If anyone needed another indicator that Adam Silver's tenure as NBA commissioner was going to be vastly different than his predecessor's, the way he handled a brief, moving tribute to Isaiah Austin during Thursday's NBA draft provided it.
Austin, was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, per BaylorBears.com, just days before he was expected to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA, ending his professional basketball career before it ever began.
He faced the diagnosis with uncommon hope and dignity, especially considering how painfully close it came to what would have been the most important day of his life.
But Silver gave him his day anyway, "selecting" him in the first round on behalf of the NBA. It was a poignant scene:
Silver and the NBA didn't have to do that. The draft could have proceeded as usual, with Austin eventually becoming little more than a footnote in the minds of NBA fans. Thankfully, that's not how it played out.
And Austin enjoyed a moment he'll never forget.
Before going further, we have to point out the unfairness of using Silver's laudable gesture as a way to denigrate former commissioner David Stern. Since Silver took over earlier this year, there's been a tendency to compare all of his decisions to the way Stern would have handled them.
We can't say Stern would have ignored Austin. Maybe he would have done the exact same thing.
The point, though, is that Stern cultivated a cool, somewhat imperious reputation during his time as commissioner, occasionally even enjoying the role of the villain. In fact, the draft itself provided an annual reminder of the way many fans perceived Stern:
Those boos were always somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and Stern usually played them up, acting as though he enjoyed them. If he wasn't actually an unfeeling figure, he at least pretended to be one sometimes.
Silver is viewed differently, partly because he hasn't embraced the same dictatorial approach Stern did, and partly because of the way he's handled the biggest decisions of his brief reign.
From the moment Silver was tabbed to take over commissioner's chair, we heard about how he was different.
B/R's Howard Beck wrote back in February:
Where Stern was known to lecture, dictate and coerce—he has often been described as a bully—Silver is known as a listener and a consensus-builder. One team executive praised Silver as a “very inquisitive” leader who actively seeks out others’ opinions. ...
And whereas Stern came across as condescending and imperious, Silver is warm, approachable and unfailingly modest. When a reporter recently greeted him as “Mr. Commissioner,” Silver practically recoiled. “Stop it,” he said, softly.
There are obvious differences between Silver and Stern, but we shouldn't use what happened on draft night as an opportunity to take shots at the latter.
We should use it as a platform to praise the former, which is exactly what many NBA players did:
Stepping back, the outpouring of support for the way the NBA (of which Silver is the figurehead who gets the credit) handled the Austin situation is an extension of the good vibes established during the Donald Sterling scandal.
Silver drew praise for his decisive action in that instance, and even though we can't necessarily say Stern would have handled it differently, the upshot was that Silver managed a very difficult set of circumstances with class, decisive leadership and real passion.
Players around the league noticed those things:
Though Stern had universal respect, it probably wouldn't be accurate to say he was ever truly loved.
Silver can claim both, thanks to gestures like the one we saw on draft night.
Though it's still early in the Silver era, it certainly appears things will be different going forward. How Silver's softer, more inclusive touch will play in the next work stoppage remains to be seen. It's possible a more dictatorial approach would be better in a situation like that.
But at the very least, we can assume the NBA, as big of a business as it is, has a bit of a human touch now. And that can't be a bad thing.
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