December’s GQ Men of the Year issue prominently featured NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He’s dressed as sharply as you’d expect him to in a GQ shoot—charmingly, he asked interviewer Chuck Klosterman, “This is my one chance at being interviewed by GQ; when are you going to ask me about my clothes?"—and he looks studious, cerebral, and dashing. The story was a victory lap for Silver, but just as much, it was an extended middle finger to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The subhead to the story might as well have been “GQ Man of the Year: Person who is not Roger Goodell.”
Silver, who will preside this weekend over the NBA All-Star Game’s first trip to New York City in almost 20 years, has been on the job for just over than a year, and it’s sort of impossible to imagine having a first year that could have gone any better.
Almost immediately upon taking the job, Silver dealt with The Donald Sterling Problem, and he handled it magnificently: Acting swiftly and decisively, and allowing for no grey area whatsoever, he excised Sterling from the league, lop, like that. Silver might not have actually had the authority to just kick Sterling out—and the subsequent deal between Sterling and his ex-wife is awfully odious—but that didn’t matter. By being proactive, he made the league look forward-thinking and responsive, particularly compared to the increasingly Nixonian NFL.
But it wasn’t just Sterling. The NBA is now widely considered the most progressive sports league, by a rather vast margin. Part of this is because of how Silver has contrasted with his predecessor David Stern. Stern was known (somewhat unfairly) as a Machiavellian leader who saw his players and teams as pieces in an ongoing chess game that only he was playing; Silver has been a comparative breath of fresh air, open to both players and media, and impressively honest. (In the GQ interview, he actually admits he would have handled Sterling differently had he made comments about Asians instead of African-Americans; quite the admission, when you think about it.) He has also been downright radical in suggesting potential changes to the game, from a soccer-like midseason “Cup” tournament, to altering how the league selects its postseason teams, and even to widening the court to further open up the game. He genuinely appears to be willing to listen to, and be up for, anything.
Coincidentally or not, Silver’s first full season has been one of the NBA’s most thrilling, on the court, in a decade. LeBron James’ move back to Cleveland was supposed to be the big story, but he has been eclipsed by the bezerko joyousness going on in Golden State and Atlanta. Buoyed by structural changes in the way the game is played—largely thanks to a Moneyball-esque analytics revolution, which, unlike in baseball, actually made its game more fun to watch—the league is full of teams who spread the floor and load up on 3-point bombers, and no one typifies that more than the giddy Warriors (led by charismatic shooters Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and the out-of-nowhere Hawks, who recently won 19 straight games. Across the NBA, teams have gotten away from the old Heat/Knicks/Pistons foot-dragging, foul-everyone-in-sight defensive game and turned to a faster-paced, more team-oriented, Euro-style game. Aesthetically speaking, the NBA is a joy to watch now in a way it hasn’t been since before the Detroit Bad Boys showed up and started punching everybody. And the league’s making money like crazy, too: Its recent deal with Turner and ESPN for television rights exceeded $24 billion.
It’s also worth noting how cool the league has become, in both a youth sense and a marketing one. Walking through Times Square last week, I saw moving billboards for Russell Westbrook, Curry, LeBron and (still) Carmelo Anthony; there wasn’t an NFL or MLB player in sight. Pop culture is awash in NBA references, thanks to hip-hop’s takeover of American culture; when Jay-Z wanted to show off his power and prestige, buying an NBA franchise was the only logical step. (LeBron even wore NBA-and-Grammy-themed shoes.) MLB makes you look old; the NFL makes you look soulless. The NBA is the sport it’s still dope to love.
This is quite a change from Stern’s NBA, which, at one point, actually photoshopped Allen Iverson’s tattoos off the cover of the official NBA magazine. Now tattoos are often more recognizable than team logos. The NBA is printing money, it has the attention and respect of the nation’s most powerful influencers, and it actually seems to be run by decent people who don’t even vaguely resemble Roger Goodell.
There’s a catch here, of course. The league's very nice-ness may be the NBA’s Achilles heel—and the league is probably in more peril than any of its peers. The one thing that can truly take down a sports league isn’t fan rebellions, nor cheating scandals, nor PEDs. The biggest danger is labor issues that could cancel a season. And there’s no league facing that potential cataclysm more acutely than the NBA. The new head of the NBA Players Union is longtime labor lawyer Michele Roberts, a woman who has some definitely revolutionary, potentially incendiary things to say about the relationship between labor and management in professional sports. She has openly questioned the constitutionality of the salary cap, she has called the NBA a “monopoly,” she has even spoken out about the inherent unfairness of a “draft” of talent. (Imagine if your industry plucked you from college at 19 and told you where you had to work and how much you would get paid for it.) These are powerful bombs being thrown at Silver, to which he delivered a strongly-worded rebuke. No other sports league’s players union has ever even broached most of these third-rail topics—which suggests that the league is in for a gigantic labor brawl when the its collective bargaining agreement is expected to expire after the 2017 season.
No other commissioner is facing a union challenge the way that Silver is, and it’s in large part because of the very openness he has espoused. Silver has not attempted to destroy the union the way some other commissioners have, which, while noble, has probably just emboldened the union to bring the fight to him. Adam Silver is taking a justified victory lap this weekend, showing up on Letterman, enjoying all the happy press, but he is still a commissioner of a sports league, one of the most unpopular positions in American culture. It’ll all turn on him soon: That’s why the job is so hard. That’s to say, he was right all along: I bet that is the last time he gets that photo shoot in GQ.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct the statement, in a previous version, that Adam Silver asked for a public apology from Michele Roberts. Silver did not ask Roberts for an apology.