Taking Over the Reins

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February 1st, 2014 will mark the end of an era for the National Basketball Association. On that day, 30 years to the day of his appointment, David Stern will stand down as NBA commissioner. Stern’s impact on the NBA has been nothing short of gigantic. Love him or hate him, the silver-haired lawyer from Teaneck, New Jersey is as much responsible for the way we consume the game of basketball today, as anyone other than Michael Jordan.
 

At times he’s ruled the Association with the tact of an authoritarian strongman—nixing trades and dictating to players what they can and can’t wear—but his skill in expanding and popularizing the league’s brand, both in North America, and across the world, is something to be admired. NBA players and teams are now instantly recognizable from London to Beijing, Paris to Rio, and a large part of that is down to Stern’s leadership.

In a sporting world where commissioners aren’t exactly loved—Roger Goodell and Gary Bettman are the objects of scorn by fans of the NFL and NHL respectively—Stern will go down as the most successful sports commissioner in the past 50 years. He may be arrogant, heavy-handed, and disliked by some, but there aren’t many who don’t respect the man and what he’s done for the league.

The man with the daunting task of replacing the reigning commissioner is deputy commissioner Adam Silver—you know, the guy who everyone cheers when he comes out for the 2nd round of the NBA draft. Silver, the son of a successful lawyer, grew up in The Big Apple and was a fanatical Knicks fan—undoubtedly enjoying those glorious years of the early 70s, when Walt Frazier and Willis Reed led the Knickerbockers to two NBA championships.

After earning his Bachelor’s degree from Duke University, Silver followed in his father’s footsteps by earning a law degree from the University of Chicago. After passing the bar Silver worked at a big New York City law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, and also worked as a law clerk for federal judge, Kimba Wood. But a life working at a prestigious law firm just wasn’t for Adam Silver.

According to Henry Abbot of ESPN.com, Silver sent a letter to David Stern asking him for advice on his legal career and what path he should take. Stern took an instant liking to the young Silver—viewing him as his potential prodigy—and offered him a job as a special assistant to the commissioner. Thus, in 1992 Adam Silver began his long and successful tenure in the Association.

After his role as special assistant, Silver went on to become NBA Chief of Staff, and then president of NBA Entertainment. In July 2006 Silver graduated to the position that he currently holds: NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer. Before Stern officially announced the date of his retirement, Silver joked that his boss would be in the job for another 20 years. Once it became clear that Stern was packing it in, however, there was really only one man to replace him.

It’s been obvious to anyone with an inside knowledge of the league office that Stern has been grooming Silver as his successor for many years. The speed in which Silver was announced as the next commissioner was indicative of the fact that the decision was made long ago. Given the current size of the NBA, and the complexity of the league’s relationship with it’s players, owners and business interests, it had to be a man on the inside—a man with an intricate knowledge of the inner-workings of the league—that was going to take on such a huge responsibility.

And Silver’s achievements in his various roles with the Association have been laudable—worthy of landing him the job. The league launched NBA TV under Silver’s tenure as president of NBA Entertainment—bringing basketball into the homes of millions, 24/7—while according to NBA.com, sales of NBA and WNBA merchandise exceeded $3 billion in 2012. For years Silver has been lauded in BusinessWeek as one of the 100 Most Influential People in Sports

As influential as Stern has been in the league’s expansion on the global market, and the financial windfall that such expansion has brought with it, he hasn’t been the sole driver of the Association’s success. Silver has been a key cog behind the scenes—Stern’s right-hand man in dealing with an array of complex situations, from union negotiations to television deals. In the last few years, as Abbott explains, Stern has “turned to Silver as an escape from thorny business questions”. Silver has been Stern’s mouthpiece at times when the commissioner’s relationship with the media has been frayed.

During the latter years of Stern’s tenure Silver has aided in the decision making process, but has also tackled the day-to-day minutiae that comes with running a major sports organization. In other words, he’s uniquely qualified to do the job when Stern retires. And the league’s owners agree. None of them were surprised when it was announced that Silver would be taking over as commissioner. It’s easy to imagine that his appointment was met with a shrug of the shoulders and a nod of approval from the majority of team owners.

Even the players seem to approve.

A few months ago we interviewed a number of players regarding the business side of basketball.(/exclusiveaccess?post=602) Jose Calderon, when asked a light-hearted question about who should be the next NBA commissioner, responded by saying, “Everybody talks real good about Silver. He’s been in the business before and he knows how everything goes. He’s going to have new ideas, but still, it’s better because he knows what it’s about”. Ed Davis of the Memphis Grizzlies was just as emphatic in his praise of Silver. “It’s got to be Adam Silver”, Davis asserted. “This is serious man. We’re not going to bring in Donald Trump to make it a business and just mess it all up”.

Silver has been a loyal deputy commissioner to Stern, but as Calderon states, he’s a man with his own ideas and his own voice. When Gregg Popovich rested his stars in an early season game against Miami, Stern was outraged and fined the Spurs. But Silver’s views on the issue of resting players contradicted that of his boss. Silver has stated in the past that it isn’t the league’s place to get involved with how coaches run their teams—Popovich might be particularly happy to see Silver take over the reins next year.

Silver also seems to have taken a lead role in the inevitable implementation of sponsorship on NBA jerseys—something that’s bound to be a highly contentious part of his future tenure as commissioner. Silver has said regarding jersey sponsorship, “I think it’s likely that we’ll do something, implement something, some sort of plan for the fall. I think it’s fair to say that our teams were excited about the opportunity and think there is potentially a big opportunity in the marketplace to put a two-by-two patch on the shoulder of our jerseys”. Basketball purists will be furious, but there’s no doubting Silver’s sincerity in searching out new revenue streams for the league.

Jersey sponsorship, an issue that Silver has taken a leading role in, will be one of a number of major issues that will likely define his stewardship as NBA commissioner. Other major challenges include the potential for overseas expansion—the league has been flirting with the idea of an NBA franchise outside of North America for a while now (granted, this is a long way from happening)—the potential relocation of franchises, reforming the draft lottery, and some rule tweaking; perhaps to the current rule that allows teams to hack-a-Dwight, or whoever else is inept at free-throws.

But whatever happens down the road, it’s clear that right now Adam Silver is as qualified as anyone to tackle the challenges ahead and lead the NBA into a new era—a post Stern era. Stern’s imprint and influence on the league will be felt for years to come, but Silver is his own man and will have his own vision for the league going forward. It won’t be easy, but Adam Silver will hope to create a legacy similar to the man he replaces next February.

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