Adam Silver's Lifelong Love of Basketball Will Help Shape Focus in New Role

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterFebruary 14, 2014

Derick Hingle/USA Today

NEW YORK — The boy and his father sit 15 rows back at Madison Square Garden, perched in the corner behind the Knicks bench, close enough to peer into the huddle and be heard. They are a study in contrasts—the father gesturing, shouting, his passions unleashed; the boy steady, studious, his enthusiasm pure, but contained.

Edward Silver was the classic Knicks fan, alternately yelling at a player for missing a free throw or yelling at coach Hubie Brown for yelling at his players. Adam Silver loved the game and rooted for his team, but he left the screaming to Dad.

“I’ve always been more of a subdued fan,” Silver, the newly installed NBA commissioner, said in an interview last week at his Midtown Manhattan office.

Feb 6, 2014; Brooklyn, NY, USA; A view of an official NBA game ball with the signature of new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at Barclays Center before the game between San Antonio Spurs and the Brooklyn Nets. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sport
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The subject was Silver’s lifelong relationship to the game he has now been entrusted with as the NBA’s first new commissioner in 30 years. It is a role he has trained for in the classic sense as a 22-year executive with the league, the last seven-plus as deputy commissioner under David Stern.

Like many modern commissioners, the 51-year-old Silver is a lawyer and a businessman, not a product of the game itself. He did not play or coach at any significant level. But his attachment to basketball is palpable as he recounts his ascent to one of the most powerful positions in sports.

Silver’s uniquely tempered fandom shaped his journey, through the Knicks games he attended in his youth, to the solitary moments he spent shooting in the side yard at his family’s home in Rye, N.Y., to the nights he spent during law school watching a young Michael Jordan ascend at the old Chicago Stadium.

When the subject is collective bargaining, Silver speaks with the practiced cadence of a lawyer. But when the discussion turns to basketball—meeting Bob Lanier, befriending Bill Russell, sitting courtside for Jordan’s title-clinching shot in 1998—Silver’s face lights up and he speaks in double-time.

The fan within emerges.

“He loves the game,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has worked extensively with Silver through USA Basketball and counts him as a close friend. “People can know the game, like the game, but then there are those who love the game.…He’s very proud of the game and his part in the game. He knows he’s part of something bigger than him.”

This matters, because the commissioner’s role is complex and full of competing objectives. He is both chief executive and caretaker, promoter and politician, salesman and visionary, negotiator and arbiter. The commissioner does not unilaterally set policy—not without the input of 30 team owners—but he directs the agenda.

In Silver’s case, those decisions will be informed both by his extensive tenure with the league and his own basketball values, as a kid who was raised on the Red Holzman Knicks of the early 1970s, on Clyde Frazier and Earl Monroe, Bill Bradley and Willis Reed.

“You thought about them as a team,” Silver said during a 45-minute interview with Bleacher Report. “There was no sense that any individual was greater than the team back then.”

He added, “I think I’ve learned over my time at the NBA from some of the greatest coaches, some of the greatest GMs, some of the best basketball minds, and been reminded that this is a team game.…And I believe I’ve developed a true appreciation of the team concept and one that, sort of as the new commissioner-slash-CEO of this organization, I’m really hoping to put into practice.”

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

In contrast to his mentor Stern, who seemed to rule by executive fiat, Silver will likely favor a more inclusive process, according to those who know him best.

The NBA tinkers with its rules more than any other league, constantly refining and redirecting the game to adapt to the times. In Stern’s last full decade, the NBA scrapped illegal defense rules and banned hand-checking, restoring the game’s flow. It adopted instant replay and quickly expanded its use beyond that of any other sport. Under Stern, the NBA and FIBA worked to bring the international and American games closer and make them more uniform.

Silver—who gave his first public address Saturday, during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans—has been coy about his own agenda. But he is expected to be just as progressive as Stern, and perhaps even more so, both in tweaking and promoting the game.

League sources familiar with Silver’s thinking say his priorities include speeding up the game and improving officiating, among other areas. (The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because the policies have not yet been widely discussed.)

* Game duration: The league has instituted some modest speed-up efforts, but Silver wants to go further. He is particularly focused on streamlining the final minutes, which too often become a grinding series of fouls and timeouts. Another possibility: cutting overtime periods to two or three minutes from the current five.

* Officiating: Silver wants to make the game easier to officiate and to eliminate as much subjective officiating as possible. One possibility: using camera tracking data to make goaltending calls automatically, instead of leaving it to referees.

* Instant replay: Silver wants to keep expanding its use to do everything possible to get every major call correct. The league is also weighing whether to move the replay duties to an off-site referee to speed up the process.

* Conference/division changes: It is believed that Silver will at least entertain the possibility of eliminating divisions to avoid having poor teams claim high playoff seedings.

* The draft lottery: With so many teams being accused of “tanking” to gain a high draft pick, Silver is open to reexamining the entire lottery system.

Silver is already on the record as being in favor of raising the NBA age limit to 20, just as Stern was.

In general, Silver favors increased transparency in all facets of the game. As deputy commissioner, he was a driving force behind the decision to publicly announce blown referee calls. The NBA’s move to post videos explaining the league’s most misunderstood rules also stemmed from Silver’s advocacy.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

In general, Silver favors any initiative that helps the public better understand the game. He pushed all 30 teams to adopt the SportVU tracking technology and then made sure that a sampling of that data was available to fans on NBA.com. He was also behind the move to incorporate advanced statistics on the league’s website.

Silver has also been behind some on-court enhancements, including the red lights embedded in the backboard to indicate when the shot clock or game clock expires—a huge help when examining replays.

It was also Silver who pushed to return the NBA Finals to the 2-2-1-1-1 format after 29 years of playing under the 2-3-2 setup. His guiding philosophy on this and other matters: Why are we doing it this way? Does it make sense? Can we do better?

The NBA has often pushed the envelope to please its broadcast partners and cater to fans—for instance, by placing microphones in huddles and locker rooms, or on the coaches and players themselves.

Not everyone has welcomed such intrusions, but they have become accepted over time, and Silver has won praise for his restraint and his efforts to balance competing interests.

“He has a very strong interest in protecting some of the sanctities of the game,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association. “He has always confided in the coaching association about to the extent to which we can expand access into huddles, into the locker room, and doing it in a way that doesn’t breach any kind of competitive edge or put any coach in a bad way.”

Carlisle added, “He’s been very, very aggressive in being ahead of the curve in terms of approaching us about that stuff, and not just saying, 'This is what we’re going to do; you guys don’t have a say.' … It breeds a real trust with him coming into this as the main guy now.”

If there is one simmering concern among some coaches and executives, it is that Silver—who came up on the business and digital side—might push too far in the attempt to monetize the game. But most are keeping an open mind.

“Two things come across” in speaking with Silver, said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “That he’s sharp as a tack, like David, and secondly, I think he really loves the game. Those are two pretty good positions to begin from.”

Silver has worked for the NBA since 1992 and alongside Stern, as deputy commissioner, since 2006. But they are very different personalities.

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. (Tellingly, the executive did not want to be named, because that praise could be viewed as a dig at Stern.)

Another team executive maintained that Silver “cares about our jobs in a way that David Stern didn’t. He actually cares that, if they make a rule change here, it’s going to make people’s lives miserable there.” And, the executive said, if Silver makes a change, “He’ll also explain why he’s doing it. David had his reasons; he never felt we were worth his time to tell us.”

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.

One other obvious contrast: Silver is tall. At 6'3", he towers over the 5'9" Stern. He is tall enough to dunk, although Silver admits he accomplished this just once, as a teenager, with a tennis ball, on a dare at summer camp.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

Silver laughed as he recalled a meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul after Paul became president of the players union.

“We stood back to back, and he said, ‘I can’t believe you’re taller than I am,’” Silver said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry, I don’t have any legitimate game. So you have no concerns.’”

In fact, Silver did not get his growth spurt until his late teens, so he never gravitated to competitive basketball. A shy kid, and the youngest of five siblings, he sometimes passed the time by shooting at a basket mounted on the side of his house.

“I don’t think my form was particularly good,” Silver said. “It was an old-school, two-handed set shot.”

Silver’s basketball fandom was early on, in those trips to the Garden. His parents divorced when he was 10. Every Knicks game was a chance to spend time with his father.

“My dad would get upset at Hubie Brown for screaming at the players,” Silver said, chuckling. “He’d say, ‘You shouldn’t scream at them that way.’ But then some Knick would miss a free throw, and my dad would be screaming at him!”

“David Stern always says that ‘Adam’s a facilitator, because he’s the youngest child,’” Silver said. “I think I’ve always been the defender of whoever it is being yelled at, at that moment. Maybe I got it from my father.”

In high school, Silver’s sports were cross-country and track. He was also editor of his high school newspaper. In his adult life, he has run two marathons, both in New York, both under four hours.

Associated Press

But as a child, Silver’s first love was baseball. He played third base and pitcher in youth leagues and finally bowed out around 13 years old.

“My demise was the curveball,” he said cheerfully. “I can remember foolishly leaping back the first time one was thrown, thinking it was about to hit me. And the catcher snickering.”

Like his father and his two older brothers, Silver grew up a devout Yankees fan. He kept a picture of Mickey Mantle in his room, along with a life-size poster of Muhammad Ali.

STR/Associated Press

“I have distinctive memories of that,” Silver said. “And I remember we used to go to New Rochelle, N.Y. (to view the fights). In those days the big fights were only available on closed circuit. And you used to go to theaters to see them. … I just remember my whole family, we loved Muhammad Ali.”

The Ali poster was a gift from Adam’s oldest brother Erik, who, as it happens, was—and is—the most sports-centric member of the Silver clan.

“I think my brother has a hard time accepting that I’m the commissioner of the NBA, when he actually is the true sports fan in the family,” Silver said with a smile. “His fandom is definitely broader than mine.”

PAUL VATHIS/Associated Press

Still, Silver’s fandom remains strong. His office at Olympic Tower is filled with memorabilia: a framed “100” photo of Wilt Chamberlain; a “Walt Frazier Free Throw Game” from the ‘70s; an Oscar Robertson signature brand shoebox; a piece of the old Garden hardwood, signed by Bernard King.

But the fan in Silver most treasures the friendships he has forged with his onetime heroes, such as Lanier and Russell.

“Yes, it was a kick, and it still is,” Silver said. “I have a dream job.”