NEW ORLEANS – In the first few minutes of his most notable public appearance to date as the NBA’s newly minted commissioner, Adam Silver may have given people a greater glimpse into what drives him than David Stern, his predecessor, offered in 30 years.
Silver worked solo Saturday night at the annual state-of-the-league All-Star Weekend media session that Stern – part Borscht Belt stand-up act, part bully pulpit – handled so masterfully through the years. After a series of acknowledgements (including one to Stern, who is in Aspen this weekend), Silver offered an “Intro to Adam” that showed the beating heart of a diehard basketball fan.
“The league has certainly changed my life. The game of basketball has,” Silver said, a little nervous and emotional as he spoke of some of the mileposts in his journey to this night. “When I was younger, when my parents were first divorced, basketball is what bonded my father and I together.”
Silver, 51, is a native New Yorker, the youngest of four children. He grew up as a Knicks fan, played on a junior league team in grade school and eventually attended Duke University, where students choose their majors but basketball is nearly everyone’s minor.
“I was never a paint-your-face kind of kid,” Silver said. “[But] when I was there, I experienced some of the best college basketball maybe ever.”
Silver spoke of ACC stars, of Ralph Sampson and Gene Banks, of Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. “I would say that had enormous meaning on my life,” he said, “and it was only sort of back then that I think I started to understand how meaningful this game of basketball is to so many people, and the impact it has on so many people’s lives.”
Silver joined the NBA in 1992 as a special assistant to Stern before working his way into the deputy commissioner role. He has traveled the world and been intimately involved with most of the league’s big ideas and issues: labor negotiations, television contracts, international initiatives to grow the sport, technological innovation. But his passion for the game stayed close to the surface.
“I’ve been with the league so long that if there were issues that I thought required immediate attention, I would like to think in partnership with David we would have addressed those,” Silver said. “The coming together of the larger community of basketball is probably my priority, and that means focusing on the game all the way up from the young level through college to the pros.”
Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association, already has begun working with Silver on multiple fronts. “Adam has been unbelievable, wonderful,” Paul said this weekend, “in talking with us about increasing the dialogue between the players and NBA front offices.”
But Silver’s news conference was a coming-out moment that kicked off All-Star Saturday night, shared with a roomful and a global TV audience. He worked his way through a number of questions:
- Asked about technology, Silver quickly balanced that by citing transparency as one of his “guiding principles,” through the use of replays in officiating but elsewhere too. “Transparency in how decisions are made at the league office, transparency in how we deal with our players and the Players Association,” Silver said.
- Silver said he wasn’t looking to alter Stern’s approach, sounding more like he’d build on it in exploring new opportunities and markets. His respect and fondness for his former boss and mentor were evident. “It goes without saying that virtually none of us would be here without David,” Silver said, congratulating the “commissioner emeritus” on his direct election Friday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
- Like Stern, Silver is an advocate of adding a year to the current eligibility rule for young players to enter the NBA Draft. Bumping the minimum age to 20 years old and turning prospects’ college careers into two-and-done would help both the NBA and the NCAA, he said, which he considers appropriate. “If players have an opportunity to mature as players and as people, for a longer amount of time, before they come into the league, it will be a better league,” he said.
- “Tanking,” a buzzword this season as teams consider the depth of the 2014 Draft, conjures teams “losing games on purpose,” Silver said. “There’s absolutely no evidence that any team in the NBA has ever lost a single game – or certainly, in any time that I’ve been in the league – on purpose.” Rebuilding is something quite different. But Silver sounded open to adjusting the lottery system or odds, as needed.
- An area in which Silver brings his greatest expertise, and has gained the most trust from 30 owners, is television. Negotiations of the next TV deal are ongoing, with blockbuster expectations attached. As for those who feel that broadcast coverage has been crowded out by cable – affecting fans who don’t have or might not be able to afford cable, where all of All-Star Weekend could be found – that world has changed. “It really to me is the quality of the coverage and the ability to reach homes in America,” Silver said, “which we’re doing now.”
- Silver talked again about the refinement of the league’s use of instant replay, improving the system while heeding the flow of games. Going to an off-site central replay system “similar to what the NHL does right now,” with plays reviewed more swiftly and consistently, sounds like merely a matter of time.
- Sleeved jerseys? Silver said he’s sensitive to player concerns but reaction has been mixed and statistics show no adverse effects on performance. Meanwhile, apparel sales have been strong, he said. “On one hand, people keep encouraging me to try new things,” the commissioner said, “and then when we try something new, people say you’ve lost your mind. … It’s something we’re trying. We’re having some fun with it. Long-term, we’ll see.”
- Those jerseys do provide more acreage for ads, and ads on game jerseys don’t face the same threat of zapping that conventional commercials do. “Those live images are critically important to our marketing partners,” he said. “I think it ultimately will happen.”
- Expansion, domestically or internationally, does not rank high on Silver’s list. The financial viability and competitive strength of the NBA’s existing teams matters more.
- The goals espoused during the 2011 lockout – greater financial health and more competitive balance – are playing out in Silver’s view. “The fact that we had four teams in the conference finals last year who are all in the bottom half of the league in terms of market size is a strong indication,” he said.
- Despite concerns that the players association has not hired a replacement for deposed executive director Billy Hunter after more than a year, Silver said the delay has not squelched dealings with the union. Acting director Ron Klempner is available to address the most pressing issues, and the current CBA can’t be reopened by either side until 2017.
Here again, Silver’s sense of stewardship for the game and the league emerged. He sounded very much in sync, frankly, with comments earlier in the day that came from the NBPA’s player-rep meeting.
Silver said it is important for the players to understand that collective bargaining is only “one small aspect of what their union is there for.” He spoke of pensions, health care and other topics, not necessarily related to wrangling over the 50-50 split between players and owners of NBA revenue.
“Their greatest incentive should be to grow this league with us,” Silver said. “That’s going to have such a greater impact ultimately on their salaries than sort of tinkering around with the percentages of [basketball-related income].
“So I’m looking forward to dealing with a partner in this league, not an adversary, a partner that’s going to continue to build this league with me and with the league.”