How Adam Silver evolves after Robert Sarver decision will determine his tenure as NBA commissioner

“Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling … for life.”

Never has a sports commissioner sounded so fierce, so forceful and so empowered as Adam Silver in that moment.

His stewardship was just 87 days old in 2014 when handing down an unprecedented penalty to then-Clippers owner Donald Sterling, following audio of racist comments. Silver cashed in on equity he hadn’t yet earned with NBA team owners, a novice in the position as caretaker for the game but set a tone — even if it was more symbolic and idealistic.

“I am personally distraught that the views expressed by Mr. Sterling came from within an institution that has historically taken a leadership role in matters of race relations,” Silver said that day. “And caused current and former players, coaches, fans and partners of the NBA to question their very association with the league.”

He could’ve repeated the same quote in the wake of Robert Sarver’s transgressions revolving around racism, sexism, mistreatment of employees and borderline physical assault as he issued a fine of $10 million and a yearlong suspension.

But, he buckled. If anyone believed he’s anything but an employee for the team owners, he delivered that clarity. Jeanie Buss won’t be grilled about this, neither will Steve Ballmer. If anyone could locate James Dolan, getting a comment from him would be like seeing the Loch Ness monster, aka Leon Rose, emerge for an actual public account.

That’s what the money’s for, Mr. Silver.

While calling Sarver’s conduct “indefensible,” he said he believed Sarver “evolved” over his 18-year period as Suns owner — even though Sarver has been proven to use the “N-word” as recently as 2017 and talked about “blow jobs” in 2021.

“I don’t have the right to take away his team,” Silver said. “I don’t want to rest on that legal point because of course there could be a process to take away someone’s team in this league. It’s very involved, and I ultimately made the decision that it didn’t rise to that level.”

The penalty, evidenced by the quote of dissatisfaction from Sarver, was a compromise, the most Silver could get from his bosses.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has presided over two team owners' punishments with very different outcomes. (Quinn Harris/USA TODAY Sports)
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has presided over two team owners' punishments with very different outcomes. (Quinn Harris/USA TODAY Sports)

Silver would never be so popular than he was that day eight years ago, as it didn’t appear he was working for the team owners, or even that he was taking the players’ side. It seemed like his personal outrage guided his decision-making, that no influence would compromise his values.

He rode the wave, as it was our introduction to a new leader in a changing NBA, and fed into the image. It was special circumstances that created that moment, ones we seemed to ignore in canonizing him.

As he stood and stumbled over his words Wednesday, battling between his personal preferences and his duty as the clean-up man, it’s clear he represents neither extreme, and certainly not one who wanted to present the case to the court of public opinion that Sarver actually belongs in this exclusive club.

Sarver benefited, just as Sterling was damaged, by external factors hiding in plain sight. Silver, the ultimate lawyer and diplomat, watched as NBA team owners took back the league in a sense.

The pendulum swinging, revenue shortfall that started with Daryl Morey’s billion-dollar China gaffe, continued with the pandemic and resulted in NBA players possessing more practical power than ever before has gone back in the direction of the 30 franchise owners. Silver, who recognizes the moment as well as anyone in his position can, did what he could to keep things moving — even through its sloppy and unscripted moments.

And it was wielded when Silver likely got all he could from the other members, with no chance of Sarver’s transgressions leading to a vote for possibility of excommunication.

The show must go on, and business must continue to boom. Silver has to get and keep his bosses on the same page as battles are sure to loom internally, even while facing the task of presenting a united front as collective bargaining talks are coming.

Expansion is a point of conversation, along with a new TV rights deal that is seemingly going under the radar. One team owner believes it could pit small markets against big markets as the possibility of an NFL-style national TV deal has been lightly discussed compared to the individual TV deals teams negotiate within their regions.

What that means is Silver has big issues to tackle within his own boardroom. Nothing catastrophic, but currying favor and keeping drama from simmering is an objective.

It’s an inflection point, whether he’s halfway through his tenure or barely a third of the way in. His predecessor, David Stern, began as a visionary who elevated the league domestically and abroad, but ended as an old man who lost his touch and was out of touch. Silver’s main contemporary, the NFL’s Roger Goodell, once covered Time Magazine with the title, “The Enforcer.” Now, he sits as a toothless figurehead who outkicked his coverage in terms of player discipline. How Silver evolves from here will determine his perception.

Stern’s defining moment was his handling of Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and his embracing of Johnson, paving the way for a new narrative. That was seven years into his stewardship, with so many accomplishments in his back pocket in growing the game.

Stern could rule, theoretically, with an iron fist. He made rich men wealthy and turned the players into global icons. His charm in being the emperor was rarely challenged in his prime, and he presented an often cherubic, if not feisty, public image. Silver has a different class to manage, and often manipulate for the greater good. They’re already outrageously wealthy and expecting more with this large investment.

David Stern, right, ruled with an iron fist as NBA commissioner, while Adam Silver, left, is walking a fine line now after the Robert Sarver decision. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
David Stern, right, ruled with an iron fist as NBA commissioner, while Adam Silver, left, is walking a fine line now after the Robert Sarver decision. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

He might be even more idealistic than Stern, who was ambitious in getting white America to accept Black athletes into their homes. Silver walks a fine line, possessing agency if not power in governing 30 team owners who are his bosses. His greatest responsibility, he’ll say, is as steward for the game. To keep it moving, to be the beacon that keeps things steady in a sports landscape that moves faster than ever, quicker than ever.

But his true responsibility is working for those 30 individual businesses, to keep the money train moving and to present the illusion of control while not being controlling.

It’s hard to see him as a cold, hard businessman when he’s geeking out during the NBA 75 celebration at All-Star weekend, being just as much a fan as any League Pass subscriber. Juxtaposing the image of him commanding a Board of Governors meeting compared to tender conversations he often held with the late Bill Russell is tough to negotiate, considering all the racial strife Russell had to endure — both in the name of the team he played for and the league he represented.

All of these puzzle pieces are mutually exclusive, but the pieces create a photo of a man who, for one of the few times since taking command of the job, appeared to find real conflict while knowing what he did was the only acceptable solution.

If Silver was one with no moral compass, the words wouldn’t have seemed so choppy, so constipated, so conflicted. It was a loss he had to take, backed into a corner he didn’t choose but accepted nonetheless.

Being a shameless shill for the team owners doesn’t seem to suit the diplomat in Silver but business is forever on the front burner. How Silver handles his business from today will reveal what means most to him.