A Daily Babble Production"May the record reflect that I was just handed a note that there was an owner on the phone," the NBA's second-in-command begins, eyes twinkling, "But I said it's more important to finish this interview with Steve than take that owner's call. So we'll see if I'm still employed after this."
If Adam Silver's gainful employment is truly flashing before his eyes thanks to the stops-for-nobody CelticsBlog Express (and we're happily confident that it isn't), it certainly isn't visible from his demeanor throughout our weekday afternoon chat.
Clad in an understated white collared shirt sans tie, the NBA's deputy commissioner leans back in a cushy conference room chair and rests his hands atop his head, displaying nothing more than perfect ease.
Silver is the ideal interview subject, the type who never seems in a rush to get you out of his face. Just a guy who is happy with his job and would never be fazed by taking the time to answer a few of your questions. Granted, he smiles as he says, "You're the first person to come back for a second interview," but that alone doesn't explain away his good nature. He is an intriguing swirl of self-deprecation, dry humor and insight, all of which well befit the man who has made an impressive rise to second on the National Basketball Association totem pole.
He graduated a semester early in order to return to work for Congressman Les AuCoin, for whom he had interned after his junior year -- only he did such a good job that the congressman didn't realize he had a year of school left and offered him a full time job on the spot. "I said I had to go back to college, and he said whatever the equivalent in 1983 of 'my bad' was," Silver intones.
But he enjoyed the job and returned to work for Aucoin, which means more enjoyable deadpanning from Silver: "I handled issues very relevant to the sports industry like salmon hatcheries in the state of Oregon, issues impacting Native Americans, healthcare and the environment."
Over the next several years, the budding legal career continued. Silver matriculated at the University of Chicago Law School, interned for the U.S. Attorney and clerked for a federal judge before working as a litigation attorney for the firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, working principally on anti-trust and media cases. And that's where the road to the league really began.
"One of Cravath’s largest clients was Time Warner, and I got very interested in the media business," says Silver. It was then that I started to read a lot about what David Stern was doing for the programming of the NBA, what he was doing internationally for the league."
He had met the commissioner previously, so Silver sent Stern a letter, not for a job, but simply for advice concerning the media business. What he wasn't prepared for was a direct call: "I thought it was a friend of mine saying it was David Stern on the phone," Silver says sheepishly. "I’m not sure what he thought I was doing on the phone, but I was just sort of laughing back because I didn’t believe it was David Stern calling me. After I figured out it was David Stern, I sat upright in my chair, he invited me into his office. Not for an interview, just to talk."
Yet despite the early faux pas on the phone with the commish, their relationship blossomed through a set of conversations over the next several months, and sooner rather than later, Silver found himself interviewing for the position of special assistant to the commissioner of the NBA.
It is at this point in his story that the comedian in the current deputy commish comes out once more as he looks back to being the one-timed wide-eyed interviewee. "Stern then called me and suggested I come back and talk to Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but despite the fact that I was a pretty big Knick fan and NBA fan in general, I didn’t know who Russ Granik and Gary Bettman were. There was no easy way [back then] to go look these guys up."
(Seems like the ideal time to 'fess up the parallel story that I shared at the end of our interview: As I stood outside the green room prior to the opening pick on draft night, I spotted Ahmad Rashad and decided I wanted to get some insight from him. Problem was, he was engrossed in a conversation with a wiry, clean-shaven, suit-clad official-looking fellow. They kept talking. Since I'm big Mr. Daily Babble Big Shot, and I have no idea who this guy is, I'm getting impatient with the fact that he is keeping me from talking to Ahmad. Ultimately, they didn't finish up until right as the draft is starting, and both disappeared quickly, stripping me of my chance. It wasn't until two weeks later -- long after I'd spent the best five minutes of that evening chatting with him at midnight in an empty theater -- that the identity of Ahmad's screener dawned on me: the deputy commish himself. I'm really an idiot sometimes. Okay, back to Adam's story.)
Silver ultimately did find out who his lunch companions were, had a good showing and wound up with a job as David Stern's special assistant, at which point he spent the next year doing everything imaginable for Stern, including opening his mail. That was in the summer of 1992, and it's only gotten better from there over the last 16 years.
On his way through the NBA's ranks (NBA Chief of Staff, Senior VP and COO of NBA Entertainment, President and COO of NBA Entertainment), Silver was integrally involved with the NBA's shift into a digital age. He was prominently involved with overseeing the advent of both NBA.com and NBA TV, and it remains incredible to him just how much the technological landscape has changed over his tenure: "I remember endless meetings just on trying to perfect the live scoreboard. Fifty people were involved in that enterprise. I mention that in contrast to today, when you can get a live scoreboard widget from Yahoo! and drag it onto your screen. It’s remarkable to me that there could be that significant a transformation over such a relatively short period of time."
This was certainly one of the men largely responsible for helping the NBA along with that transformation. He also played key roles in coordinating deals with the league's television partners and was involved in forging the last three collective bargaining agreements.
For the last two years, the native of Rye, N.Y., and longtime season-ticket holder to the Knicks has spent the vast portion of his time overseeing the day-to-day goings-on of the league and it's 900-some employees in New York City and Secaucus, N.J. Beyond the endless meetings, one of the most intriguing assets of Silver's job is that there isn't a set group of the same assignments that compose the job description.
"My day can be very diverse," he says. "Part of it depends on what issues are on the front-burner at a particular time. If we’re in the process of negotiating new television deals, that’s going to take a large part of my time. Or it may be that several of our marketing partnership deals are up for renewal, so I’m focused on that."
Of course, being the COO of the country's most prominent basketball company doesn't just mean interminable desk work. Silver estimates that he attends an average of a game each week during the regular season and then ups that commitment as the postseason comes, which concludes with his attending every Finals game. He has the NBA League Pass package on every one of his televisions, streams games on the Web and describes his basketball-watching commitment as "a ton."
The beauty of a job that involves so much basketball-watching is assuredly not lost on this beholder: "You know, the thing about this job is that so much of it involves the kind of activities that other people do in their leisure time. I recognize that, and I kick myself when I think of how fortunate I am."
Being a number two man - a job not suited to everyone - also isn't wasted on Silver. He maintains that he is perfectly comfortable playing a largely backstage role, and his close relationship with the head honcho has helped him gain a high comfort level in his current role.
"[David Stern] has made my job easier by putting me in a position where he and I can work as a team, where I can stay behind the scenes and negotiate the fine points of the deal, and he can come in with the strategic vision."
But just because he isn't the face of the league offices doesn't free Silver from his obligations to diplomacy.
We know he came to the league as a Knicks fan, but he gives nothing away beyond that. "It’s fair to say now it’s almost impossible to be a fan of a particular team if you work in the league. I’m a fan of the Knicks...," he pauses for effect and hits me with his best Cheshire cat grin, "...and of the other 29 teams as well."
Well, since you can't pick a team, how about the best the player in the league? No dice there either. The deputy commissioner ruefully shakes his head.
"Oh, that’s not a fair question," he manages, maintaining that he enjoys watching many of the same dynamic players that most fans do. "Many of the best players are on our Olympic team. I don’t want to leave out the fact that several of the best players are participating in the Olympics but playing for their own countries."
Speaking of that Olympics team, the man working on Fifth Avenue might have a bit of Broadway Joe in him: "We should expect the gold. LeBron guaranteed it, so I’m one level before guaranteeing. I’m expecting." Seconds later, he tempers the claim: "Anything can happen, especially when you get to the medal round, I think it’s a group of our best players displaying the passion and professionalism of NBA athletes at the highest level. It stands for all of the right things, both for this country and for this league."
International hoops talk feeds us right into one of the hot-button hoops topics of the day: Foreign leagues vying for NBA players. It's all good in the eyes of the deputy commish.
"It’s only positive," Silver asserts. "There’s far from a groundswell of international signings. We recognize we compete in a global marketplace for talent. That’s part of being in business today, and that will only make us that much more competitive. I think as a general matter competition is good, and it will only make us better at what we do."
Meanwhile, the idea of having a European division in the NBA is moving from the realm of pipe dream toward the edge of the frontier of legitimate business consideration. Our subject indicates that one of the primary obstacles had long been the lack of an arena infrastructure overseas, but that the problem is abating. The NBA played a preseason game at O2 Arena in London last year and will hold one in a new arena in Berlin this year. Silver expects Rome, Madrid and Paris to follow suit soon thereafter. "It may be possible logistically to add a European division within the next decade."
But no matter what the goals for the future are, the man is plenty happy with the current state of the NBA. "I think the game has never been better," Silver states, "With the pool of players that continue to come in internationally, with the increased focus on the game, I don’t remember a time the game has been as aesthetically pleasing to watch."
He's having none of the occasional complaint that the America's collegiate game offers better basketball. "Our players are of course the best of the college players, and I’m a college fan as well," he offers. "I don’t see it that way at all, that somehow the best players in the NBA aren’t fundamentally sound. It’s a different game because of the extraordinary athleticism of our players, but they demonstrate their fundamentals in terms of shooting ability and increased emphasis on the team game over the last several years. The NBA game is as exciting to watch as any game in the world."
But is it so exciting because it is officiated in a way that allows players to skate over certain fundamentals?
"We hear that complaint, but our reaction is ‘Send us the tape,’" answers Silver. "All we can do is break down every call. It’s not just fans, and I hear complaints from people within the league as well. If someone thinks there is traveling on a particular play that wasn’t called, we look at the tape. It’s not an easy game, given the speed and athleticism of our players, to call, but we think our officials are the best in the world as well. We’re continuously looking to improve the officiating, but it’s at the highest level that has been achieved anywhere." So the gauntlet is down on that account. Here's wondering if we'll have any takers.
Regardless of the qualms some hold with officiating, the league's second-in-command promises an enjoyable season on the horizon. He foreshadows that we'll be seeing more updates this year on the NBA's developing partnership with the NCAA - "We are very focused on our obligation to grow the game among kids and to ensure that the best players develop both their game and their character" -- and adds a reminder that the Association is a principal home for the world's best hoopsters. "We're just excited to throw the ball up for another great year."
Through all lines of questioning, the demeanor of this happy-to-be-here deputy commissioner never sways. He maintains that even-keeled graciousness of response, always internally measuring his answers and usually making sure they contain room for a chuckle or two.
Two years into his highest-ranking job yet, he remains in boyish awe of his newfound celebrity. As our time together draws to a close, I ask if he knows that he has an entry on Wikipedia. Nope. I hand him a copy of the page and direct his attention to the last line, which reads as follows:
"It is assumed that Silver will succeed current Commissioner David Stern as NBA Commissioner whenever the latter decides to retire."Adam Silver saves his heartiest laugh for last. "I’m flattered, but as far as I know, Stern has no plans to retire, so it’s a moot point."
And that's just fine with him. He firmly maintains that despite hours so great that he won't admit them and a year-round commitment to the business of basketball, there is no worst part of this job. Here is a man just thrilled to be of association to the Association.
"I think I have one of the best jobs in the world, and I feel very fortunate to have landed in this job."