Not so long ago Jeff Wernick's biggest contribution to professional sports was very small indeed. In 1982, Wernick, then a 29-year-old lawyer in Los Angeles, realized that no postage stamps commemorated individual baseball players. So he and his buddy, Jim Finnegan, showered the Postmaster General with letters demanding a stamp honoring Eddie Gaedel, the 3'7" midget who had pinch-hit for the St. Louis Browns on Aug. 19, 1951. They formed the Honor the Midget Committee and commissioned an artist to design a one-cent stamp. The stamp was an inch long, the approximate height of Gaedel's strike zone. When the Postal Service preempted Gaedel with a Jackie Robinson stamp, Wernick was sad, but philosophical. He called the project his "short-lived dream."
Eighteen years later Wernick made a far bigger contribution to pro sports. He became the Chief Operating Officer of the SFX Basketball Group, the talent management and marketing business of which I was then CEO. Among his responsibilities were overseeing the business affairs of two NBA lottery picks -- 6'8" swingman Mike Miller and 6'7" two-guard Joe Johnson. The 5'6" Wernick, a Los Angelino by way of Brooklyn, acted as a kind of Flatbush Avenue Danny Rose to the young players, phoning them several times a day, counseling them, ministering to their needs. He was perhaps more personally invested in the lives of the athletes he repped than any sports agent I've ever known. He'd do anything for Miller and Johnson, and he'd do it with genuine affection. He took special pride in their accomplishments. Both developed into elite pros. Miller was named Rookie of the Year in 2001 and Sixth Man of the Year for 2005-'06; Johnson, a 2008 All Star, is the heart of the Atlanta Hawks.
Four months ago Wernick -- everybody called him that -- died at home while running on his treadmill. He was 56, and I miss him terribly. Running was a Wernick obsession, if not a fetish -- of which he had many. He also had a unique take on life. It was darkly sardonic, which not everyone understood or appreciated. Personally, I found his approach rather endearing.
When I learned Wernick had died, I experienced the sense of alienation and disorientation that separates mourners from those who seem to be living "normal" lives. I had the eerie sensation that my world had shattered and would never be the same again. At the same time, I felt obliged to continue on as if I were unaffected -- our modern sensibilities don't allow for outpourings of raw grief. But it's impossible not to feel overwhelming sadness after losing your best friend. Grief is its own territory, separate from so-called normalcy. It's an isolating, isolated place to be, even with all the support in the world. And it's not something I can discuss with any degree of comfort.
I remember the first time I ever saw Wernick, three decades ago. You couldn't miss him, of course. He was wearing his signature formalwear - shades, a hooded sweatshirt and running shoes - and mulling a move west from the east coast. It was my wife, Nancy, who first told me about him. She had interviewed Wernick for a job, and I still recall her description of him, vividly. Nancy said she had just met a New Yorker with whom I, a Los Angelino by way of Philadelphia, would hit it off. He would fit right in with my screwy pals back home in Philly. And Nancy was right. We became instant friends.
He was always looking for ways to make money so he could retire. He was also always looking for ways to retire so he could make money. In the late 1980s, one of Wernick's brilliant Can't Miss Ideas was to bring a franchise of his beloved Mrs. Stahl's Knishes to health-crazed Southern California. Ignoring the fact that each potato knish was 20 percent fat and 300 calories, Wernick was convinced that Mrs. Stahl would become the next Krispy Kreme. Suffice to say, the slogan -- "Happiness is a Hot Knish!" -- did not become a household phrase in L.A. households.
The grand opening in West L.A. drew four or five people, including us and the knish-makers. Mrs. Stahl's knishes were terrific. We slathered on Gulden's mustard and stuffed our knish-holes. Wernick was convinced he had a goldmine. Over the next month, we went back six times. On each occasion we had the joint to ourselves. Even the knish-makers started eating elsewhere. And yet Wernick was certain it was only a matter of time before L.A. got swept up in a knish tsunami. On our final visit, Wernick joked (well, maybe semi-joked) that by the time the franchise went kaput, he must have shelled out $5,000 for each knish. He was sure he'd have to work forever just to cover his investment.
Wernick went on to work in the entertainment industry, first as a lawyer, then as the COO of an animation company. Ten years ago he broached the idea of becoming the COO of my company, an arrangement I worried might jeopardize our friendship. It turned out actually to be the least of my worries: our friendship only deepened, though we both might admit, that his "operating" skills were on par with his entrepreneurial skills. And yet he provided an essential oasis of support and humor for me every day. He helped me put work in its proper perspective. With Wernick around, his office, or as he would put it, his "room", became a kind of sanctuary in which I could collect my thoughts and face work head-on. Often, we didn't even have to speak. I'd walk in and he'd smirk, a private gesture that confirmed we both knew that whatever was wrong wasn't worth getting worked up over.
In September, as Wernick's friends poured into Brooklyn for his funeral, I was struck by how many distinct sets of friends he had. Family, neighbors, colleagues, girlfriends, Wall Street lawyers, porn stars, street people, knish-makers, his old Sheepshead Bay posse. Among those on hand were Miller and Johnson - seeing them stand up for Wernick was quite touching. Johnson's two uncles spoke movingly about him and his positive impact on their family. Miller told me some funny Wernick stories, one of which involved his animus toward the NBA. "Jeff refused to attend pro games, on principle," he said. "To him, nothing was more ridiculous than watching a bunch of 45-year-olds rise as one in the stands and chant, 'DEE-fense'." Last season Miller played for the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves, and Wernick, who would have preferred reading a novel by Dave Eggers or Michael Chabon, suffered through the telecasts. Wernick grumbled that he must have been the only person in the world to watch every second of every Timberwolves game. "Even their coach must have tuned out their games at some point," he said.
This past summer, Wernick and I planned a trip to Atlanta to see the October 30 matchup of Miller's Washington Wizards and Johnson's hometown Hawks. Wernick, of course, never made it. On October 29, I was in New York attending Game 2 of the World Series with three of Jeff's closest friends and fellow members of our 27-year-old fantasy baseball league - Tom Fleming, Joe Villella and Finnegan, the commissioner. We swapped Wernick memories, many of which involved his love of literature and love life. Finnegan joked about Wernick's historic bad luck with pitchers. The pitchers Wernick drafted, no matter how talented, invariably had their worst seasons with him. To avoid the Wernick Curse, my client Mark Langston took special precautions. Every season before our fantasy draft, the All-Star pitcher made Wernick promise not to pick him.
The morning after Game 2 of the Series, I flew to Atlanta. I spent the afternoon hanging out with Miller and Johnson. We talked of their play this season, we talked about their teams, and we talked of their impending free-agency. Mostly, we talked about Wernick. It was about this time that I realized the injustice of death, though unbearable, must be borne. And that you never get over the experience of losing a close friend - you just get along with it, with a gaping hole in your heart.
Wernick was an authentic. Like his idol, the great distance runner Steve Prefontaine, he ran hard, loved women and savored the rush of life. He had to have left this world with a fine regard for its absurdities, one being that he died on a treadmill while running in place. In life, Wernick never ran in place. He was always moving forward, even when standing still.
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