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Chief of America’s blackest league talks about race and social justice

NBA’s Silver advises against a player boycott of Trump White House

Most Undefeated stampOf all America’s professional sports leagues, none are feeling the aftershocks of the Obama-to-Trump transition like the NBA. Commissioner Adam Silver went from leading an organization whose employees dapped up and played with the current president to one in which players are questioning whether its 2017 champion will even show up for the traditional visit to the White House.

The head of North America’s most racially-conscious league listened as NBA players and coaches vented publicly about the election of Donald Trump and a possible boycott by an entire team. Now, he weighs in:

“To me, if a player were to choose not to go to the White House, whether they were choosing not to go to the current White House or a future White House, my response would be: ‘That’s a lost opportunity,’ ” Silver said. “Because that’s an opportunity that most citizens who have a political point of view would kill for — the opportunity to directly tell the president of the United States how they feel about an issue.

“Now, if the president were to say, ‘I have no interest in what members of the NBA think about an issue,’ that might surprise me and I might have a different response.”

Either way, Silver said, “The institution is bigger than any one man, whether that man be President Obama or President Trump. Ultimately players have to make their own decisions. But if they were seeking my counsel, my counsel would be that they should go to the White House if offered the opportunity.”

The thoughtful contrarian strikes again.

It was a late afternoon earlier this month. The light was dying on a bustling 5th Avenue below the 15th-floor conference room outside his Olympic Tower office in Manhattan. Magic Johnson was waiting one room away.

In a nearly hourlong interview with The Undefeated, Silver offered some of his most extended comments on social justice issues since 2014, when David Stern’s former understudy was thrust into the public consciousness three months after he took the head job. That’s when he banned former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for racist comments on a recorded phone call, instantly boosting Silver’s credibility among the league’s 400-plus players.

“I do feel a particular obligation to focus on the African-American community in that we have a league that is roughly 75 percent African-American,” Silver said. “And I feel part of the obligation comes from the history of this league that I’ve inherited.”

He makes no bones about acknowledging the importance of race and gender issues. From years of conversations with basketball legend Bill Russell, who has spoken to Silver “about being part of the March on Washington and standing shoulder to shoulder with Martin Luther King Jr.” to Jason Collins becoming the first active player in major pro sports to come out as openly gay to Sterling and beyond, “It’s part of who we are,” he said.

Now, more than 24 years after he first joined the league as a junior attorney and three years into his tenure as NBA commissioner, he has advocated the expansion of legalized sports betting; encouraged players to speak their hearts and minds on the divide between law enforcement and the black community; and plucked the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte, North Carolina, last summer because of the state’s HB-2 law, the “bathroom bill” that sought to regulate which facilities transgender people must use.

Progressives hail him and the NBA for its commitment to addressing difficult societal issues. The shut-up-and-play crowd, meanwhile, complains the league is developing more social justice warriors than proficient midrange shooters.

But how many causes can one league take up before it hurts the bottom line – especially after just one NFL player on one knee caused such a ruckus? And how does it decide which causes to act on?

No ‘bright lines’

“Let me just say we’re not looking for opportunities to jump in from a political standpoint,” Silver said. “I think we deal with whatever set of circumstances are dealt to us. No one in this league could have predicted when we awarded the All-Star Game to North Carolina that we’d be dealing with the LGBT community and fundamental rights, including access to bathrooms.

“We don’t like to be in the business of drawing bright lines. We realize the complexity of the world.”

Silver paints as he goes, refusing to lay down hard-and-fast rules. He discusses every third-rail issue with owners, players and others whose counsel he values, realizing that accusations of double standards are inevitable.

“I hear fans loud and clear who say, ‘How is it that you do business in China when you move the All-Star Game out of North Carolina?’ ” he said. “Because there are not a lot of fundamental protections afforded Chinese citizens that are afforded to American citizens. And I … I don’t have a cut-and-dried response to that.

“One of my answers is, we are not engaged in any way of an economic boycott of North Carolina … 29 teams will travel to North Carolina this season and stay in their hotels and eat in their restaurants. Talk about authentic, I realize people could say, ‘If that’s the standard, you shouldn’t play a preseason game in China.’ The fact is, we think by bringing the NBA to China and exposing the Chinese people to the NBA … it’s net incredibly positive for us to be engaged in that activity. It wasn’t a net positive to continue the track we were on and playing our All-Star Game this season in Charlotte.”

The North Carolina case also affected one of the league’s central values, Silver said.

“It’s those core principles which I believe transcend politics — principles like inclusion, respect, diversity,” integrating multiple ethnicities and cultures in a league that is 25 percent foreign-born, that makes Silver feel like the NBA is “a beacon for those principles.”

Blacks in the front office

That’s also why the paucity of black leadership in the league is at once puzzling and alarming.

The Undefeated reported last May that while about 75 percent of the league’s workforce is black, only one of 30 teams have an African-American president (the Clippers’ Doc Rivers) and just two have African-American general managers (Dell Demps with the New Orleans Pelicans and Steve Mills with the New York Knicks). The only other person of color running a franchise is the Toronto Raptors’ Masai Ujiri, who is Nigerian.

Since 2010, just six of 30 openings for president of basketball operations or general manager were filled with black candidates. And the situation is only slightly better for black head coaches.

From 2001-2014, the NBA averaged 11 black head coaches per season – including an all-time high of 14 on opening night of 2012, according to Bleacher Report. But four years later, the league is back to just eight black head coaches and nine minority coaches, including Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, who is of Filipino ancestry.

Silver said the league’s growing reliance on analytics hasn’t decreased management opportunities for former players or minority candidates, many of whom don’t have MBAs from the MIT Sloan School of Management like, for example, Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey.

“I don’t buy into it because most of those [analytics] positions have almost entirely been additive,” Silver said. “Yes, in a salary-cap system, there are some different skills required. But the best-run teams have a combination of personnel. Some are analytics people, some are MBAs and some are former players.”

But he acknowledged the league is concerned about the lack of African-American leadership in front offices – and is taking steps to address the issue.

This fall, the league created the Basketball Operations Associates Program for former NBA and WNBA players. Besides their knowledge of the game, “we want to ensure they get training in the [salary] cap, make sure they understand the collective bargaining agreement, understand team relations and scouting,” Silver said. The intent is that once they complete the program, these former players became part of a talent pool where owners and team presidents fish for front-office candidates.

The associates program is an addition to the league’s global inclusion council, 18 current team and league representatives who ensure candidates for front-office jobs “are not a product of any sort of old boys’ network,” Silver said.

“We see it as our role to ensure all applicants — including black applicants — are given an equal shot at these positions,” Silver said.

Just hearing the NBA commissioner acknowledge the possibility of an “old boys’ network” seems like it might contradict the league’s professed values. But Silver refuses to be put on the defensive.

“I look at it from the other side, that it’s incredible how diverse this league is,” he said. “I’m particularly proud of the fact that we now have former players in ownership. It’s not just Michael Jordan. We have Shaquille O’Neal owning a portion of Sacramento [1 percent], we have David Robinson in San Antonio, Grant Hill in Atlanta, Penny Hardaway in Memphis.

“I would hold this business up to any industry in terms of our diversity. Yes, when I hear, ‘You should have more African-American GMs,’ my reaction is, I want to put in place the appropriate programs to make sure we’re training former players so they’re in position to take those top jobs. There’s always more we can do. But I stand by our record. I’m very proud of where we are in this league right now.”

Silver is far more of a diplomat than his predecessor. As effective and smart as Stern was, he could be profanely loud and condescending at times. Silver is sharp, too. But he hides it better to build consensus. Current players notice, for instance, that he eschews the classic businessman’s handshake for the palm-clasp and pull-in playa hug that makes his interactions feel more personal and intimate. At times, the 54-year-old lawyer sounds, at heart, like an old-school baller who still can’t get enough of Big Russ’ stories from the 1960s.

“I think there is a recognition from these players that we are partners in this enterprise, certainly irrespective of color,” he said. “But beyond that, I think there is an understanding I’ve been down this road before — this is my 24th year. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve experienced a lot. I’ve worked directly with many of these players. It’s how relationships are built over many years that we can respectfully disagree with each other. [It’s important] we treat each other authentically and people feel comfortable and safe, especially behind closed doors, so we can tell each other exactly how [we] feel.”
After team owners lost games and revenue and players lost paychecks to labor stoppages in 1999 and 2011, Silver is about to be 1-0 in collective bargaining as commissioner. The owners voted Dec. 21 to approve a seven-year labor agreement that was tentatively agreed to the previous week by both sides.

History of protest

Silver acknowledges that many conversations took place at the league office after the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem about how a stance like that might affect the NBA. Unlike the NFL, the NBA has a rule about standing respectfully for the anthem. “And it’s my hope that our players continue to observe that rule,” Silver said.

“Having said that, I understand there is an appropriate place for protest. I think our players also recognize that our fans are entitled to act in their own way, and that a protest from a player may result in a protest from a fan. And so, they have to put everything in context.”

Even if he’d prefer that players attend a White House ceremony during the Trump administration and remain standing for the anthem, the commissioner speaks in reverent tones about social stances taken by players over the years, from the threatened boycott of the 1964 All-Star game that forced owners to negotiate with the union to the stars who appeared at this year’s ESPYS urging their fellow athletes to address the issues of gun violence and police shootings.

“There have forever in this league been questions about social justice, about issues of diversity, respect, inclusion, about economic opportunities, about racial injustice,” Silver said. “All those things, all bundled together, that might lead someone to want to protest. What we did in [the Kaepernick] case — the players association together with the league — was to speak directly to our players about those issues and deal with issues we felt we can have a direct impact on. And that meant putting together forums — many, by the way, that had begun before any protest occurred in the NFL.”

Among the casualties of more racially enlightened times are some longtime basketball executives who have been labeled as racist or, at the least, insensitive, after a moment of verbal brain lock – even if they had no history of such behavior.

Silver saw this happen in 2014 to former Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who, reading from a scout’s notes, said free agent Luol Deng in Atlanta “had a little African in him,” during a private conference call.

“I’m incredibly sensitive to those situations. Danny and I have had many conversations, and my point to him was, you should deal with it directly – including acknowledging you made a mistake. But this was by no means something that should have resulted in him losing his job … [I hope] we don’t end up in a society where people are always walking on eggshells that, if somebody makes a mistake, they make a mistake.”

Silver saw it again last month when Knicks president Phil Jackson was criticized for using the word “posse” while referring to Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James and his childhood friends, who are now his agent and business manager.

“It bothered me only to the extent that I think there is a particular sensitivity by LeBron and LeBron’s childhood friends who, when they first took those positions as his manager and his agent, that they were understandably sensitive to people saying, ‘This is a bunch of LeBron’s buddies,’ and that suggestion was that they shouldn’t be taken seriously as professionals.

“At the same time, you know, Phil Jackson of course needs to be viewed in the totality of his career and his being …The people who want to take the time to understand the situation don’t have any doubt about the bona fides of Phil Jackson as a civil rights leader and a person who cares about people of every race, color, generation, creed. I’m not looking to weigh in on things like that. Phil can more than handle himself. But I think this was … context matters.”

Same goes for the game-night officials in Philadelphia this fall, who told Sevyn Streeter at the last minute not to sing the national anthem while wearing a shirt with a social justice message.

“On the Philadelphia anthem thing, you put yourself in the team’s shoes: You have a real-time situation where – not the senior management of the team – has to make a real-time decision. I think it’s easy to look back in retrospect and say this anthem singer should have been free to express herself with a ‘We Matter’ T-shirt. But I don’t want to suggest these were easy decisions. [Team employees] are people of good faith, who want to do the right thing, who want to be respectful of all their fans, and are mindful that when a line is crossed into what some fans will consider to be political speech, that some fans who are coming there to escape from politics may want to only focus on basketball. And they tried to find the right line. I think by telling her, ‘We made a mistake, come back and sing dressed as you feel is appropriate and to celebrate that,’ ultimately, they came out in the right place.”

Finally, he is asked if being NBA commissioner amounts to a Supreme Court appointment – that the job is his as long as he wants it. Chuckling, Silver notes that Stern served for 30 years – he was the longest-tenured commissioner in professional sports – and that his own contract runs for just five years.

The NBA seems like it could be the first league to one day have an African-American in the top spot. So it might as well be asked: “At what point do we get rid of you and have a black commissioner?”

Silver laughs for several seconds. Then he turns serious.

“We have a black deputy commissioner [Mark Tatum] right now. The same process that’s led us to training, cultivating African-Americans in leadership positions of our teams as owners of our teams, will lead to more African-Americans in senior positions at the league – of course including commissioner.”

He smiles, gets up from his seat and says, politely, “I’m keeping Magic Johnson waiting.”

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.