The NBA’s Silver Age

Adam Silver will become the next NBA commissioner after longtime incumbent David Stern officially retires this Friday.
Adam Silver will become the next NBA commissioner after longtime incumbent David Stern officially retires this Friday.

As David Stern formally retires this week, will Adam Silver pave his own way as league commissioner or be stalked by the ghost of his legendary predecessor?

This Friday, the first day in the month of February, the winds of change will be breezing into the offices and public conscience of NBA fans. That is the day that David Stern, who will have been the league’s commissioner for exactly 30 years to that day, will officially step down from his pedestal and hand over the power to Adam Silver. It is debatable depending on whom you are talking with whether Stern’s grand exit from the grand stage that he has danced upon for so long will be met with curiosity, eulogy, disdain, or ironic cheers. As is the case with the self-proclaimed head of any sports league, the only things made more often than profits are enemies, and Stern was no exception.

I always found it hilarious that the lead executive for a league encompassed abnormally tall, long-armed basketball players was a sharp-tongued New York lawyer who looked like he probably couldn’t top six feet on his tippy toes. But Stern’s long journey to commissionership goes a ways longer than when he took the position on February 1, 1984. He grew up in a Jewish family in Teaneck, NJ, and went to high school in his hometown. He kept his New York and New Jersey roots after high school, earning a degree in history from Rutgers University in 1963 and then graduating from Columbia Law School in 1966. He passed the state bar exam in ’66 to become a practicing lawyer, joining the powerful law firm Proskauer Rose in the Big Apple. It was at Proskauer Rose in the late 1960’s that Stern began working as outside counsel with the National Basketball Association, whose head James Walter Kennedy had just renamed his official title to “league commissioner.”

Stern was a childhood fan of the New York Knicks, continuously pointing out in later interviews how much he loved old-time Knickerbockers players like Richie Guerin, Kenny Sears, and Carl Braun growing up. His love for the game of basketball never faded away even as an aspiring lawyer who looked like he had no business walking on a basketball court. But along with being a history major, Stern was an economy nut (To this day, he still annually attends the World Economic Forum in Switzerland) and it was his business know-how that helped him get in the room with NBA businessmen. One of Stern’s most notable acts as outside counsel for the league was helping to put together the 1976 NBA/ABA merger that would prove to be a historic event over time. After assisting with the complicated process of implementing remaining ABA franchises without inheriting bad business deals (except for one glaring mistake that was only recently settled), Stern earned the adulation of NBA owners and he was promoted to the league’s General Counsel in 1978.

One year before the merger, and two years before he passed away due to cancer, J. Walter Kennedy stepped down as commissioner and handed to reins over to Larry O’Brien, who had previously worked as a member of the cabinets for both President Kennedy and President Johnson. As the league’s head man under the merger and the settlement of the Oscar Robertson free agency lawsuit, O’Brien sought to expand the television revenue in any way possible. He made the decision in 1973, the last year Stern’s hometown Knicks won an NBA title, to leave ABC and sign a television deal with CBS, which earned the ire of ABC sports pioneer Roone Arledge. Despite their new digs on CBS television, O’Brien still struggled to get the network to air NBA games live due to ABC’s aggressive counter programming at the time. Most NBA postseason games, including the NBA Finals, were either not aired or put on tape delay in the late night due to the risk of low viewership. The bad ratings were not all CBS and ABC’s fault, however. The NBA in the 1970’s was undergoing a toxic public perception as a league full of drug addicts and unlikable personalities. When Kermit Washington nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich with a punch on the court in 1977, that was probably the most that the mainstream had heard about NBA basketball that year.

Stern shakes hands with his mentor Larry O'Brien, who retired as commissioner in 1984 on the eve of the NBA's popularity boom.
Stern shakes hands with his mentor Larry O’Brien, who retired as commissioner in 1984 on the eve of the NBA’s popularity boom.

It was in these dire straits that Stern helped O’Brien expand the sport’s national popularity and improve its image. O’Brien pushed hard for a stringent anti-drug program that would ban players after three strikes, but it was not enforced to its fullest extent until he had already retired. Stern also believed with O’Brien that the future of the sport was in television, and he was one of the men behind the league’s first cable TV deals with ESPN and the USA Network in 1982. By the time Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and helped spike ratings for NBA games, it was common knowledge behind the scenes that Stern, who had by this time become the league’s Executive Vice President, was the next in line to become the league’s fourth commissioner. That came true in 1984 when O’Brien stepped aside. Stern never forgot those who came before him, renaming the NBA Championship to the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but he never looked back when it came to forward progress.

Stern was a bright man who deserved the acclaim that he received as the tycoon of a burgeoning sports league in the 1980’s, but in many ways, he was simply in the right place at the right time. In the 1984 NBA Draft that the then-mustachioed Stern presided over for the first time, the first three names he announced were Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, and Michael Jordan. As Magic and Larry famously dueled in the NBA Finals in three of the first four years of Stern’s reign, television ratings continued to rise in the United States as the country hungered for more “Fan-Tastic” NBA action. While drug problems in the NBA did not fully go away, fans became more and more willing to ignore the humanity of their stars thanks to a revolutionary marketing tactic by Stern and his top aide Gary Bettman: Turn the NBA’s superstar players into the faces of the league. It worked like a charm as people in all walks of life would identify with star players like Michael, Magic, Larry, Zeke, Dominique, and Doctor J on a first-name basis. Stern also was a major proponent in turning the NBA’s All-Star Game into a fan-friendly festival for its stars and league, and as the players became world-famous thanks to high-stakes shoe campaigns, the game became a must-watch event for television viewers. By the time we reached 1988, the Lakers/Pistons Game 7 in the NBA Finals was the highest rated game in league history. One year later, the NBA signed a television deal with NBC that more than tripled in price from CBS’s previous broadcast rights in 1986. Along with the growing dollar signs came a growing league, as Stern added six new teams to mix by the mid 90’s.

It was with their new home on NBC to the memorable tune of John Tesh piano rock that Stern and the NBA got the luck of the draw a second decade in a row. The first three NBA Finals that aired on NBC, which became the most watched network on broadcast television in the 90’s, were the first of Michael Jordan’s three straight NBA championships, with the 1991 Finals promoting the much-anticipated match-up of Michael vs. Magic. A year later, Stern and Deputy Commissioner Russ Granik helped influence F.I.B.A. to allow NBA players to take part in the Summer Olympics, leading the formation of perhaps the most famous team in the history of organized sports: The 1992 Dream Team. Stern had beaten the NFL and Major League Baseball to the punch in the international expansion of his sport as Team USA convincingly won the gold medal and the hearts of millions. Stern’s golden touch was so highly regarded in the sports industry that in 1993, the NHL hired away his right-hand man Bettman to become their league commissioner, which he remains to this day. Even after Magic and Bird, the pioneers of basketball’s television stardom, retired from basketball after the Olympics were over, the NBA was still soaring to greater heights and record viewership.

But as the 1990’s bounced along, you could see chinks in the armor that had so strongly protected Stern’s NBA reign at first. It was during his initial retirement in 1994 that the NBA realized it had a Jordan problem: The effect of relying too much on one transcendent megastar to carry an entire sport along with its ratings. The ’94 Finals, the first without Jordan since 1990, was the lowest rated Finals on NBC at that time. Thankfully for Stern, that problem was quickly offset in 1995 when Jordan returned to the Bulls and continued his championship dynasty from 1996 to 1998. Game 6 of the ’98 Finals, Jordan’s last with the Bulls, remains the highest rated game in the league’s history, but it was under the growing fearfulness in league offices that the dynasty was soon to be dead. It was in that offseason in 1998 that Stern endured one of his darkest chapters: A long and bitter lockout in which talks with the Players’ Union over the Collective Bargaining Agreement were highly contentious. For the first time in league history, regular season games were lost and an owner-friendly agreement was not ultimately reached until January 7th, which forced the league to play an abridged 50-game season. As league activities restarted, Jordan officially retired from the Bulls and the NBA struggled at first to find a new defining franchise and face for the league. The 1999 NBA Finals series between the Spurs and Knicks was by far the least-watched one in the 90’s and embattled stars like Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant were not immediately accepted by older, grizzled fans who longed for the days of Magic, Larry, and Michael.

Ron Artest during the infamous Malice in the Palace in late 2005. It remains one of the darkest days in the NBA under David Stern's watch. Stern suspended Artest for the entire season.
Ron Artest during the infamous Malice in the Palace in late 2005. It remains one of the darkest days in the NBA under David Stern’s watch. Stern suspended Artest for the entire season.

Although the emergence of the Lakers under Shaq, Kobe, and Phil Jackson rechristened a familiar franchise as the league’s golden goose of the new millennium, Stern still had a mountain of struggles to overcome. Many traditional fans and writers grew voluntarily distant from the African-American hip-hop culture and normally accepted on-court thuggery from the likes of Iverson and Latrell Sprewell that became staples around the league. As the league looked to and fro looking for the next M.J., the next brand-worthy star to promote the NBA across the globe, the search often came up empty-handed. Even when Jordan himself returned at 38 to play for the Washington Wizards, Stern and company knew that the increased viewership to see Jordan return was not even a band-aid to the gushing public relations wounds from which the NBA was openly suffering. But while Stern’s NBA was dealing with continuously sinking ratings in 2002, he made a wise business move by negotiating a cable-heavy TV deal with ABC and ESPN that paid more than $2.4 billion over six years. Two years into the NBA’s newly minted ESPN contract, Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers fell apart after losing in the 2004 Finals (to the tune of high ratings, nonetheless) to the Detroit Pistons.

It was over the next few seasons that Stern was forced to directly diffuse two of the most controversial happenings under his watch. The first was the Ron Artest melee at the Palace of Auburn Hills in late 2004, where Artest lost his cool after a fight with Ben Wallace and incited a riot after fighting with Pistons fans in the stands. The press conference in which Stern handed down one of his most severe punishments as a commissioner (a season-long suspension for Artest along with a couple other lengthy ones) was the most somber one I had seen him do since late 1991 when he sat by Magic Johnson as he announced he was HIV positive. After a highly debated decision by the league office to suspend two key Phoenix Suns players for a pivotal playoff game against the Spurs in 2007 for what seemed to be illogical reasoning, Stern, who is never one to turn down a verbal jousting, was taken to task in plenty of interviews for what was deemed transparent favoritism for one playoff team over the other. That was followed by the tabloid-driven bombshell of former official (and convicted felon) Tim Donaghy admitting he would bet on games he officiated in and the accusation that, among other games, the all-too-shady Lakers/Kings Game 6 in the 2002 Western Conference Finals was fixed by the league for the Lakers to win to ensure a heavily watched Game 7.

Although the scandal eventually disappeared after Donaghy was sentenced and eventually released from federal prison, the scars from that public relations nightmare never truly went away in the eyes of already-skeptical fans about the legitimacy of the NBA’s officiating. In the latter part of the 2000’s going into the next decade, the NBA finally resurged in the ratings game thanks to a concerted effort to clean up physicality and promote freedom of movement along with a new generation of marketable stars like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant. Yearly influxes of great, young talents like Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the fold led to something that David Stern had envisioned a good ten years before other television executives did: The increasing reliance on expanding cable outlets and digital platforms to further the popularity of the game by showcasing a wide array of up-and-comers. By the time the NBA owners and players reached yet another impasse that forced the 2011 lockout, unlike the ’99 lockout that washed out most of the remaining Dream Teamers, the stars were still aligned to reach the prime of their careers and ratings were on the up and up.

It was during the 2011 lockout, which eliminated 16 of the 82 regular season games for every team, that I felt for the first time that not only could the league thrive without the inner workings of its most renowned manipulator, but also that Stern’s motivation to stay at the top of the food chain was winding down. I will never forget the press conference announcing a truce to end the lockout in November of 2011 when Stern looked visibly worn down and freely admitted that this newly agreed-upon C.B.A. would be his last. As Stern and former Players Union president Billy Hunter, wily but tired veterans from the previous 1998-99 lockout, wore casual sweaters in a crowded room to announce the agreement, the man in the suit who stood directly to Stern’s left was one of the most audible of authorities regarding the numbers as Stern thankfully handed the endless questions off to him. That man’s name is Adam Silver. His story is frighteningly similar to that of Stern himself.

As the 2011 lockout is declared over, Adam Silver sits next to David Stern, who announces that this is the last Collective Bargaining Agreement he will take part in.
As the 2011 lockout is declared over, Adam Silver sits next to David Stern, who announces that this is the last Collective Bargaining Agreement he will take part in.

While David Stern was making his way in the NBA offices in the early 1970’s, Adam Silver grew up as a Knicks fan in Westchester County, NY. His standout height made you think he could have played basketball if he tried, but his father was a lawyer, and he decided to follow in his footsteps. He graduated from Duke University in 1984 then earned his law degree at the University of Chicago in 1988 before getting into the litigation game. He was an associate at the New York law firm Cravath, Swaine, & Moore and also served as a law clerk for a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. Silver was always around Proskauer Rose because his father had worked there when he was a kid, and he became more and more familiar with Stern, one of the firm’s most notable alumni. One day in 1992, Silver sent a letter to David Stern asking for career advice. Stern took fascination with his inquisitiveness and took the young man under his wing that year, first as a special assistant. Stern said later on that he basically abducted Silver to join the NBA before his path to becoming a successful attorney.

After witnessing the Dream Team his first year on the job, Silver’s dreams of becoming a big business name came to fruition under Stern slowly but surely. He was Chief of Staff in 1993 before becoming the head of NBA Entertainment and many of its global properties by the end of the 1990’s. You could tell just by watching the more filmic, restorable footage of NBA highlights in their promotional clips rather than the outdated, poorly edited videotape library in decades past (It should come as no surprise that Silver was on the executive producers for Michael Jordan to the Max on IMAX theaters in 2000). But like his mentor Stern, Silver dreamed big and knew that along with the league’s growing popularity on a worldwide scale that there was territory to be won over, and they did it better than any American sport. As Yao Ming entered the league and the Beijing Olympics were officially declared, Silver created NBA China in the fastest growing country in the world. Silver was one of the main players behind F.I.B.A.’s naming of the Basketball World Cup in Madrid, Spain, this summer. As video media became more easily accessible than ever in the late 2000’s, the NBA’s digital department under Silver was the first major pro sports league to fully embrace the YouTube’s of the world to highly successful results, and the other leagues followed suit soon after. When Russ Granik retired as the league’s Deputy Commissioner after 22 years, Stern did not have to think long and hard to determine that Silver would be only his second sidekick in that position when he petitioned it to the Board of Governors.

Like Granik had in years past, the only public acknowledgement about Adam Silver in recent years was his traditional announcements of selections in the second round of the NBA Draft as Deputy Commissioner, where some joked that he looked like an anorexic James Carville or the tall weird guy in Agent Dale Cooper’s dreams on “Twin Peaks.” But by the time he took part in his third major Collective Bargaining Agreement with Stern and answered endless queries about how to help the owners and players agree to difficult demands, it was clear that Adam Silver was the heir apparent finishing his dress rehearsal. After sharing the same executive suite with the man who brought him in from the New York cold, Stern has now decided to take a permanent walk outside and leave the suite for Silver to take the key. Unlike Stern, who will retreat home to his wife and two sons in Scarsdale, Silver is a single man who lives in Manhattan only blocks away from his office, a formally trained NBA lifer thanks to a self-made mogul. It seemed so cyclical when Stern, who has received loud boos from the New York crowd in NBA Drafts past, received a generous applause at the end of the first round, then as he introduced Silver for the rest of the night, the boo birds came back stronger than ever.

Well-dressed departures like the one Stern will experience this Friday are usually met with a range of emotions about the legacy that the former incumbent leaves behind and what type of grade they should receive. His 30-year tenure covers such a long time frame in a league where so many things have changed before and during his watch that it is no surprise that you get a variety of labels for Stern in a nutshell. The titles go on and on, from “visionary” to “dictator,” from “underappreciated” to “egotistical,” from “ahead of the curve” to “shameless self-promoter,” from “intellectual” to “embattled.” Most columnists are more than ready to throw rose pedals at Stern’s feet this week while Yahoo! Sport’s Adrian Wojnarowski was more than ready to throw dirt on Stern’s figurative grave when he announced his months-long exit plan. It is ironic that a man whose last name is Silver will be taking the mantle from a man who, along with Pete Rozelle in the NFL, was the most powerful executive behind the NBA’s golden age.

Stern eggs on the crowd as he announces the 2012 NBA Draft. Along with much individual success came the burden of criticisms for Stern.
Stern eggs on the crowd as he announces the 2012 NBA Draft. Along with much individual success came the burden of criticisms for Stern.

It would be unfair for me to bundle Stern’s entire span as league commissioner as a “golden age” for the NBA given the fact that after striking it hot in his initial years, it was on his shoulders to carry the league through a variety of valleys to go with those peaks. Some of those pitfalls were consequences of Stern’s own doing, like rash decision to enforce a dress code on players before and after games that sparked hints of racism. Some catastrophic crises like the Artest melee and tightening the league’s drug policy after the Len Bias tragedy in 1986 were the right moves, while he deserved a lot of disdain for assisting Clay Bennett in slimily moving the SuperSonics from Seattle in 2008 and the veto of the Chris Paul trade from the Hornets to the Lakers in late 2011. And don’t even get fans started about the continuing conspiracy theories concerning the NBA Draft lottery and refs favoring superstars. Any mention of Stern’s triumphs and glamorization is equally met with controversy, but Stern was one of the first entertainment-minded names along with Vince McMahon, George Steinbrenner, and Lorne Michaels to fine-tune the vision of the authoritarian-as-celebrity. Along with the highlights and spectacular moments on the court came a residual fame that floated to the top by pulling the curtain to reveal who was really pulling the levers in the wonderful land of Oz.

Thanks to his sharp, rapid fire wit and willingness to explore new ventures, Stern was usually on the offensive when it came to deflecting issues and letting the numbers do the talking. The average NBA franchise is currently valued at $635 million, which is $230 million more than the value of all the NBA teams combined when he first took the job in 1984. As long as the bottom line kept the money trades in the positive direction, Stern became better over the years at promotion through misdirection: Smartly molding potentially negative reaction into good publicity. In an era where self-made tycoons, television showrunners, film producers, and politicians are more engrained in the national zeitgeist than ever, David Stern was one of the first to give fans at the bohemian level a stern reminder (pun intended) that the top of the mythmaking pyramid was just as noteworthy as the bottom. But as the official NBA ball has the commissioner’s autograph replaced with Adam Silver’s, the next question beckons the future of the NBA without its most well-known emperor as a new face takes the stage.

Although Silver has been generally well-liked as the next-to-be, many said the same thing in 2006 about the NFL’s current, openly despised commissioner Roger Goddell. Perception of his nice guy persona will either earn him labels from the media as a softie when faced with tough issues or as an unfair conservative if Silver tries too hard to dictate matters. He served excellently as a helper to the owners during labor talks, but the option is open for a new C.B.A. in 2017, and that may be the year in which we will see Silver’s true intentions and potential mistakes. While fans and media nitpick Silver’s first days with daily minutiae on how to run things better, the NBA will be fine on the financial end thanks to its growing cable ratings and the estimation that the league may double its television revenue when their current television deal expires in 2016. But whether it occurs via labor talks, potential league expansion, or an uproarious scandal that we have yet to see unfold, there will come a moment that will define Adam Silver’s tenure as the new NBA commissioner. That moment could be one of celebratory nature or it could eventually spell doom for Silver years, maybe decades, down the road.

It will be somewhat fitting that in a weekend where the New York/New Jersey area hosts its first Super Bowl and on a Friday night where the Nets and Knicks play star-studded home games, a New Jersey guy will be passing down basketball royalty to a New Yorker. One way or another, it is always a tough position to be the guy AFTER The Guy, the person who has to run just as quickly with the torch as the one who graciously handed it off to him. But just because we are met with a new generation does not necessarily mean that we are in for a downward trend. Remember that in comic book speak, the Silver Age was considered just as vital and vibrant an era to the comic book industry as the Golden Age was, if not more. David Stern will be considered by most sports fans young and old as a visionary, but in the case of Adam Silver, the most important question will be how much Silver will merely be carrying out a previous vision instead of doing some envisioning of his own.