In February 2014, Adam Silver will take over as NBA commissioner from David Stern.
Fun though working for the NBA would appear to be from the outside, in reality, the day-to-day business is a tangle of legal documents, tough negotiations and walking a tightrope between many power brokers. The league's success hinges on getting every little thing right. The particulars include impenetrable collective bargaining agreements, TV deals around the world, arena finance, corporate sponsorships and owner relations; there's a reason that substantially all the NBA's highest-ranked executives are lawyers. As David Stern has led the NBA through decades of aggressive growth, into new markets, onto new platforms and to new fans, the business has only grown more complex, creating a business empire of infinite complex.
Adam Silver has long been the executive who knows how all the pieces fit together.
In his various NBA roles over the past 20 years -- deputy commissioner, president of NBA Entertainment, chief of staff -- Silver, 50, has led many of the NBA's more delicate dealings, including television and merchandising deals around the globe. During the 2011 lockout, when it became routine for Silver to join Stern on the podium articulating the league's position, it became overtly clear: Whereas Stern might occasionally bungle a name or meander in his talk, Silver was the man with every necessary fact on the tip of his tongue.
At times over the past few years, Stern has deflected tough questions to Silver in news conferences in an apparent effort to bolster Silver's image as a leader. Other times, however, he has turned to Silver as an escape from thorny business questions. By the time Stern announced in February what had long been assumed internally -- that Silver was his choice to succeed him -- no close watcher could argue with the logic. Silver was the man with the command of seemingly every issue, from NBA China to ads on jerseys.
In announcing the board's decision to pursue Silver as Stern's replacement, Spurs owner Peter Holt called the decision "a no‑brainer," explaining that "he's been there over 20 years, he has been a huge part of what the NBA has become, he has been involved in every aspect of the NBA, and we want to continue that."
Although Stern will leave a massive hole -- in alpha doggery, tactical aggressiveness and old-school executive heft -- a surprising amount of the NBA's behind-the-scenes power brokering will stay the same. A vast swath of the NBA's key stakeholders -- owners, broadcast executives, union officials, players, sponsors -- have dealt directly with Silver for years. In announcing the transition program, Holt and Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor praised Stern for having invested so many years into grooming a replacement.
Silver almost didn't work for the NBA at all. He grew up north of New York City in wealthy Westchester County; there, he was a Knicks fan and the son of a law partner at Proskauer Rose, where Stern was once a lawyer. After earning degrees from Duke and the University of Chicago, clerking for a federal judge and working for an Oregon congressman, Silver was well on his way to following in his father's footsteps as a successful lawyer.
Then he sent Stern a letter asking for advice on his legal career. Stern was fascinated by Silver and, after several more meetings, offered him a job as a special assistant to the commissioner. Silver accepted on the spot.
"I feel as though I kidnapped Adam for the NBA on his way to a legal career," Stern told The New York Times in 2001.
Silver -- who has shared a sprawling wood-paneled executive suite with Stern since becoming deputy commissioner six years ago -- has essentially lived the job. He lives alone in Manhattan, an easy commute from the NBA offices on Fifth Avenue. Other than jogging or walking his dog, the bachelor has few commitments outside of work.
Silver will take over a league with high TV ratings, a fantastic crop of stars, a new owner-friendly labor deal, a financial outlook that is finally pushing the recession into the rearview mirror and a growing global footprint. But it is also at the epicenter of the mercurial digital entertainment business. How the world consumes NBA basketball has changed mightily just in the past year, with in-game attendance no longer the primary way of experiencing the league and mobile phones an emergent force with potential to unsettle traditional distribution channels.
The signs abound that more change is coming. Emblematic of that: Also announced Thursday was the sale of the Memphis Grizzlies from Michael Heisley to Robert Pera. This is a case of one of the NBA's oldest owners, with roots in domestic manufacturing businesses, being replaced by a nimble global digital entrepreneur, whose career began at Apple and whose success has come from inventing an entirely new kind of business. Young owners like Pera, 34, are the new normal in the NBA. Where Mark Cuban with his casual dress and bold ideas was once seen as an outlier, now young owners questioning the business model and urging innovation are the norm. As markets shift and innovative owners make headway, the commissioner's job will only grow ever more complex and global -- a challenge Silver is seen as uniquely qualified to handle.