On David Stern, Ray Amati and the NBA Family
In the eyes of the ghost again,
Down on my knees
And my hands in the air again,
Pushing my face in the memory of you again
But I never know if it’s real
Never know how I wanted to feel
Never quite said what I wanted to say to you
Never quite managed the words to explain to you
Never quite knew how to make them believable
And now the time has gone
Another time undone
By TERRY LYONS – Editor-in-Chief
BOSTON – The extended NBA Family endured two sudden deaths during the holidays. It was terrible. Frankly, it’s still quite sad and it will be for a long while.
Surely you’ve heard and read quite a bit about the death of former NBA Commissioner David Stern, but I bet only a few know photographer Ray Amati passed away. Each was impactful to many, especially those who thrived in a large, wonderful, always growing and evolving family, called the NBA.
If you picture the National Basketball Association as a library with one very long bookshelf, the life and times of Stern and Amati might be at opposite ends of the shelf, like bookends. But, each were incredible biographies in themselves, with dozens of well illustrated chapters. By reading them, knowing them really, you learn more about life, and the game. Again and again.
Amati’s book has lots of pictures in it, some with very best basketball players in the world, his friends. Others are with the legends of Rock ‘n Roll, like Bruce Springsteen, his musical soulmate (Amati is believed to be the only photographer at Springsteen’s first real concert). Look back to the references, contributors, credits and index and you’ll find a lot more information about his life, his family (his son, Joe, works at NBA Entertainment in the Photo division).
Google “Ray Amati” and you won’t read an obituary, as you’re more likely to find a story about a celebrity who was sitting at courtside at Madison Square Garden. Amati was a staff photographer for Getty Images and the NBA and he covered the game around the game, as well as the action. His pictures accompany many of those “Page 6” stories.
Beyond a short tribute to Amati and his vocation, this column is being written to tell how Amati impacted the staff of the NBA. You see, Ray had a smile that stretched from here to Soho, the place he grew up in New York City before moving to the East Side and then out to Guttenberg, New Jersey. He’d recently relocated down to Florida, although he’d frequently be at Madison Square Garden or the big NBA events.
Amati had a little epigraph posted on the pages he left behind for his friends and it read,
“You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel.”
When he passed, I wrote:
“Ray had a way about him. He was such a good guy and he lifted spirits, simply with his greeting and his smile. He wanted to be at the game or the event we were at, and his demeanor always lifted us up.
“His smile is embedded in my eyes. Whether you were a suit or a player or a building worker, he knew you, knew your name and was genuinely happy to see you. A very, very rare person who I will miss.”
Amati’s book closed when he fell ill while traveling from New York to Florida for the holidays. I made note his last post on Facebook was to share Bruce Springsteen’s great rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and he did it with the following words: “I know I’m a day early, But, traveling tomorrow so just keep playing this as LOUD AND AS OFTEN AS YOU CAN!!!!!! … Wishing all my FB family & friends a VERY Merry Christmas……………..”
On the other end of that long and amazing bookshelf, way up yonder in the company flow chart, was the life and times of David Joel Stern.
David and Ray knew each other well.
If Amati was a soldier in the NBA, Stern was first the Brigadier General and then the Commander in Chief. Along the way, Stern marched like Patton and rose in the ranks like Ike.
Interestingly and personally, I can tell you that Amati’s department at NBA Photos was a directive from Stern … underline the letter “D.”
In late 1985 or early ’86, the newly appointed Commissioner was working on a project/presentation and needed good, color, action photography. (As a footnote: Stern began working for the NBA as outside counsel and then the league’s first general Counsel (1978) and was unanimously voted to be Commissioner, with his start day set at February, 1, 1984).
Much to Stern’s dismay, the NBA had never invested a cent in photography, although we had contracted with a few freelancers to shoot a few events and some games in New York. It would be VERY kind to state the NBA photo archive was non-existent, although, at the time, companies such as Time-Life (Sports Illustrated) and Major League Baseball had created their own stock photo houses. The NBA, meanwhile, had a stash of black and white publicity prints and a few color slides. The whole collection fit in three drawers of a filing cabinet.
Please keep in mind these two basic facts for this column: Digital Photography had yet to be invented and I was the Assistant Director of Public Relations at the time and was soon to be on the receiving end of one of Stern’s infamous rants, in this case, we’ll call it an all-out plea for help.
“GET ME A F&$KING PHOTO FILE,” he screamed at volume “10” as he paced through a back hallway on the 15th floor of the Olympic Tower, flipping through the non-usable posed PR shots and out-of-focus, poorly lit color slides on hand.
Fast forward a few months. It took a couple bucks, some planning, some hard work, a lawyerly contract or two, a trip out to Santa Monica to meet with photographer Andrew D. Bernstein (covering two teams in LA) and soon-after Nathaniel S Butler (covering two teams in NY/NJ), and in early 1986, NBA Photos was born. (Another side note: Bernstein was rightfully honored with the Curt Gowdy Award at the Basketball Hall of Fame last year for his lifetime of contributions to the sport via his amazing work. Undoubtedly, it’s a matter of time until Butler is so honored).
NBA Photos was later acquired by Getty Images and is now a multi-million dollar business.
Stern got his wish!
That simple, first-hand and quite memorable story is told here as illustration of one tiny fraction of the mountains that were moved at the NBA from 1984 until the present day, much of it with no real money to spend and – back in the mid-’80s – very few human resources and only 24 work hours, eight days a week.
“I don’t think there’s an argument,” said former NBA executive and current team President of the Golden State Warriors Rick Welts to TIME Magazine. “With all due respect to Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and LeBron James, we would not have the NBA that we have today without his genius. We see the results today and assume that the NBA was always like this, which if course it wasn’t.
“It was his pure will and determination,” Welts continued, “and his incredibly difficult nature, that moved mountains and got people to believe, through the pure force of his personality, that you can push this gigantic boulder up the hill. There’s nobody else who could have done that.”
In that final quote, I’m not sure if Welts was describing the absolute and hard-charging force of Stern, the CEO and Commish, or the sheer impact of staff photographer Amati and his smile graced upon his co-workers. They’d both get you through a day, a week, a month, or an event where that dysfunctional but incredibly hard-working, close, extended NBA Family strived for perfection. Incredibly, 10 years after, I remain very much a part of that family today.
What’s left to say?
Maybe a personal note?
Since hearing of Stern falling ill (December 12, 2019), I’ve experienced a wide-range of emotions, and as corny as it sounds, I’ve felt like I was walking around in an NBA-themed scene of an episode of The West Wing, the Aaron Sorkin drama that many believe is the best TV Drama ever written.
Dozens of times a day, I touch something, read a story, see a picture, speak with a colleague or walk past one of the very few memorabilia items I’ve allowed a place of existence in my Boston home, and I fade into black and dissolve into a memory of Stern.
It’s been constant.
In my Josh Lyman world, it’s been much like the West Wing character’s memory fading to the campaign of one Governor Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, who would be elected President of the United States.
While I had worked with Stern from December 1980, a lasting memory is from November 1983 when the NBA Board of Governors met in New York – the Waldorf Astoria, I think – to elect a new Commissioner to replace the retiring Lawrence F. “Larry” O’Brien who was my first “big boss.” Locked in my mind is Stern walking down a corridor, followed by a gaggle of Proskauer lawyers and various team owners who had minutes earlier unanimously voted to pass the title to then NBA Executive VP, Business and Legal Affairs Stern.
The memory that is running through my mind, over-and-over again?
“Call Dianne, tell her,” he said.
To make my point of this experience being all encompassing, another memory, not nearly as important to the NBA’s history, comes from the very Sports Illustrated photo of Stern serving deli sandwiches I chose for this column. (Yes, I lifted it).
In the 2000s, I was fully engulfed in the “International” work for the league and not nearly as involved into the day-to-day PR and media relations duties I had once held. Among the PR department’s many responsibilities was booking and helping execute all media requests of the NBA’s Commissioner. There were many.
Sports Illustrated was running a lengthy story on Stern and had assigned the great sports photographer Walter Iooss Jr. to shoot a modern-day shot of Stern to re-create his days working at his father’s NYC delicatessen. David had agreed to the concept and thought it was great. I had a decades long, professional and personal relationship with Iooss, working with him at many NBA games, the ’88 Slam Dunk and the Olympics but more personally via invites to the Ditch Plains beach of Montauk Point, NY where Iooss and the previously named NBA Photos pioneer Nat Butler hung-out, surfed and socialized with their families.
Upon hearing of the Deli photo shoot at our standing morning meeting, I went up to the 20th floor of Olympic Tower where there was a wonderful (and semi-subsidized) employee cafeteria which was set-up like a great food court. Iooss was working the shot in the “deli section” of the food court, an hour or more before lunch time.
Keep in mind, I had NOTHING to do with the photo shoot and was merely greeting a friend. I did that and cleared out, knowing Walter was working and figured I’d see him after the shoot.
As lunchtime arrived, I was summoned by a PR colleague who stated, “Can you come to the cafeteria? We need some help.”
Of course, I dropped everything and headed right upstairs.
Stern had arrived a bit early to do the shoot, except there was one problem, and that was the fact it was just a slow day for business and it was way too early, about 11:30am, maybe 11:45. There were no customers for “Stern’s Deli.”
I could see it in his eyes, David was not pleased and I stepped right up, like an actor in a commercial and said, “I’d like a good sandwich, sir,” in about as sarcastic voice I could muster.
Stern, taking his role as counterman quite seriously, asked “What kind?”
It was then I realized, “Geez, this is serious.”
Here, I thought they’d simply stage a few shots and muck-it-up for the cameras, but Iooss had asked for Stern to serve the masses and he’d get a good candid shot. Neither Iooss or Stern had anticipated the fact many of the staff preferred salads or the made-to-order pasta special of the day. No one wanted a sandwich that morning, even one served by their boss’s, boss’s boss.
I found it comical. David did not.
“Get some people over here,” he barked.
I made it worse, I laughed, and said, “Commissioner, you’re competing with a pretty good pasta special and the salad bar.”
He did not take kindly to my sense of humor that day and he was overlooking the fact we had to PAY for the food we ordered and then EAT it, too. People who wanted to eat salad, didn’t want a deli sandwich. The diet conscious customers had spoken.
While David and Walter waited, in awkward silence, I worked the room and encouraged staffers to walk over and order a sandwich (or else!). A few sized up the situation and sheepishly walked over.
Thank God it wasn’t a video shoot, I thought.
I looked at Walter and he shook his head, “No,” signaling he had yet to bank the “money shot.”
I put my first sandwich down somewhere, and walked back to Stern’s Deli, and pronounced, “I’d like TWO sandwiches, please. One turkey club hero with provolone and one great, Stern special, Italian style hero, extra salami and cheese.”
He growled, turned around to the butcher block work station and served up the two sandwiches in the photo above.
Oh, how I wish I could turn back time to that day, my ass-kicking included.
Fade back from that dissolve to reality and he’s gone. I’ve taken it much, much harder than I ever imagined.
Through it all, I think of the giving and the 24/7/365 x 40 years of being available to me for help, advice – on damn near every topic other than desktop or laptop computer science. He liked to talk business and basketball, and he knew the game well, according to the late Red Auerbach, as he had the instinct of an astute fan and the mind of a genius.
I’m choosing not to mention the many ways, the many days, and the myriad of problems he helped me solve in my life, business and personal. That’s between us and will be my lasting memory, much more than any one fine, player suspension, a ref who let us all down, a Chris Paul transaction (By the way, he made the right decision) or the other stuff so many have felt compelled to write about, as if they’re important in the grand scheme of things.
I think I’m going to browse that NBA bookshelf a little more today and maybe play a song or two while I do it, and take some time to process, as they say, to seek a cure from this holiday malaise. Someday soon, like Jed Bartlet in the West Wing clip embedded above, “I’ll be ready.”
I’ve been looking so long at these pictures of you,
That I almost believe that they’re real
I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you,
That I almost believe that the pictures
Are all I can feel – The Cure
Here Now, The Notes: Just in case you were too wrapped up in the holidays and your College Bowl Game pool, there’s “Prime Time” PGA Tour golf this weekend as the 2020 Tour Schedule teed-off from Maui on Thursday with a limited field of golfers at the Sentry Tournament of Champions. … Only the winners on the PGA Tour in 2019 are competing with Brooks Koepka (knee), Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods each qualified but have opted not to play, as did International players Justin Rose, Francesco Molinari and The Open champion Shane Lowry. … The 34-player field includes 15 first-time winners. … Schauffele overcame a five-shot deficit entering the final round last year by posting a tournament-record 62 on Sunday. … Dustin Johnson is making his first start of the 2019-20 PGA Tour season and has seven consecutive top-10 finishes in the event. … The World’s No. 3 Jon Rahm is the top-ranked player in the field. … Rickie Fowler has finished in the top six in each of his previous three starts in the event. … Ernie Els (261 in 2003) holds the tournament scoring record. … And yes, Stuart Appleby used to win the tournament every year but he didn’t qualify. … The full field is up next week at the SONY Open in Honolulu. … Seems to me, the PGA Tour players get a better break from fans on the “load management” issue than the NBA players do? Go figure.
For the second time in two months, the WNBA and the league’s Players’ Association announced in a joint statement that they have extended their collective bargaining agreement. After the most recent deal was extended 60 days on Oct. 28, it was extended again Thursday, this time until the middle of January. … “We are making substantial progress toward a new collective bargaining agreement which we expect to finalize soon,” the statement read. “In the meantime, we have extended the current agreement through January 15, 2020 and expect that free agency contract signings will begin on time on February 1, 2020.”
Some Diamond Dust to consider: The Cincinnati Reds reportedly agreed to terms with aging Japanese outfielder Shogo Akiyama on a three-year, $15 million contract. … Multiple Japanese media outlets reported the signing Monday, although there has been no official word from the Reds. … Akiyama, 31, batted .303 with 31 doubles, 20 homers, 62 RBIs, 112 runs and 12 stolen bases in 2019 for the Seibu Lions of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. A left-handed hitter, Akiyama boasts a career average of .301 over nine seasons with Seibu. He has 116 homers and 112 steals in 1,207 games since 2011.
Big time bat Edwin Encarnacion is headed to his fifth team in five years. According to multiple media reports last week, the veteran designated hitter/first baseman and the Chicago White Sox agreed to terms on a one-year, $12 million deal. The White Sox also would hold a $12 million option for 2021. … Encarnacion, who will turn 37 on Jan. 7, split last season between the Seattle Mariners and the New York Yankees, hitting a combined .244 with a .344 on-base percentage, a .531 slugging percentage, 34 homers and 86 RBIs in 109 games. … Free-agent outfielder Corey Dickerson agreed to a two-year, $17.5 million deal with the Miami Marlins, according to multiple reports. … Dickerson, 30, spent last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Philadelphia Phillies. He hit .304 with 12 home runs and 59 RBIs in 78 games and added 42 extra-base hits. … An eighth-round draft pick of Colorado in 2010, Dickerson played for the Rockies (2013-15) and Tampa Bay Rays (2016-17) before moving on to the Pirates in 2018. He was named to the American League All-Star team in 2017 and won a Gold Glove Award in 2018. In 776 career games, Dickerson has a .286 career average with 115 homers, 370 RBIs and an .832 OPS.
The reigning Major League Baseball champion Washington Nationals signed right-handed reliever Will Harris to a three-year, $24-million deal, according to multiple reports. … The addition of Harris, a free agent who spent the past five seasons with the Houston Astros, strengthens the Nationals’ bullpen as the club looks to build upon its first World Series championship. The 35-year-old Harris went 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA and four saves in 68 games last season, tallying 62 strikeouts in 60 innings. … The Nationals managed to score two runs in four innings off Harris during the World Series. Harris won a championship with the Astros in 2017 and has pitched in 23 playoff games, posting an 0-2 record with a 4.28 ERA. … In the regular season, Harris has a career record of 23-18 with a 2.84 ERA and 20 saves in 419 games. He has 422 strikeouts in 396 1/3 innings. … USA Today was the first to report the terms of Harris’ deal with Washington.
Last May, it was reported that New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes suffered multiple fractures of his right ankle during what the team termed a “violent” fall at his ranch and would be out for the season. Now, LGM fans know what led to the fall. … The New York Post reported Friday that Cespedes was injured in an incident with a wild boar on his ranch in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The report said that the ranch has traps to keep the boars away from guests, and as one was being taken from the trap, it either ran toward the outfielder or scared him. And that is how he wound up stepping into the hole. The Post said Cespedes told the Mets how the incident occurred, and team officials went to the ranch the next day to verify the story. … “He twisted and put his leg and foot in a difficult position,” Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen said at the time. … Cespedes, 34, sat out the 2019 season. He is entering the third season of what originally was a four-year, $110 million contract. He and the Mets recently renegotiated his deal, and Cespedes will make $6 million, plus incentives, in 2019 instead of $29.5 million. The two-time All-Star was limited to 38 games in 2018 due to previous heel issues. He batted .262 with nine homers and 29 RBIs.
Digital Sports Desk posts a once-a-week Sunday Notes column, entitled: “While We’re Young Ideas.” It’s a throwback of sorts to the days when sportswriting and the baseball beat were the best jobs in the entire sports industry, maybe the entire world. One of those sportswriters was named Dick Young and he wrote “Young Ideas” with a “Diamond Dust” section for notes and quotes. … We welcome feedback and suggestions (psst, they call ’em pitches) for mentions within “While We’re Young Ideas” or Digital Sports Desk. Please follow and encourage (at least) another person or two to plug into (@DigSportsDesk) (@WhileYoungIdeas) and (@terrylyons).