Commentary

DeCock: NBA's Adam Silver keeps close ties to Duke

ldecock@newsobserver.comApril 30, 2014 

— Michael Schoenfeld has plenty to say about NBA commissioner Adam Silver. As Duke’s primary spokesman, Schoenfeld can talk at length about what Silver, a 1984 graduate, has done for his alma mater.

“He’s been a very big supporter of the Duke library and he has always been available for meetings, to talk to students, to visit campus,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s great to see his Duke affiliation, his Duke relationship has continued over all these years.”

That’s on a professional level. Schoenfeld, who also happens to be a 1984 Duke graduate and a fraternity brother of Silver’s in Phi Delta Theta, can speak to Silver the person as well.

“Adam is today and was then a frightfully smart and very genuinely cheerful and funny guy, somebody that people wanted to be around and wanted to hang out with,” Schoenfeld said. “He’s a very smart guy with a great sense of humor.”

Silver’s sense of humor wasn’t tapped when he exploded onto the national scene this week with his swift, decisive handling of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments, banning Sterling from the league and fining him $2.5 million while encouraging the other NBA owners to force Sterling to sell his team.

There are several people whose handling of this awkward and difficult situation merits praise, from Clippers coach Doc Rivers to Sacramento mayor and former player Kevin Johnson, who spoke to Silver on behalf of current NBA players, to the Golden State Warriors players who were ready to walk off the court against the Clippers on Tuesday if Silver’s discipline was deemed insufficient.

‘In control’

None has shone as brightly as Silver, whose uncompromising decision not only fended off a potential player revolt but established a stark contrast to his predecessor, David Stern, who let Sterling remain in place even as court proceedings – a housing discrimination lawsuit and a wrongful-termination claim by former Clippers general manager Elgin Baylor – exposed similar Sterling views.

“He’s so in control,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who has worked closely with Silver on USA Basketball matters. “Without being intimidating or intrusive, but only helpful. I thought it was a no-brainer that he would be the commissioner. And he’s brilliant. He’s not smart – he’s brilliant, without flaunting it.”

Tuesday, Silver managed to satisfy active players, NBA legends and the other owners all at once, a rare hat trick in the annals of professional sports leadership.

For a 52-year-old who only took over for Stern in February, it was quite a public debut as the most powerful man in professional basketball, one whose interest in the game was catalyzed three decades earlier as a student at Duke.

Silver arrived on Duke’s campus from his hometown outside New York City at the same time Krzyzewski took over as Duke’s head coach. Through Krzyzewski’s first few difficult years, it wasn’t hard to get into a game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. By the time Silver graduated, the Blue Devils had returned to the NCAA tournament.

Duke connections

In a February 2013 interview with Duke’s website, Silver described the role basketball played during his college years.

“It was at Duke that I developed a deeper passion and appreciation for the game of basketball,” Silver said. “I also learned about the power of great brands and the importance of a passionate fan base. And of course my political science degree comes in handy when I’m negotiating with the Chinese Sports Authority!”

Other Duke connections have been fruitful for Silver, most notably Roy Bostock, a former Duke trustee and chairman of Yahoo’s board of directors who Silver has often cited as a mentor. He is also close to Duke president Richard Brodhead, assisting with university fund-raising, and still has many friends in the area.

“He was smart, funny and generous to a fault,” Stephen Farmer, North Carolina’s vice provost for undergraduate admissions and a Duke classmate of Silver’s, wrote in an email.

Duke has former players who serve as executives – general managers Billy King and Danny Ferry – and alums who are owners or CEOs of the Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. Silver’s real connection to Duke’s basketball program would come later, after he studied law at the University of Chicago and joined the NBA in 1992.

As his role at the league expanded, his interactions with Duke basketball became more frequent. By the time Krzyzewski started coaching the U.S. Olympic team, Silver was part of the traveling party, representing the NBA in Beijing and London.

“He’s a great listener,” Krzyzewski said. “He gives you tremendous feedback. Whatever you’re talking about, he adds value to what’s being talked about. With the U.S. team, he handled himself in a very professional but confident way. He wasn’t just there with David Stern. He was always Adam Silver. He really separated himself then, as ‘I’m this guy, not just an understudy.’ 

DeCock: @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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