Adam Silver prioritizes safety, caution amid global pandemic

NBA commissioner addresses league's continued stoppage in play, discusses phone call with president, other league bosses

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner


Apr 6, 2020 10:05 PM ET


NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke with TNT's Ernie Johnson via social media to answer some of the league's most pressing questions.

Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, had been the first among major league’s sports executives in the country to suspend his league’s schedule in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since that March 11 decision, he, the league’s Board of Governors, players and coaches and NBA fans globally have watched as timelines, tactics and medical responses at the federal and state levels change, often day to day.

Not quite four weeks in, with the league still on hold Monday as one thread in this international shutdown, Silver offered an honest but sobering update, not just on the $7 billion industry of NBA basketball but perhaps for Americans’ short-term way of life.

“Sitting here today, I know less than I did then,” the commissioner said.

Silver was working from home, as was Ernie Johnson, host of TNT’s "Inside The NBA” show. They came together Monday evening for an interview streamed on Twitter under the league’s @NBA handle.

The social-media “talk show” was billed as the first of a series under the banner “#NBATogether with Ernie Johnson.” The idea is that Johnson, the award-winning host of TNT’s studio show, will interview notable guests on Mondays and Wednesdays during the league’s hiatus. Portland All-Star Damian Lillard is scheduled for Wednesday. Highlights will be available after each show at the @NBAonTNT account.

What I’ve told my folks is that, we should just accept at least for the month of April, that we won’t be in position to make any decisions. I don’t think necessarily that means on May 1 we will be.

Adam Silver

In advance of his questions, Johnson noted to Silver how trying this season already had been after a controversy in the fall over the league’s relationships with China, followed by the deaths of former commissioner David Stern and Lakers legend Kobe Bryant in January.

Then, with the breaking news on a Wednesday night in Oklahoma City that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the virus, the 2019-20 season changed irrevocably.

Silver had answers in the interview that lasted about a half-hour. He just didn’t have answer answers.

Remember, after the initial pause and consultation with the league’s owners, Silver threw out a marker of at least 30 days for what already was a great unknown for the sport and its business. That milestone will come and go Friday, with no new cutoff offered by anyone.

“What that means in terms of our ability to (return) at some point in late spring or summer is still unknown to me,” Silver said. “What I’ve told my folks is that, we should just accept at least for the month of April, that we won’t be in position to make any decisions. I don’t think necessarily that means on May 1 we will be.”

Silver has seen reports that the virus, and its curve of infection, might be moving “faster than we thought.” Models have been revised again and again. But the uncertainty crowds out whatever internal planning the NBA has done for finishing the remainder of the regular season, jumping right into the playoffs or setting up some entirely new format.

“Yes, in a perfect world, we would try to finish the regular season in some form and then move on to the playoffs,” Silver said. “But what I’ve learned over the last two weeks is we just have too little information to make those predictions.

“As I look out into the summer, there would come a point where we start impacting next season.”

Yes, in a perfect world, we would try to finish the regular season in some form and then move on to the playoffs. But what I’ve learned over the last two weeks is we just have too little information to make those predictions.

Adam Silver

So the speculation prevalent on the Internet and social media about how the NBA could return – televised games without fans in the stands, practice facilities deployed rather than arenas, or some single, neutral site where all games will be played – is merely that.

Silver has maintained from the start “the health of everyone in the NBA has to come first.” Yet he did address sports as a valued part of American and global life, and an eagerness to lead the way back similar to how he and others led the way in taking precautions.

Silver and the commissioners of other major U.S. sports – including baseball’s Rob Manfred, the NFL’s Roger Goodell, the NHL’s Gary Bettman, the WNBA’s Cath Engelbert and seven others – took part in a conference call Saturday with President Trump. As Silver described it, it was an opportunity to discuss sports’ place in society, with Trump expressing his longing for live games and the role the leagues might play in America’s recovery from the virus and the resulting economic hardship.

“I said when we were all on the call with the President,” Silver said, “we would love to be part of the movement to restart this economy. That can’t compromise safety. [But] it’s a public health matter to shut down the economy and leave tens of millions of Americans unemployed. It’s a public health matter to isolate people.

“We know our priorities in terms of health and safety. But factoring those things in, where will we be in May? Beyond the virtue of crowning a champion, what will the symbolism be of major league sports starting back up in this country?”

Trump and other members of his administration were updated on current measures, such as the NBA’s series of roughly 30 public service announcements encouraging fans to heed the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines.

The current “normal” for most Americans hits home for Silver’s family. He and his wife Maggie are expecting a second daughter in mid-May. That means some anxiety in accessing care in New York area hospitals. Also, their first child, Louise, will turn 3 years old this month. She can’t grasp the reason she’s not able to hug her nearby grandparents, so it’s Skype or FaceTime or other ways of staying connected.

“We just can’t bring her there,” Silver said.

Then there is the commissioner’s other “family” – the roughly 55,000 people whose jobs hinge on the NBA. They are of particular concern, he said, on top of “tens of millions” thrown suddenly into unemployment.

“That’s what’s keeping me up at night,” Silver said. “Those people’s jobs. Their safety when they come back to work.”

Silver’s silver lining? That the stay-at-home instructions have led to more time for him to think this forward, imagining the league and the culture once this crisis subsides. He has made a hobby, he said, of exploring new technologies for communicating and imagining how they might affect this league.

“How will this change the NBA experience? What will game production look like?” he said. “We will get through this as a country. There will be a vaccine. … What will the NBA world look like (beyond) this coronavirus? Will there be more virtual ways for people to experience the game?

“I also have tremendous belief in this country. What’s amazing about Americans is not only their resilience, but their innovation.”

Virtual can be good. Real, live, in the stands and on TV screens will be better. At some point.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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