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Friday, November 20, 2009

Fahrenheit 45.9

It was a nice, quiet Friday evening and I remember the scene as though it were yesterday. I packed up my computer, some books, papers and material for work and walked to the elevator bank on the 14th floor at Olympic Tower/645 Fifth Avenue near Rockefeller Center in Manhattan.

The long summer of global events, which included a 40+ day trek resulting in the bronze medal performance by the USA Basketball men's Olympic team in Athens, had dissolved into a busy preseason of 2004 when we staged the first-ever NBA China Games in Shanghai and Beijing. I was back home in New York City after a long streatch of travel and the NBA regular season was in full swing.

Most people do not understand that working at the NBA league office -- especially on the international goal of globalizing the game -- means that a ton of work needs to be done in the offseason. That multiplies ten-fold when you do events on three or four continents and toss in an Olympiad for men's and women's basketball. When the first two or three NBA regular season games are in the books, the work-load at the league level actually slows down and the great people at the team-level take on the bulk of the work. With that in mind, I would always take Thanksgiving Week as a break, as three vacation days would provide a wonderful ten-day break.

That was the scene as I exited Olympic Tower that Friday night, five years ago, on November 19, 2004.

Coincidentally, when my elevator doors opened on the lobby level at Olympic Tower, none other than NBA Commissioner David Stern was standing by the lobby level elevator, he too, on his way home. I don't think I'd seen him since we stood together in Beijing about four weeks before, giddy as two little children, laughing and threatening to pinch each other to be sure the NBA China Games experience was happening and that we weren't dreaming a wonderful dream together. We looked at each other and both shook our heads, saying, "Yes this is happening and we could never, ever have imagined it twenty years ago, when David had become the NBA commissioner and dispatched me and a few other loyal NBA soldiers off on a six-week sojourn called the NBA China Friendship Tour."

Remebembering the evening in '04, I recall that David was smiling and in a particularly jovial mood as he asked what I had planned for the upcoming Thanksgiving break. I was happy to tell him that I was looking at a nice 10-day break that was beginning the moment I walked out to 52nd Street and I quickly tossed in a point of business that I had met one of the original NBA Properties sales guys, Mike Suscavage, that afternoon. Stern laughed and said that he saw Mike as well and we took a second or two remembering some of Mike's antics and the days gone by. We walked to 52nd Street together and were joined by Noreen Reilly, another longtime NBA executive who ran our administration offices. Noreen joined the NBA in 1978 after assisting Stern back when he worked as the league's outside counsel for his law firm, Proskauer. David and Noreen had some 52 years of NBA experience between them which made my 23 years of service to the league seem like a fortnight or two on that fall day back in 2004.

I was homeward bound, where I enjoyed a little dinner with the family, helped put the kids to bed, chilled out to some quiet time, and then I turned on the NBA on ESPN late in the third quarter to watch some ball.

With 45.9 seconds left in that game, everything changed. And, it was not good.

All of the replays, all of the talk radio and all of the print and electronic media coverage of the incident at the Palace of Auburn Hills became a living nightmare for anyone who cashed a paycheck with an NBA logo on it and the weekend was a bad dream and blur which will always will be etched in my mind. That fight, call it a riot if you want, along with the disgrace that convicted felon Tim Donaghy thrust on the league, were the two worst days of my long and winding road with the NBA. At other points in time, we had ups & downs. Great thing were reported by the media to be greater than they actually were in reality. Terrible things, like drug indictments or altercations, injuries or sixth place finishes in the 2002 World Championship were all a part of the job. A fight like the one that took place in November of 2004 and the utter disrespect for the game that the phony felon of Philadelphia had for the NBA by his illegal actions, were, by far, the two incidents that set the league back.

I took them both hard and personally. For whatever reason, I looked upon both the Ben Wallace/Artest/Detroit fans incident and the chump-change excuse for a referee crime, as people tearing down what I had worked half a lifetime to build up. It was that simple. They were messing with my life's artwork and I didn't and still don't appreciate very much.

Stern, giddy that evening was a combination of shocked, disappointed, let down, angry and outraged as midnight fell. And, while I was deeply involved in the crisis communications mode we operated that weekend, I could not even fathom what he experienced in the days & hours leading up to the Commissioner taking the podium that Sunday evening at Madison Square Garden where the Knicks were playing a game and the media were assembled. Rather than r-create the wheel, it made more sense for the NBA to go to the media rather than drag the media out to a separate news conference.

The rest has been documented and re-documented far more than I care to get into in this blog entry.

I will say this ... and I believe I have written it before.

There is only one person on the face of the earth who performed well that terrible night in Michigan. As you review the vdeo, there was only one person who kept his cool and did the right thing the whole time.

That person's name is William "Wes" Wesley and - in the video - you can see him in a what once was a very nice, blue suit, a suit that he probably had to throw away that night because it was soaked with blood stains, human sweat stains, beer stains, soft drink stains and who knows what else. "Worldwide Wes" did one thing and one thing only that night. He did his best to take players who were and still are about 10-times bigger and stronger than he is and he hauled them towards secure areas or away from danger. He did as much as he could and he kept on doing it. In the video, you see him get a guy to the locker door, then leave and go back to assist in another way.

I knew Wes before then and I've hung with him since. We are not friends, we are acquaintances and colleagues. That night, Wes gained my friendship for the rest of our lives. A few others lost that offer of my friendship forever.

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