mark (and, well, sometimes he was right).
We often disagreed, but his critiques were always well-reasoned and based on the facts, never blustery or self-serving, and he debated honorably—i.e., if I made a fair point, he'd generally acknowledge it.
But not always.
In 2011, the NBA was again embroiled in a costly and risky labor battle that threatened the season. Stern was growing increasingly testy and visibly weary. One night in November, the league announced a purported "final offer" that, if rejected by the union, would be replaced by a proposal that cut the players' salaries even further.
This tactic made no sense, at least to me. "If the players reject this offer," I asked Stern, "won't they obviously reject the 'replacement' offer?"
"Well," Stern sneered, "I don't have your collective bargaining expertise or your crystal ball…"
Ouch. Did I mention this was a live, televised press conference? I had to suppress a chuckle as the cameras rolled, but I did smile as Stern sliced my head with his verbal lightsaber. We chatted amiably right after the press conference ended, no hard feelings on either side. Then, he lectured me about using anonymous sources.
Stern wasn't always easy to like, but he was impossible not to admire. And he made me a better reporter. Because covering Stern meant you had to come prepared. If your premise was flawed, he'd carve it up with the efficiency of a sushi chef, before you'd finished the question—and possibly belittle you for good measure.
Stern was a rhetorical pugilist, and he thoroughly enjoyed the battle. Was he sometimes too aggressive, too defiant, too sure of himself or (gasp) arrogant? Perhaps. But he was a man of his time, charged with reviving a teetering league, who navigated that league through lockouts, fights, player-fan violence, referee scandals, franchise relocations, economic recessions and, yes, the pervasive racism that allowed so many people to dismiss the NBA as "too black" (or worse, "thuggish"), and who nevertheless grew the NBA into one of the most popular and profitable leagues on Earth.
If Stern was sometimes imperious and dictatorial, well, that's arguably what the NBA needed—a swaggering, sharp-tongued street fighter who could keep the wealthy owners in line, hold players to account and wrangle revenue from the network execs and shoe-company power brokers.
Yes, Stern could be a ruthless negotiator during those many labor battles with the players' union. But he was just as passionate an advocate for those same players during times of labor peace.
In 2010, after LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Amar'e Stoudemire had all left their teams, and with Carmelo Anthony publicly angling for a trade to New York, I asked Stern if he was concerned about this sudden wave of superstar migration. He promptly lectured me on player rights, noting that all had spent at least seven years with the teams that drafted them.
"And then they exercised their right … to go to a team that had cleared out enough cap room to accommodate them," Stern said.
As commissioner, Stern often played the villain—necessarily, you could say, and frequently with impish delight—but players respected his leadership and acumen, as was evident in the outpouring of warm words and sympathy on Twitter after news of his death was announced.
I can not put into words what the friendship of David Stern has meant to me but many others. He changed so many lives. David was a great innovator and made the game we love what it is today. This is a horrible loss. Our hearts are with Dianne & their family. RIP my friend. @NBA https://t.co/mbnneqm18s
Through good times and bad, Stern was surprisingly accessible, popping into press rooms before random regular-season games to chat with (and/or debate) local beat writers and nearly always willing to get on the phone to discuss a story.
After handing the reins as commissioner to Adam Silver in 2014, Stern promptly retreated from the spotlight, declining any and all opportunities to reflect on his own legacy for fear of overshadowing his successor and protege. But he still answered his NBA email account and took my calls from time to time when I had a story that needed his perspective.
As ever, Stern was eager to engage and provide a history lesson, though he often insisted on speaking off the record. He was a little softer in retirement—more relaxed, a bit less combative but still eager to mix it up if my premise was off base, and always ready with a zinger.
He never did truly retire, of course. "Busier than I've ever been," he told me in September 2016, before giving me a 60-second primer on his many endeavors. "I'm a senior adviser to a venture capital firm, to an investment bank, to PricewaterhouseCoopers' strategy section. I am advising four startups that are really interesting, technology/sports, and I give speeches and I advise the NBA from time to time."
He was about to depart for an engagement in Kansas City, followed by Las Vegas and Sacramento, where the city would be dedicating a street name in his honor for helping keep the Kings in town.
"I couldn't be busier," he said, adding a little ruefully, "But the phone doesn't ring in quite the same way." I'd called for some background on the salary cap, to which Stern responded, in typical Stern fashion, "I'm going to make you the world's most knowledgeable person," which he did for the next 40 minutes.
We spoke again the next spring, for a story on the enduring shadow cast by Michael Jordan. Per usual, Stern was by turns argumentative, sarcastic, insightful and poignant. And though I think he enjoyed the discussion, he couldn't resist the usual needling.
"Are you gonna let me go now, Beck?" he said toward the end of our chat. He asked where B/R's offices were located. He invited me to come by for lunch sometime. "I'll buy you a roast beef sandwich or a turkey sandwich," he said. "I'll yell at you in person."
I told him I'd welcome it.
We spoke and emailed a few more times over the last two years, but I'm sad to report that we never did get together. I don't know what he would have yelled at me about, but I'm certain it would have been thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.
Godspeed, David. You still owe me that sandwich.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017, and by the Professional Basketball Writers Association in 2018.
Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.