Chances are, David Stern and Don Larsen crossed paths over the years. New York sports icons have a way of understanding the secret handshake of famous people in our little town.
After all, Stern, a child of New York who grew up to be a successful corporate lawyer and then the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, was a sports fan throughout his life.
And the legend of Larsen, as the only pitcher to hurl a perfect game in the World Series, is passed down and taught to baseball diehards as soon as they can walk.
Larsen and Stern made us think again last week when they died on the same day, January 1, the first day of a new decade. Larsen, who was 90, had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Stern, 77, suffered a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12.
One Game vs. Thirty Years
Our deep appreciation of what they accomplished reveals a lot about our society as well, and the elusive definition of success. Larsen, a journeyman pitcher, finished his 15-year, Major League career with a 81-91 record.
Stern, by contrast, led the NBA with a visionary touch and an iron fist for 30 years. He took a damaged business property that had been turning off fans for years, what with its petulant athletes, and lifted it to become a $5 billion asset.
Stern wisely realized that his best bet was to focus the NBA in the 1980s and beyond on the great, charismatic athletes of the day. His tenure saw the rise of the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry and the explosion of Michael Jordan.
Larsen achieved unforgettable success based on a single game he pitched – the fifth contest of the 1956 World Series. Stern made his mark over three decades.
Whose fame now will transcend the times?
Adam Silver, who succeeded Stern as the commissioner in 2014, has already built on Stern’s foundation, taking the NBA all over the world aggressively.
Larsen’s feat still has not been equaled. Perhaps, someday, a pitcher will come along and match it. If and when some pitcher does, will Larsen’s feat begin to fade away, since it will no longer stand alone in the annals of the sport?
And, as Adam Silver continues to make the NBA even richer and more globally famous, will his success eclipse that of his mentor?
Society can be cruel and play tricks on us mere mortals. Which is more noteworthy, a one-day Herculean feat or a career of unparalleled achievements?
Room for Both
It’s sad, perhaps, too, that their fame may turn out to be generational. As baseball lore has had less glitter over the years because of steroids scandals and the like, all of the game's glorious past is tarnished.
But as sports becomes recognized more and more a s a business, someone like Stern will be lauded as a great achiever.
Larsen never cashed in on his fame. You seldom recognized him in television commercials and personal appearances.
Stern proved to be the most powerful behind-the-scenes driving force on the modern NBA, until his retirement.
Fortunately, there is room for both icons in our hearts. Rest in peace, gents.