Whoever conspired to leak the recording really put Adam Silver in a tight spot. Let’s assume it was V. Stiviano, with a little bit of help, who didn’t gently nudge, but forcefully shoved the NBA’s newbie commissioner into a corner. The two sides converging to form that corner are both daunting and insatiable. One wall is the court of public opinion, led by NBA players, fans, the media, and activist groups. The other is the court of law, led by whichever poor, rich attorneys Donald Sterling hires.
For one thing, there really was no “right” decision for Silver to make. Time will tell what kind of decision it was, banning Sterling for life and pressuring other owners to step on the throat of Sterling’s 30-plus years of ownership. Adjectives thrown around regarding Silver’s ruling include prudent, necessary, moral, short sighted, justified, illegal. Resolutions will have to wait until litigation is settled, and litigation may not be settled until after Sterling is dead. For better or worse, that’s what Silver chose when the world threw him down the well and left him to get out.
Silver isn’t a tragic figure or a hero. He’s being praised as a leader, a guy who did his job properly. It says here that whatever comes of Tuesday’s actions, his words were thoughtfully crafted and poignantly delivered. He was brief yet comprehensive, assertive yet sensitive, powerful yet self-aware. In answering questions, he was forthcoming enough to satisfy the media while maintaining a dodgy, Belichick-ian demeanor.
What makes Silver such an interesting character in this situation is that he was given so few choices and none of them were ideal. Those withholding credit will claim he had no other choice. Those laying blame will accuse him of falling victim to mob mentality. Both have hints of truth that require consideration. Learning that players in all three games on Tuesday’s docket were going to protest (not just the Clippers and Warriors) sure made it seem like Silver fell victim to the mob. There was no threat to Silver’s well being, but there was a threat to the credibility and well being of the league. To be clear, the mob also consisted of the media, fans, and activist groups, among others. In specific regards to the players, however, Silver’s decision, which led to immediate peace and good vibes throughout the league, ended up temporarily saving the mob from itself. If Silver is lenient and three games go uncontested Tuesday, it’s a nightmare for the entire league. Yes, that includes Silver, but he’s got his own nightmare coming down the pike. This would have looked bad for the players, the coaches, and the owners. Silver took one for the team–or in this case, the league–on a level his predecessor never would have.
Sterling should not be a part of the NBA and justice was served. It was served through possibly illegal and unprecedented means, but it was served. This was Silver’s first, and perhaps best chance to get rid of Sterling. But it wasn’t the NBA’s first chance. Adam Silver did Tuesday what David Stern was afraid to do for 30 years. For decades, Sterling had been committing fouls over and over again, targeting specific groups of people. For decades, Stern allowed it because he didn’t want a fight with Sterling, because racism didn’t directly affect games, and because he knew that taking on one owner for less than exemplary behavior would open a can of worms. In one fell swoop, Silver hit Sterling with a couple flagrant fouls, a bunch of techs, and went Bart Giamatti on him.
Silver chose temporary harmony in the face of protracted legal battles, and he enforced that choice with a sense of resolve rarely seen from Stern. The adoration of Stern for revenue increases, lucrative television deals and brilliant marketing usually outweighed the scorn he received for missteps like allowing the Sonics to leave, vetoing the Chris Paul trade, and presiding over multiple lockouts. He kept his owners happy and himself out of the courtroom, and that was good enough for him. Seattle fans are wondering right now if they might still have a team if Silver was the commissioner when a cabal of underhanded businessmen conspired to steal their Sonics.
Given Tuesday’s events, fans in all cities have every reason to feel like the league is in the right hands. Silver banished a bigot, but that’s not at the core of the matter. The important part, as it relates to the future of the association, is that Adam Silver will stand in the lane every time and take the charge as Blake Griffin comes barreling straight towards him.