The National Basketball Association’s next commissioner is an ego-free practical joker with an innate ability to bridge divides and settle complex disagreements, those who have worked with -- and negotiated against -- Adam Silver said.
Silver, 50, will replace David Stern on Feb. 1, 2014, taking over for a sports executive who is widely credited with taking a drug-filled league from tape-delay telecasts of its championship to a global sports, entertainment and marketing behemoth with annual revenue of more than $5 billion.
Stern, 70, announced yesterday in New York that he would step away from day-to-day operations, surrendering stewardship to a hand-picked successor who has served as the league’s No. 2 official since 2006 and who joined the NBA in 1992.
“Adam is a world-class executive and will be a tremendous commissioner,” Scott O’Neil, a former NBA marketing executive and president of Madison Square Garden sports, said in an e-mail. “He has the respect of the teams, players, owners and business leaders around the world.”
Silver, a graduate of Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School, has the respect of U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood without question. Silver was Wood’s first law clerk in 1988, impressing the judge with his ability as a negotiator.
“He was proficient way beyond his years,” Wood said in a telephone interview after being informed of Silver’s pending promotion to the NBA’s top job. “He would find ways to help me close negotiations, close settlements, that no other clerk has been able to do since. He just was marvelous.”
He was also a prankster, Wood said, recalling one birthday caper in which Silver hired an actor through a Village Voice ad to argue with the judge and eventually burst into song.
“He was extraordinarily witty, and would play practical jokes on all of us that were very, very funny,” she said from New York. “He had us in stitches for most of the year.”
Silver has been cast by co-workers and adversaries as the anti-Stern. The outgoing commissioner has a reputation for flashing a fiery temper that includes desk pounding and berating those who disagree with him.
“Adam is very, very different than David,” said Danny Schayes, who played 18 years in the NBA. “Adam is much more of a bridge-builder.”
Negotiations on a contract for Silver will take place in April, said Peter Holt, owner of the San Antonio Spurs and incoming chairman on the league’s board of governors. Holt called Silver’s promotion a “no-brainer.”
The league under Stern added seven franchises and increased revenue 30-fold to a projected $5 billion this season. Television revenue jumped 40-fold to about $1.3 billion this season and the average player salary rose to more than $5 million from $250,000.
“David’s been great for the league; it will truly be a sad day when he steps down,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, a billionaire who Stern fined more than $1.5 million for infractions including criticism of officials, wrote in an e-mail. “That said, I’m excited about Adam taking over. I’m actually thinking it could save me a lot of money :)”
Silver was the chief negotiator during the last labor talks with the players, which included a lockout and resulted in a shortened season. It was his third collective bargaining agreement, along with the past two television deals.
Hal Biagas, a former deputy counsel at the union, said in a telephone interview that Silver’s background in the league’s entertainment unit gives him a better understanding of the players as people. Jeffrey Kessler, lead outside counsel for the union who apologized during the lockout for saying Stern treated players like “plantation workers,” agreed.
“He sees the big picture and will hopefully make it a priority to heal the pain of the lockout and build a better relationship with the union and the players,” Kessler said in an e-mail.
NBA games are now televised live almost nightly and can be seen in 215 countries and territories. The league under Stern also became the first of the North American sports circuits to put its footprint in China, ultimately establishing a business unit in the world’s most populous country.
Stern’s face belongs on a hypothetical Mt. Rushmore of chief executive officers, Silver said.
“David has transformed the industry, and not just the NBA,” he said. “David is the one who turned sports leagues into brands.”
Stern, who has become known as “Digital Dave” for incessantly promoting technology as a means of distributing the NBA brand internationally, didn’t do it alone, says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
During Silver’s tenure, the league’s digital activities expanded, including the introduction of NBA TV. Silver also oversees the NBA game telecasts, which are delivered in 47 languages.
“A digi-junkie who has been visionary in his own right shaping the league’s multimedia future,” is how Swangard described Silver via e-mail. “His loyalty to Stern will not mean status quo, but his promotion means future success will be built on that foundation.”
The play of Yao Ming and two decades of NBA broadcasts have bolstered the NBA’s popularity in China, fueling viewership, apparel sales and demand for stars such as Houston Rockets point guard Jeremy Lin to endorse products there.
NBA viewership rose 18 percent last year in China, where the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers played a preseason game this month. In an interview with Bloomberg Television in Shanghai at the time, Stern said he expects league revenue in China to increase by at least 10 percent annually. The 2012-13 NBA season opens Oct. 30.
“My fondest memory is of Adam always being engaged and making the business better,” George Postolos, who served as Houston’s chief executive from 1998 to 2006, said via telephone. “I can’t think of a single time in the past 10-15 years when that wasn’t first and foremost on Adam’s mind.”
Silver became the league’s deputy commissioner in July 2006, replacing Russ Granik. For the previous eight years he was the president and chief operating officer of the league’s entertainment unit.
Wood said she keeps in touch with Silver, who attends the annual summer picnic the judge has for clerks. They also have dinner once or twice a year. As for clerk Silver, the prankster, becoming Commissioner Silver, Wood said: “It’s the perfect job for him.”