Adam Silver was barely out of diapers – OK, barely starting law school – when David Stern embarked on his NBA rescue mission in the early 1980s.
Except for Boston and Los Angeles, the NBA wasn’t exactly a destination spot. Sacramento had cowbells but no franchise. The Utah Jazz split time between Salt Lake and Las Vegas. The league’s visionaries were intrigued with Russia, Spain, Italy and Argentina, openly obsessed with global growth, but weren’t even whispering about China or India.
There were drug issues, image issues, bankrupt owner issues, labor issues. And, yes, there were plenty of thorny arena issues that persist today and will continue to prick the league as long as basketball remains an indoor sport.
Toss that arena issue aside, and the NBA, with its soaring franchise values and player salaries, ever-expanding international market and highly anticipated upcoming broadcast negotiations, is a stable, thriving and very different entity. And now, as of last Saturday, it has a different commissioner.
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Silver, who begins a whirlwind West Coast trip today with a tour of the Downtown Plaza, site of the proposed sports and entertainment complex, is no Stern, which is among the many reasons he was such an obvious choice to succeed him. Cloning isn’t the answer. Stern’s and Silver’s contrasting personalities led to an effective partnership for the better part of 22 years.
Silver was the good cop, the counter to Stern’s charismatic, but often strident, presence. Images from the most recent collective bargaining negotiations are indelible: Stern, commanding the room and dictating the agenda with his fascinating mix of intellect, acerbic humor and anger always in play; Silver, seated ramrod straight at Stern’s side, speaking calmly and soothingly as he translated legal language and encouraged conversation.
“David was close to the vest, very old school,” Kings minority owner Mark Mastrov said. “He ran the league the way my dad would have run the league. I think Adam’s style will be more democratic, where he’s a guy looking for feedback, who works with the collective, then makes his decision.”
While serving in numerous capacities the past two decades – as deputy commissioner, head of NBA Entertainment, chief of staff, marketing expert – Silver was another in a long line of league employees who would rather have a root canal than sleep eight hours. He is widely credited with revolutionizing NBA Entertainment and developing independent relationships with the owners, and he distinguished himself as the league’s point man on global growth and technology.
“Adam has forever been fascinated and interested in how sports leagues can take advantage of merging technology,” said Warriors president Rick Welts, a former executive at league headquarters, “and he has been a catalyst for moving the league faster than it would have. You see that interest reflected in his itinerary on this trip.”
Silver, 51, will visit with technology experts in the Silicon Valley later in the week. But, clearly, arena issues remain a priority; the new commissioner also has meetings scheduled this week with Warriors officials to discuss the state of their arena proposal in San Francisco.
“It’s no secret that the television contract is coming up and expectations are high in terms of what the league is going to command from an economic standpoint,” continued Welts, who is overseeing the Warriors’ arena plans. “But I think the biggest challenge for Adam will be this: In David’s 30 years as commissioner, we opened 30 new or completely renovated arenas. Today, we have aging infrastructures and things have gotten very expensive. We have to invest in new facilities or keep them up to date, and we don’t have a clear path to get that done.”
Sacramento seemingly is inching closer to a new place to call home. Who knows whether the Warriors will ever sail across the bay to their proposed facility on the piers? And what about Seattle, where folks are hoping for an expansion franchise? And Europe, where some NBA owners would love to visit more frequently?
“I think Adam is going to take us to a new level,” Mastrov added confidently, “and the evolution of the game isn’t going to be just here, it’s going to be everywhere.”