Skip to main content
Original Issue

Wit, Wisdom And a Stern Warning

Memo to Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner

By the time you open this envelope, it will be February 2014, and you will have replaced me as NBA commissioner, in keeping with the plan we announced on Oct. 25, 2012. As I write this, I am still weighing my options about the future. Maybe I should join Charles and Kenny on TNT's Inside the NBA. It's not so much that I want the job; I just want to make sure they don't give it to Stan Van Gundy. I'm kidding. Here's your first lesson as commissioner, Adam: A little humor can help you defuse a difficult issue. It has always worked for me.

So, how does "NBA commissioner Adam Silver" sound to you? I left this letter behind to tell you how confident I am that you will be as successful in the job as I was in my 30-year tenure. It has been well-documented that when I took the job the NBA was such an afterthought that the Finals were shown on tape delay at 11:30 p.m., and now it's a thriving, $5 billion industry. I made certain you, my deputy commissioner, would be my successor because I think you can continue that growth—and because I didn't want to leave this hire up to the owners. I've seen how some of those guys run their teams.

The second purpose of this letter is to offer you a bit of what I hope you will consider wisdom. There is a reason that more than a few people consider me the greatest commissioner in American sports history. I'll admit that part of it was being fortunate enough to have the holy trinity of Magic, Larry and Michael enjoy their peak years during my term, but I'd like to think I did a few things right myself.

One of them was using the media to my advantage, perhaps more so than any previous commissioner of any sport. I advise you to follow my lead and make yourself as accessible as possible to them. Sure, I could be condescending at times—I'm a smart guy, what can I say?—and some journalists called me on that, especially toward the end of my tenure. But they appreciated that I didn't duck them; if anything, I enjoyed sparring with reporters. Remember their names, Adam. Make it clear that you're familiar with their work, even if it's just to needle them about it. You might find it helps you get the benefit of the doubt when you need it.

For instance, when I announced my plans to retire back in 2012, I said that the league was in "terrific condition," even though during the labor dispute a year earlier I made it sound as if half the teams in the league were on the verge of holding a going-out-of-business sale. That was always my modus operandi: to present the NBA as a booming global enterprise except when we were negotiating with the players. I was rarely called on that. We also had every league's biggest nightmare—a referee fixing games for gamblers—and we survived it without much of a problem. Essentially I just held a press conference to tell everyone that Tim Donaghy was the lone culprit, and the issue quickly disappeared. It's easier to troubleshoot the problems when you're not hiding behind "no comments" or prepared statements.

Always remember that it's important that the fans like the players, Adam, and not so important that they like you. I might have gotten catcalls at the draft every year—and by the way get used to that because people always boo the boss—but some of the moves I made ensured that the players would get cheers. The season after the Malice at the Palace, the brawl between players and fans at a Pacers-Pistons game in 2004, I instituted a dress code that was aimed at lifting our players' sagging image along with their sagging jeans. To create a better sense of decorum at games, I also had the referees crack down on players' whining about calls. Did my decrees sometimes seem like overkill, even paternalistic? Maybe. But they also helped keep the league attractive to a large audience.

I hope you will continue to expand the game internationally, Adam. That may be the biggest advancement the league made during my tenure. The NFL and Major League Baseball would love to match the worldwide popularity of the NBA, and even though I wasn't totally on board from the beginning with the concept of the original Dream Team, I think I can claim some credit for tapping the global markets.

I can't tell you how to be the perfect commissioner, since I certainly wasn't. Just between us, overruling the Hornets' trade of Chris Paul to the Lakers last year was probably a mistake, and the league has gone through three major work stoppages, two resulting in lost games, during my time. So remember that no commissioner goes undefeated. The best you can hope for is some long winning streaks. Good luck, and don't screw it up, Adam. I'll be watching. Remember, I used to be Michael Jordan's boss. I know a little something about coming out of retirement.

Yours truly,

David Stern, Commissioner Emeritus

Follow @SI_PhilTaylor

How the man who made the NBA what it is today might advise his hand-picked successor.