SAN ANTONIO — It was a pleasant 70 degrees in the lower corridors of the AT&T Center on Sunday evening when Adam Silver strode to the podium. His brow was dry, his delivery crisp and cool, and why not?
Just four months into his commissionership, Silver can already claim a landmark victory—the exiling of Clippers owner Donald Sterling, whose racist views were a blight on the NBA (to say nothing of his general incompetence as an owner).
Sterling quietly capitulated last Wednesday, when his lawyer announced he would accept the sale of the Clippers to Steve Ballmer, a deal brokered by Sterling's wife Shelly, with the backing of league officials.
The decision came one day before the opener of the Finals, eliminating any chance the Sterling saga might overshadow the NBA's premier event. League officials could not have envisioned a better, swifter, timelier resolution.
Then the air conditioning at the AT&T Center conked out, turning the arena into a sweat lodge and exposing the league to a whole different brand of humiliation.
All anyone has talked about for the last three days is cramps, electrolytes and LeBron James' manliness—a discussion sparked because James' left leg seized up amid the unbearable heat in Game 1. Extreme cramping forced the Miami Heat superstar out of the game with four minutes to play, allowing the San Antonio Spurs to turn a two-point game into a 110-95 victory.
No matter how this Finals (tied at 1-1 after Miami's 98-96 Game 2 win) turns out, it will long be remembered for the heat, the humidity, the cramps and the questions over what might have been, if not for a faulty circuit breaker.
"I would say that it's certainly not one of my prouder moments in my short tenure as commissioner so far," Silver said Sunday night at a news conference before Game 2. "But it's the nature of this game. There always are going to be human and mechanical errors, and it's unfortunate."
If only the league had handled this crisis with the same clarity and decisiveness as it did the Sterling controversy.
Officials learned of the electrical failure just before tipoff, according to Silver. By halftime, it was clear that the cooling system could not be fixed, ensuring that the rest of the game would be played amid 90-degree temperatures and intense humidity. Yet the teams were not informed of the problem until halftime, giving the coaches and medical staffs much less time to adjust to the extreme conditions. And the fans—more than 18,000 of them, all sweat-soaked and flushed—were not informed of the problem until the end of the third quarter.
"In hindsight, it wasn't handled perfectly," Silver acknowledged, "but they'd never been confronted with that issue before."
That may be true, but it does not absolve league officials of their responsibility to keep their high-priced players and their paying fans informed. The league never considered postponing the game, but it certainly should have consulted the teams before making that determination.
As Ron Klempner, the interim executive director of the players union, told Bloomberg News last week, "In a situation like this, there needs to be more open communication before a decision is made that could potentially place players at risk."
Klempner was absolutely right, too, when he said, "The playing conditions for [Game 1] were completely unacceptable from the opening tip."
It's a shame that statement did not come from Silver, or from Rod Thorn, the NBA's president of basketball operations, who after Game 1 merely called the situation "unfortunate."
It was much more than unfortunate. It was, as Klempner indicated, a potentially risky environment for playing an NBA game. The league should have acknowledged as much when it happened. It also could have come down much harder on the Spurs organization, which operates the arena.
Article 8 of the NBA's constitution and bylaws indicates that the commissioner has the authority "to establish minimum standards for the conditions under which NBA basketball games and event are conducted." The commissioner also has the authority, under that same section, to fine a team up to $250,000 per game, if it fails to meet those standards.
The NBA never considered fining the Spurs, according to a league source. It should have. This may have been a freak occurrence, but it was a freak occurrence with clear and unfortunate consequences.
James could not finish the game, because of severe leg cramps that medical experts all agree were almost certainly heat-related. We'll never know how the game would have turned out had James, a four-time MVP, been able to play those final four minutes.
And if the Heat end up losing this series, we'll always wonder if the championship was determined—at least in part—by a broken air conditioner. Silver brushed away the premise, saying sanguinely, "I'm glad that this isn't single elimination; it's the best of seven. So it's too early to say how this Finals will be remembered."
Silver added, "My sense is, having been involved with the league for a long time, there will be all kinds of great moments that will happen, Game 2 going forward, which will stand out more than the heat in Game 1."
Perhaps so. But in a series of this magnitude, every detail matters: every possession, every substitution, every clutch rebound, every nagging injury. As Phil Jackson would say, these things can turn on a trifle—or a faulty circuit breaker.
It's easy to say that there are many more games left in the series, but that ignores how precious each game is. Coaches and players say it all the time: At this stage, you can't afford to give a game away. When a team loses because of its own failures—a missed rotation, a missed free throw—it can accept the result. When the loss is caused (even in part) by outside forces, it is much tougher to swallow.
The Heat did not lose Game 1 solely because of the arena conditions, but those conditions undeniably contributed.
But the series goes on, and Silver could stand on the podium Sunday night feeling rightfully upbeat. Ratings are strong, interest is high, and the Clippers—long the laughingstock of the league—are about to be sold for a record $2 billion. Sterling, a scourge of the league even before his racist remarks were caught on tape, will soon be gone.
Sterling has yet to dismiss the lawsuit he filed against Silver and the NBA (and late Sunday night his lawyer threatened to proceed with the lawsuit after Silver said he would not rescind a $2.5 million fine or Sterling's lifetime ban). Still, it's clear Sterling's days of owning the team are coming to an end.
"I think it's over," Silver said. "I think it's just a matter of time now, and then we will move on to better topics and back to the Finals."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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