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Q&A with Adam Silver

February 12, 2013 10:59 am EST

Deputy Commissioner discusses his love of the game and the evolution of his inner fan

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Even if you don’t know the name Adam Silver, you’re most definitely familiar with his work. Silver has been a massive force behind the NBA’s global and digital growth during the past two decades, having served the league in various roles up to and including his current capacity as Deputy Commissioner.

And while he has spent much of that time working outside the spotlight, the 50-year-old graduate of both Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School has played a pivotal part in everything from labor negotiations to brokering television and merchandising agreements around the world. It was hardly a surprise then that the NBA’s Board of Governors unanimously decided to pursue Silver to be the league’s next commissioner when David Stern steps down from the position on February 1, 2014.

That, however, is for the future and right now Silver is far too focused on the present to spend time contemplating what his life will look like a year from now. Immediately on deck, of course, is the All-Star extravaganza that is just days away from launching in Houston – an event and locale that evoke memories and offer ample reminders of the fascinating basketball journey Silver has traveled up to this point.

It is with that subject in mind that Rockets.com engaged Silver during an exclusive interview late last week. What follows is the transcript of that conversation, during which Silver discussed his passion for the game, the evolution of his inner fan, and the growth of the league to which he has devoted his life.

JCF: What is the first All-Star experience that stands out to you?

AS: My first All-Star experience was before I worked for the NBA. I was a student at the University of Chicago Law School when the All-Star game took place in Chicago in 1988. I remember I was at a reception at one of the hotels in Chicago and meeting Xavier McDaniel, the X-Man, who was then an All-Star. I remember being excited about getting his autograph. Then of course I’ll never forget the game because Michael Jordan was the MVP.

Now my first All-Star experience as an employee of the NBA was in Utah in 1993. I remember it being cold and snowy, and I remember it being the first time we staged our All-Star Jam Session which was organized by our then director in the events department, Ski Austin, who now happens to run the department, for sure in part because he created such a successful event.

JCF: Was there ever a time in those early days when you found yourself awestruck around some of the players you’d grown up watching?

AS: I’m still awestruck to this day. I will say that even in my role of Deputy Commissioner and even when I’m wearing a credential that allows me to go anywhere in the arena, I’m always expecting someone to stop me when I walk either across the floor or through the tunnels into the back-of-the-house rooms and locker rooms. So I’ve never quite gotten over that feeling that I’m somewhere I shouldn’t be and definitely remain awestruck to this day.

JCF: So even after working for the league for more than 20 years, you still feel that way? Do you anticipate that feeling ever going away?

AS: I don’t, only because there’s so much new and different that happens every day in this league – a constant influx of new players, new situations. I think it’s in the same way that if you suggested to someone who’s been a fan of the NBA for 20 years that that feeling would start to go away; if anything it’s the opposite – the more you know about the league, the more you know about the inside stories and what’s really going on, the interplay between particular coaches and rivalries, the more it feeds your passion and intensity for the league and the game itself. So believe it or not, my level of being awestruck just continues to grow.

JCF: I also wanted to get your thoughts on the last time the event was held in Houston in 2006. What stands out to you from that experience?

AS: Yao stands out, largely because he’s bigger than life. It was a few years after I first began traveling to China on a regular basis. To me, it was at a time when it became clear that Yao was one of the most famous people in the world and I think it was as much a celebration of Yao Ming’s coming of age in the league as it was a celebration of Houston and the Rockets.

I also remember what a great experience it was and what great hosts the city of Houston and the Rockets were.

JCF: When it comes to All-Star, I think a significant portion of the population understandably focuses on Saturday night’s events and the game itself on Sunday. So sell me, as a basketball fan, on why events like Jam Session and the Friday night festivities are absolutely essential to the overall experience and must-see as well.

AS: It’s an easy sell. Jam Session is a 500,000 square foot basketball theme park for fans of all ages. It was created with the basketball fan in mind and frankly there’s nothing else in the world like it. It’s wall-to-wall basketball action featuring 40 different attractions, clinics with players, free autograph sessions with All-Stars and NBA legends, and an NBA store with the largest assortment of All-Star memorabilia and products in the world. And add on top of that a constant flow of celebrities throughout the weekend.

JCF: I thought it was interesting the way you described your inner fan growing instead of diminishing while being in your position. You’ve had such a fascinating journey to get to where you are now. I’d like to rewind a bit and talk a little about some of your earliest basketball memories as a kid growing up in New York.

AS: I grew up playing basketball and loving the game. We had a basketball court in our driveway where I played with my older brother. My competitive basketball career ended when I went to Duke University where I probably could not have made the intramural team, but it increased my passion for the game as a fan because it was such a central part of life on the campus.

JCF: And I assume that was right at the beginning of Coach Krzyzewski’s tenure?

AS: It was exactly. Coach K and I started the exact same year. He began at the ‘80-‘81 season at Duke which is when I matriculated to Duke. Interestingly enough, three of my four years at Duke were probably three of the most difficult years for the Duke basketball program in its history.

JCF: Was the Cameron Indoor Stadium experience then anything like it is now? I’m guessing probably not.

AS: The building has remained almost exactly as it was then in terms of the number of seats, the facility, the looks. In a good way in terms of fan experience, it hasn’t been modernized; it still very much has that small field house feel. But when I was there, in part because the teams weren’t that successful on the floor, there were no Cameron Crazies sleeping outside for days waiting for tickets. In fact, and I think it’s still the case today, students could use their IDs to get the very best seats in the house. So back then you just walked up to Cameron 10 minutes before the game and walked in and went to your seat. It was general admission in something like the first 20 rows around the court. So no one had to sleep outside to get a seat in Cameron then; you just went down to the game with your student ID and just walked right in.

JCF: So no crazy three-night camping extravaganzas – do you at least have any stories to share of a game when you went wild with face painting?

AS: Well there was face painting, but for the record I’ve never painted my face at a game.

JCF: That’s hugely disappointing, Adam. It’s for sure a check mark in the negative column, I’m afraid.

AS: Well there was still plenty of crazy cheering going on. And let me say this: even back then the Duke students were well known for their creative cheers.

JCF: Well let’s fast forward a bit now. You started working for the league in 1992. That would mean that you’d have been there about two years when the Knicks and Rockets met in the NBA Finals in ’94. I’m guessing you grew up a Knicks fan, correct?

AS: Correct.

JCF: So when that series took place, did you still have that loyalty to the Knicks inside you? And if so, what was it like seeing the Knicks come that close but ultimately having Hakeem Olajuwon take over, dominate and lead the Rockets to the title instead?

AS: So I grew up a Knicks fan and actually attended a lot of games with my father and my brothers, but when I joined the league, as you might imagine, I shifted my focus to being a fan of all teams. I swear (laughs).

JCF: Wait, was it just that easy? Because usually people can’t just flip a switch like that. Typically that sort of detachment takes place over time.

AS: In all honesty, it was easy intellectually but more difficult emotionally. I found myself sometimes during my very early days with the league at a Knicks game, when Patrick Ewing would make a great play, I’d still have that urge to clap and possibly even jump up. So you don’t lose that instantaneously by coming to work at the league office. But I quickly began to root for competitive games and, as David Stern says, for the referees.

And my recollection from that particular Finals was how amazing it was to watch Hakeem Olajuwon. I’ll never forget, and I’ll never let John Starks forget – like most former Knicks fans – Game 7. And I also remember, though, that while Olajuwon’s got the rings, I do believe Patrick had more rebounds and blocks in that series (note: Ewing did indeed average more rebounds (12.4 to 9.1) and blocks (4.3 to 3.9) than Olajuwon in the ’94 Finals, but Hakeem also emphatically trumped Patrick in points (26.9 to 18.9), field goal percentage (50% to 36.4%), free throws made, free throws attempted, assists per game and, of course, games won).

And there was one particular finger roll in the dwindling seconds that could have possibly changed the outcome. But we’ll never know.

JCF: But see, even just listening to you say things like that, I can tell there was still at least a little bit of that inner fan within you that was still alive and, at the very least, flickering. But from a Houston perspective anyway, maybe the ultimate takeaway would be this narrative that I’ll throw out there right now: Perhaps you were so crushed, so devastated from the end result that your inner fan was crushed and destroyed once and for all the night of Game 7.

AS: (laughs) You know, you’d have to talk to Sigmund Freud for the best answer to that question. 

JCF: I’ll look into that. Okay, I’ll let you off the hook and wrap things up on a more serious note. Big picture, I’d like to know how you think this league can improve and what has to happen to make those improvements a reality?

AS: We’re always evaluating what we can do to see whether we can improve the game on the floor and the fan experience. I’m particularly focused on advancements in technology; it’s something that I’ve spent an enormous amount of my time on, especially the last decade here. We continue to look for ways to harness those innovations to make the game itself better and to help our fans, 99 percent of whom don’t experience it in person, get a better sense of what makes this game so special.

JCF: That’s interesting because we hear all the time how teams around the league are using technology like SportVU in an attempt to increase their understanding of the game and how they can improve their team-building methodology. It sounds like, at a league level, you’re doing the exact same thing, trying to take advantage of all the new ways of cultivating and mining data in an attempt to make the league as a whole better.

AS: No question. What better league to take advantage of big data than the NBA? Again, I am particularly focused on the use of technology to enhance officiating and the use of technology to make the game itself more exciting to fans – that’s both in arena and on television.

JCF: Is there anything at all you can speak of in that respect or do you have to keep it close to the vest for now?

AS: Nothing that’s ready for primetime yet. I’ll only say that the development league isn’t just to develop players, but also to develop new technology for the game. Also, we work hand in hand with our teams; there are things that are being done by the league office of course, but we also closely monitor the innovation that’s happening with the teams. Whether it’s Daryl Morey in Houston, Mark Cuban in Dallas, the new group in Golden State – and I’m obviously leaving a lot of teams out – we want to work with teams who, for competitive reasons and in many cases with proprietary technology, are also focused on ways to harness technology and to ultimately better the game and the league for everyone.