NBA Q&A: Adam Silver

Posted by Unknown on Friday, February 14, 2014 with No comments
Courtesy of Sam Amick 

Q: At what point during your 22 years in the league office did you start thinking that this monumental promotion was a real possibility? It has seemed like a foregone conclusion for so long now, but when did you start pondering this idea that you could become the NBA commissioner?

A: You know, I tend to be somewhat of a skeptical and pessimistic person generally, so I sort of try to live in the moment and I'm not necessarily a dreamer. So it wasn't until this was squarely in front of the Board of Governors, this notion that I would be David's successor, that I really started to think in terms of what I would do as the next commissioner of the NBA. As you said, I've been here so long and spent so much of my life connected to the NBA and basketball that I also know enough to see how quickly things can change, and I never wanted to get ahead of myself. And I almost think that it became somewhat of a management philosophy from around here that I learned from David, and that is that to always have - while you never discourage dreaming - we always learned to be very much realists and live in the present and deal with the issues that were in front of us on any given day. So it wasn't until roughly a year and a half ago that I started to think, "OK, wow, I may end up as the fifth commissioner ever of the NBA."

Q: Give me a taste of your basketball fabric as a person. I know you were a Knicks fan, but as a little guy what part did basketball play in your story?

A: I would say I was into two sports as a kid: basketball and baseball. And probably a little bit more organized baseball only because the city I grew up in, Rye, N.Y., like a lot of cities of that generation, had a parade down Main Street that was structured around the opening of the Little League season, and we didn't have one of those for basketball, especially junior level basketball.

So although I played in my league - in Rye, N.Y., at the time, there were four elementary schools and there was a little league in which the elementary schools competed against each other and I played in that league in roughly third grade, so that was organized basketball when I was a kid. It was through school. There were no independent programs that I was part of. I started playing at a very young age. It was a staple of our gym class, where I went to public elementary school and public high school. In public elementary school our recreation was a blacktop outside of our school, and we played basketball during recess, we played basketball after school. And then sometime right around that period, I know my parents paved a piece of our grass on the side of the house and put up a basketball hoop. I honestly can't remember whether it was precisely regulation, but it was mounted in a way where it fit on the side of the house rather than a specific measurement (laughs). It could have been high or low. I know it definitely wasn't adjustable and I definitely couldn't dunk.

But I was one of those kids who was very shy and always wanted to go home and practice on my own and come back better. So as a kid, it was the kind of thing that I could do alone or with one or two friends. We could hang out on the side of my house and shoot baskets literally all night long if we wanted to. That was my early development of the game. I did not, when I got to high school level, I was into other things at the time. I was president of my class one year, you'll be happy to hear I was editor of my high school newspaper. I ran track. I ran cross country. But I did not play organized basketball in high school, at least on our team. But I played a lot of sports.

But then that was the period in my life where, roughly when I was around nine or 10, my parents got divorced, my father moved to New York City, and going to Knicks games was an activity I did with my Dad. As (Dallas Mavericks owner) Mark Cuban often says, and I agree with him, you look back on those early memories, and I definitely remember going to the games and I remember the Knicks and I remember particular Knicks (players), but I can't say that I remember who won or lost or what the score was the first time I went. It was more the experience of going to a Knicks game with my father, and I had two brothers - my oldest brother, Eric, who's eight years older, he was also a hardcore sports fan. It was pretty much Knicks and Yankees for us in those days, a little bit of Giants and Rangers, but he and I used to also root for the Knicks together, watch Knicks games at home a lot on TV when we weren't going to the games.

So the Knicks sort of defined my high school years, and then I went to Duke. I can't say that I went to Duke necessarily because I wanted to go to a school that had a great basketball team, but it was definitely a terrific fringe benefit of having gone to Duke. And I would also say that growing up in the suburbs of New York, we were largely pro basketball fans. There wasn't a local college program that we were really attached to. I remember Iona College was good in those days, and New Rochelle (where Iona is located) is near Rey, and there was a little following for Iona. But then when I went to Duke, I became passionate about ACC basketball, and during my time down there, Ralph Sampson was playing for UVA, James Worthy, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins. And when I got to Duke (in the fall of 1980), they had come off a great year (two years before) where they had been at the national championships... Gene Banks was there, Kenny Dennard, (Jay Bilas). But they were frankly pretty mediocre in Coach (Mike Krzyewski's) first year. They didn't make the tournament. I think they lost in the first round of the NITs. And those programs really struggled my first two years there.

I will say that in terms of being a fan, I was never a paint your face kind of guy. And Duke, same as they have today, the student seats were available just based on showing your student ID, so you could walk right in and get the first 20 rows around the court. I went to all the home games, and had incredible seats to some of the best college basketball anywhere, and saw what turned out to be some of the greatest of all time. And then I do remember my junior year, Johnny Dawkins came to Duke and I think even to this day, Coach K credits Johnny Dawkins with having changed his career in essence. Johnny turned Duke back into a competitive program. At Duke, it becomes part of your lifestyle there, Duke basketball. I lived on dorms on campus that were probably, the dorm I lived in my sophomore and junior year were, at most, probably 200 yards away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. I played intramural basketball, like a lot of students did down there.

So I stayed connected to the Duke game, remained a Knick fan. And then I went after college to the University of Chicago Law School - I took two years off, lived in Washington DC, went to the University of Chicago Law School - and lo and behold Michael Jordan is setting the world on fire. This is obviously pre championship teams. I got to Chicago in '85, but certainly the whole town was abuzz with Michael Jordan, but I do remember that it was not difficult to get a ticket to a game. I mean you could just - University of Chicago is on the Southside, but we would go down to the stadium, friends from law school were basketball fans, and we'd just buy a ticket and go to the game. Again, that's another chapter in my life where I still remained a Knicks fan but I was definitely into the Bulls back then.

Q: That's quite a perfect storm of hoops experiences for sure.

A: Yeah, so then after law school, I came back to New York, and then my Dad - who was a lawyer in New York and is no longer alive - but he had remained a Knicks season ticket holder all those years. And then when I came back to New York, and I worked for a judge and worked at a law firm before the NBA, I shared my father's Knicks season tickets with him. So then I was back going to a fair amount of Knick games. I mean I was a young lawyer and working long hours, but when I could I went to Knick games, and then sort of stumbled into the NBA.

I was practicing law at a firm called Cravath, Swaine & Moore, a big New York City corporate law firm, and certainly was engaged in the work there but decided shortly after getting there that even though all my life I'd planned to be a lawyer, that once I began practicing law, I seemed to gravitate more towards the business side of the transaction rather than the litigation, which was what I was doing.

Q: So what kind of law are we talking here?

A: I was doing litigation, doing largely litigation over antitrust cases, did a patent case, but general litigation at a big New York firm, nothing connected even remotely to sports. And then after I'd worked at the firm for about two years, I started to think about what else I might do, and I had done a lot of work while I was at the firm Cravath for Time Warner, and specifically worked on a case representing HBO, and became very interested in the media business and the burgeoning cable business. I sort of looked around to see who it was I could contact to get advice, thinking about what I might do next, and my father - the Knicks season ticket holder - was a partner at the Proskauer law firm, the very firm that David had come from in '78, when he had come to the league. So I didn't know David, but I wrote David a letter...and it was old-fashioned snail mail.

There was no Internet back then, so I wrote him a typed letter, 'Dear Commissioner Stern, as I think you know, I know you know my father, my name is this, I work at this law firm and I'd be interested if you ever had time to give me advice.' And he called me a couple weeks later - his assistant called me a couple weeks later - and said, 'You know, if you can come over tomorrow, he happens to have time and he'd be happy to see you.' I came over, and at that point I didn't even understand what it would have meant to be working at the NBA back then. I was a fan, but had no sense of league operations. And as I often tell interns here and others who are looking for jobs, because there was no Internet, it wasn't easy to find out about the inside of an organization. There was a guide and register, and you could maybe go buy some sort of book on the history of the NBA, and there wasn't an either, so you'd go to a bookstore and you'd search endlessly on the shelves to look for something that was relevant, but it was tough.

So in essence, when I came to meet with David, I hadn't done any research. I didn't understand the whole operation, I didn't know about his deputy and that (current NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman was then the general counsel. So he and I had that meeting, he gave me some suggestions about working in the media business, which it turns out I didn't take because I got consumed back at my law firm with doing other things and I was thinking about a couple of (other) opportunities. Then he called me about two months later, and said, 'Whatever happened? You didn't call this guy that I suggested you call, and in essence I said, 'Oh, I apologize, I got caught up working at my law firm.' The guy he had told me to call was based in another city, and I said, 'I pretty much want to stay in New York right now,' so he said, 'You know, why didn't you tell me all that? I have another idea. Why don't you call my assistant and come back and see me again. I came back to see him again, and this time, as it turns out - I didn't understand at the moment - but Val Ackerman of the now-Big East and long before the WNBA, Val was David's special assistant, but she had recently told him she was leaving on maternity leave so David was looking for a new special assistant to the commissioner. And ultimately, that's the job I ended up taking. Val left on maternity leave, and when she came back she went to work for (then deputy-commissioner) Russ Granik, and I stayed as David's special assistant, but that was my entrée into the NBA.

I'm a huge fan of the game. It's beyond a fringe benefit of obviously getting to work at the league office. I watch a ton of games in person, on television, on all forms of new media I follow the league. And so it's just beyond my wildest imaginations to me to now be the commissioner of the NBA.

Q: Despite all the folks who feel like you'll have a tough time making the sort of impact David did simply because the league is in such a better place now than it was 30 years ago, you made it pretty clear recently that your ambitions are no less lofty when you mentioned the possibility of rivaling the NFL. Do you truly see that as possible?

A: "When I said there that it's my dream that we should rival the NFL in popularity, by no means am I suggesting that it comes at the expense of the NFL because all of the research I look at shows that virtually all sports fans are fans of multiple sports. Even, for the most part, the strongest part of our season begins essentially after the NFL season is over. We overlap to a certain extent, but we know that when you get towards the second half of the season, moving into All-Star, and then driving into the playoffs and ultimately the Finals, that's where we get our largest viewership. So from that standpoint, we're not directly competitive with the NFL at all. But even when we do overlap, the research shows that someone who is a fan of the NFL is more likely to be a fan of the NBA, not less likely.

Q: Parity is obviously a major factor in the NFL when it comes to its profitability, and you guys pushed hard during the (2011) lockout to improve on that front and to have as many markets as possible to feel like they had a puncher's chance at winning a championship. What's your updated perspective on this (collective bargaining agreement) and how the parity of your league has changed?

A: Well you said it right. We were very clear on our goal going in that we wanted every market to be in a position to sell hope to its fans, to sell the prospect that well-managed teams are in a position to compete for championships, and also...are in a position, if well managed, to be profitable. I think we were very straight forward with our players that profitable was not a dirty word, and that in order to incentivize teams to reinvest in the NBA, in the state of the art facilities like we're seeing in Sacramento and that are on the drawing board in San Francisco, teams need to be profitable. And so while the CBA is far from perfect, we compromised in order to get it done, and we're seeing some very positive signs, and largely you're seeing much less of a correlation between market size and success.

You had four teams in the conference Finals last year all in the bottom half of the league in terms of market size. In addition to Indiana and San Antonio and Oklahoma City, you see Portland now competing, you see Phoenix now competing, certainly Memphis. So I'm sure both sides would like to continue tinkering with the CBA to a certain extent - and let me also add that the revenue sharing appears to be working as well, that you have significant redistribution of revenue. It's not just large markets. From larger revenue teams to smaller revenue teams, and that was part of a compromise as well. But early on, again, it's looking positive.

Q: On another hot topic, what's your latest view of the draft? Do you see some tweaking or even overhauling of the lottery system being done anytime soon? What's your latest view of the draft right now?

A: Um, I'm studying it. I'm listening to everyone, from media to players who have a point of view to certain teams. ... There is legitimate rebuilding that teams go through, and will always be the case in a (salary) cap-type system because it requires by its very nature that teams plan for the future. So I'm not ready to declare it broken yet, but it's worthy of study. We created a new competition committee a year ago, a smaller group allowing that cross section of NBA personnel, owners, GMs, and coaches and league staff, so rather than having the three-hour meeting we had in the old days, we're creating a format where we can have multiday meetings, where we can take in enormous amounts of data to try to understand how team impact has been affected by the lottery. And then we'll go from there. So should we, again, tinker with the odds for lottery teams? We've done it before, and maybe we should do it again. But I'd say we're still studying the topic.

Q: Along those lines, what's your level of optimism when it comes to your goal of raising the minimum age to 20 (years old from 19 when the next CBA is negotiated, likely when there's an opt-out after the 2016-17 season)? 

A: It's hard to tell. I never quite understood the player opposition. Of course it's a zero sum game in terms of numbers of jobs, and amount of salary we pay out. We pay out roughly 50% of BRI (basketball-related income), and that's divided among the players in the league. So there is absolutely, and by definition can't be, a financial savings to us by increasing the age to 20. It has been our belief that we have a better chance to grow the (financial) pie that gets divided 50-50 if we increase the age and create, in essence, a more competitive league. And it has been our sense for a long time that our draft would be more competitive if our teams had an opportunity to see these players play an additional year, whether it be in college or professionally in the Development League or overseas.

We believe the additional year of maturity would be meaningful. And increasingly, I've been told by many NBA coaches that one of the issues with the younger guys coming into the league is they've never had an opportunity to lead. By having come directly out of their first year of college, those are the moments in their lives where...they were put in positions as upper classmen, where they first learned how to lead teammates. And ultimately, if you look at our most successful teams, they're successful because they play as a team and I think that's one of the beauties of this game is that it's such an interesting mix of team play and at the same time individual (skill).

A team plays together with individual attributes. It's that blend that teams are always constantly trying to achieve, the perfect blend. Again though, it's one of those issues (where) it needs to be collectively bargained, and for good reason. It's something that during collective bargaining the last time, we had lots of discussions about it with the group of players who were representing the union at the time and I think it's something that we should continue to discuss. Let me just throw in that at the same time, I think maybe, just to broaden my horizons a little bit, I'm trying to look at it not just from the perspective of the NBA because I believe strong college basketball is also beneficial to the NBA and to the game generally. So even if it's not terrible for the NBA right now, at least talking to a lot of my college coaching friends and college (athletic director) friends, their view is (that) one and done is a disaster. I think this is one of these issues that the larger basketball community needs to come together and address, not just the NBA owners and our players. Youth basketball and college basketball should have a seat at the table as well.