The NBA Commissioner’s corner office sits 15 floors above midtown Manhattan with sprawling views of Central Park and an attached conference room. The last time SLAM was welcomed to this domain was 2004, when two editors sat with then-Commish David Stern and ran through all sorts of both meaningful and inconsequential league issues. Twelve years later, I took a seat in the aforementioned conference room next to Adam Silver, who replaced Stern in early 2014. We hadn’t attempted a sit-down with Silver since he’d taken the job, because, well, we figured he’s a pretty busy dude.
“Where have you been?” he immediately asked me. “I’ve been Commish for over two years now.” .
SLAM: When we last spoke with the NBA Commissioner, the first thing he told us is that he’s a SLAM subscriber. So I gotta ask: Are you?
Adam Silver: Absolutely, I subscribe to SLAM and I do read SLAM. You guys talk to a core part of our audience and you guys spot trends often before we do. I’m fascinated with who you choose to put on the cover. It doesn’t necessarily coincide to the teams that get the most exposure on national television. I’m also fascinated with who chooses to advertise in your magazine. I think that tells a lot about trends in our business. You can see a lot of what’s happening in the athletic shoe business. I like seeing what players and shoes are being promoted in the magazine. You get a general vibe I think from SLAM about what our hardcore fans are chatting about. And again, I think it’s my job to pay attention to those things. I can’t say I read every story beginning to end, but I flip every page.
I have one question for SLAM: How does the magazine travel across the country without those subscriber cards falling out?
SLAM: It’s some sort of physics magic that I will never understand either.
AS: My apartment is littered with those cards. As soon as I touch the magazine they fall out, yet it’s come across the country without being encapsulated in plastic—there’s a physics issue there. Static electricity or something.
SLAM: At the time of our interview with David Stern in 2004, the NBA was running ads featuring Elvis and Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones, and the writers we sent were jokingly needling David, saying players don’t really listen to that kind of music. David responded by saying, “Well, we have that lane and we have SLAM—it’s good to have that balance.” Now it all overlaps: The SLAM culture and the NBA culture are essentially the same thing, and there’s much less division within pop culture in general. Are you conscious of that? And how does that affect the way the NBA operates?
AS: Yes, it does influence me. In the same way that I read SLAM, it doesn’t mean I’m not still reading Sports Illustrated or ESPN: The Magazine. But I also think it’s just as important for me to read the Style Section as it is the Science Section. I feel that one of the great things about the NBA is that we are both influenced by culture and we influence culture. To your point, the last thing I wanna do is stay in my lane. I think it was in GQ recently, there was a spread on player wardrobes from All-Star and the players are there, but also many of the celebrities/entertainers who were in town as well. There’s always been, at least in my tenure at the NBA, that marriage with entertainers and athletes. It’s a little bit cliché to say, but you always get the sense the athletes wanna be the entertainers and vice versa.
Even from when [SLAM] did that last interview with David, I was running NBA Entertainment. So I was at the center of the production of many of those spots. I think you’re right—it’s interesting that there was, back then, more of a so-called mainstream audience. I think primetime had a meaning that it no longer has. You know, what’s primetime on Netflix? What’s primetime for House of Cards? The same way, back then I think the Billboard chart was more meaningful in terms of what so-called mainstream music is. And now audiences are much more dispersed. You can’t just, even as a marketer, you can’t reliably buy primetime now and reach your audience in the same way that the front page of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal doesn’t reach America in the way it once did. And so I think for us it means that we have to have more balls in the air.
SLAM: How would you describe your job?
AS: I begin by saying I’m incredibly fortunate. I believe that I have one of the best jobs in the world as Commissioner. I have an incredibly diverse day. It ranges from, of course, dealing with our teams, maybe having a conversation with one of the owners, talking to a team president about a marketing campaign, talking to a GM about what he thinks we should be doing about Hack-a-Shaq. And of course, managing the roughly 1,000 people who work in the League office. I spend probably too much of my time in meetings every day but it’s a necessary part of running the business.
I travel extensively. It’s harder than I thought it would be when I took this job to get to 30 NBA teams every season, plus we have 10 international offices that I try to get to every year but they are as far away as Shanghai, Mumbai and Johannesburg. I spend a fair amount of time talking directly to business partners of the League. That means regular conversations with David Levy, who runs Turner Sports, and John Skipper, who runs ESPN, and many of their colleagues. On top of that, I’m very involved with the WNBA and the Development League.
SLAM: That’s a lot.
AS: What makes my job so interesting is that it’s chock-full and it’s constantly changing. I should add to that mix I’ve been, especially in the last few years, building relationships with players as well. We encourage players when they’re coming through New York to stop by the League office. Not only to say hello to me, but get a sense of our business. Part of my time therefore is spent dealing directly with the Players Association.
SLAM: I know you went to law school and were practicing law before working at the NBA. Is that the path to becoming the commissioner of a major sports league?
AS: I’m not sure.
SLAM: Could an ex-NBA player have this role?
AS: Absolutely. I think it’s more a function of what that former player does once he stops playing or maybe that WNBA player once she stops playing. I think in the case of the league office, it’s not a pure business job in that the NBA as an institution has almost a quasi-like governmental role sometimes. We’re a regulatory body.
SLAM: You’re kind of like a judge, in a sense.
AS: Yeah, kind of like a judge at times, but also kind of like a legislator at times. In terms of the Commissioner’s role, it’s to drive change, yet recognizing that it’s not command and control change because, in the NBA for example, change requires, in some instances, a majority of teams voting for something. In other cases, a rule change for example, it requires that two-thirds of our teams vote for something. So it would be easy to sit in a corner office and act like I can simply will certain change or command it, but that’s not how it works. You have to build consensus. You have to justify your rational for wanting to change. From that standpoint, it’s an evolving job and it’s an evolving role.
SLAM: Do you expect Nike to do anything different than what adidas is currently doing when they become the official provider of NBA jerseys?
AS: I do. I’ll say we’ve had a wonderful relationship with adidas, but adidas was not endemic to basketball. They are at root a soccer company. I think on the other hand, with Nike, as I heard Mark Parker, the CEO, say, basketball is the soul of Nike. Even in the case of Mark Parker, he grew up in the organization as a shoe designer.
I was out in Beaverton recently and they have in essence an R&D center, where they have prototypes, where they have their equivalent of mad scientists who are noodling different approaches to uniforms: new fabrics, new styles, new fits. I have no doubt wearables will come into the equation. I think they are committed to sports science. They also recognize that we shouldn’t just think of the uniform as a fashion item—that the uniform ultimately directly correlates to performance, including injury prevention. And Nike, again, it’s a season and a half before they will begin being our official on-court supplier. I’m really excited to see what comes. But I have no doubt that they’re gonna once again change the game. That’s who they are. As I said, thank you to adidas, they’ve been wonderful partners. But I think Nike is ready to take it to another level.
SLAM: At the moment there are no adidas logos on NBA jerseys. After the new deal starts, are we going to see a Nike logo on the jerseys?
AS: Yes. As part of our new deal with Nike, the Swoosh will be on the jersey.
SLAM: I know some people were wondering if the Jordan Brand logo would be on some of them, too.
AS: That is not clear yet. There will definitely be a Swoosh and there is an ongoing discussion with Nike about Jordan Brand being represented on the team owned by Jordan Brand [laughs].
SLAM: The Warriors are having an incredible, record-setting season, and amidst it, retired players one after the next are saying they’d never let this kind of thing happen during their respective eras. What do you think when you hear stuff like that?
AS: I think, nothing new under the sun. How else are we gonna fill the pages of SLAM? To me, when I was a kid, fans would make comparisons like Clyde Frazier to Bob Cousy and Bill Russell. And then when Larry, Michael and Magic came, there were comparisons to the players that came a generation before they did, and of course the same thing comes now. I personally think, on one hand, it’s incredibly difficult to compare players from one generation to another. In part, there’s different styles of play, different rules in place, a three-point line that didn’t used to exist back in the day. But at the same time, I’d say that the great ones would thrive during any era and under any set of rules. There’s just something special about them. I would definitely put Steph Curry in that category. I would put LeBron in that category. And of course the great ones that we’re all now talking about—Michael, someone we all watched play, Larry and Magic—but of course Bill Russell, who I don’t remember watching play as a kid, but having gotten to know him over the years, seeing highlights of him as a player, first-hand experiencing his will to be successful, I have no doubt that a Bill Russell playing today would also be incredibly successful. But I enjoy the conversations.
SLAM: Do people pull you into these kinds of conversations?
AS: Yeah, sure. I would say when it comes to my opinion on a subject like that, I become a fan. I grew up with my favorite players—it’s not a secret, I grew up in New York, and I was a Knick fan growing up: The way Red Holzman coached and the way that great Knick team came together and the chemistry those teams had, with the Captain, Willis Reed. To me, again, I enjoy it and I think sports fans enjoy it. And the best part is everybody’s right. But at the same time, I also do want to make sure that the current players are not disrespected. Going back to the Golden State Warriors, it’s incredible what they’re doing on the floor. I do get a little chuckle out of some of the old timers saying that, “If guys were playing defense the way they did in my day…” But Steph Curry is one of the greatest of the era, a joy to watch, and basketball fans around the world appreciate that.
SLAM: You’ve made it clear you’d like to raise the NBA’s age minimum. Do you see changes to that happening in the near future?
AS: The minimum age is now 19, and yes I’ve said historically that my preference would be that it would be 20 instead of 19—it’s a subject that needs to be collectively bargained with the players. It’s nothing that the League can do unilaterally. It’s something that, with the Players Association, we’ve agreed that given that it’s a subject of collective bargaining, it’s something that we will not talk about publicly. But certainly my preference has not changed.
SLAM: Last question: Sting???
AS: How many Grammys does Sting have? Fifteen? To us, Sting, one of the great performers of all time, and I’d say one obstacle we ran into for All-Star Weekend is it happened to be the same weekend as the Grammys. I think several performers who might otherwise have appeared were committed to being out in Los Angeles and needed to rehearse for the Grammys so they couldn’t be there. But having said that, we were thrilled with Sting. He’s a legendary performer. I think everyone in the arena knew the lyrics to the three songs he sang.
SLAM: I’m just sad he declined my interview request.
AS: I’m upset about that as well.
Adam Figman is the Senior Editor of SLAM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @afigman.
Top photo courtesy of the NBA, others via Getty Images