By Jon Greenberg, AM’07, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Professional sports commissioners tend to be about as popular as a labor dispute. Routinely booed, mocked and worse, they walk a difficult line with players, fans and team executives, and often dominate the sport with their outsized personalities.

That fate may eventually befall Adam Silver, JD’88, who will become commissioner of the National Basketball Association on Feb. 1. But a different impression precedes him into the job.

“He is probably always going to be the nicest person in the room,” says Chicago Bulls president and chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf.

“Very open-minded,” combustible Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an e-mail.

“Everybody loves Adam,” says Michael Schill, dean of the University of Chicago Law School.

“He’s a nice guy, a good guy,” outgoing NBA President David Stern recently told reporters.

This isn’t normal, is it? “It’s probably not that typical,” says Reinsdorf. “He’s obviously one of the great guys in sports.”

Clear choice as new commissioner

When the NBA Board of Governors learned at its October 2012 meeting that Stern was retiring, the debate about his successor wouldn’t have resulted in a three-second violation. About a dozen owners spoke, Reinsdorf says, but there was no argument. The clear choice was Silver, 51, the deputy commissioner since 2006. He starts his new job on Feb. 1, 30 years to the day after Stern took over for Larry O’Brien.

The transition should be seamless. Silver has been Stern’s right-hand man for a very successful two decades. He’s been the driving force in taking the NBA global, renegotiating lucrative cable deals, and helping launch the league’s TV channel and website. “We knew Adam had turned down probably some pretty good opportunities elsewhere outside of the NBA,” Reinsdorf says. “We knew we had a gem and were not going to let that one slip through our hands.”

Stern has given Silver a major voice in league operations, and the two have made a strong team. They are known in league circles for their “good cop, bad cop” routine. Stern is the one who tells everyone what to do, and Silver is the one who works with owners to find amenable solutions. “I’m taking the gavel with me so that Adam will be a gentler NBA [commissioner],” Stern said to reporters after a recent Board of Governors meeting. “He’s just going to hit the glass with a knife, and that will quiet everyone down.”

While Silver typically turns down interview requests—he declined through an NBA public relations representative to be interviewed for this story—he’s known in NBA circles as a quick wit. But it is his cautious, gracious professionalism that has won over league owners. “He treats everyone the same,” Reinsdorf says. “If he meets you, he’s going to talk to you. He’ll look you in the eye. He’s not looking to get out of the conversation.”

Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has largely ceded control of the Bulls to his son. Last spring, the elder Reinsdorf told the Sports Business Journal that he didn’t enjoy owning a team because “you go to NBA meetings and David Stern tells you what to do.”

Michael Reinsdorf expects this style of leadership to change under Silver. “Adam really wants to be inclusive,” he says. “One thing you’ll see with him as commissioner is him involving all the owners with the process.”

Even Cuban likes him. The Dallas owner wrote that he and Silver get along well and “we swap ideas all the time.”

Building long-term relationships 

Despite a hectic schedule in New York, Silver recently completed a turn as the head of the Law School’s annual fund and sits on its visiting committee. Fellow alum Michael Alter, JD’87, who now owns the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, says Silver stood out at UChicago “in the sense he wasn’t trying to stand out.” Silver was “very secure in who he is.”

Now Alter gets to see Silver work, like when he helped renegotiate the WNBA’s broadcast deal with ESPN in 2013. “What Adam’s great at doing is a win-win deal, not one of those arm-knuckle push and push to get you what you want kind of deals,” Alter says. “He’s a relationship guy. He understands and values long-term relationships.”

Silver grew up outside of New York City, the son of a prominent attorney, and graduated from Duke University in 1984. After law school, he clerked for a federal judge and worked as a litigation associate at a New York law firm.

In 1992 Silver approached a former associate of his father’s at Proskauer Rose—David Stern—to ask for career advice, and he wound up with a job.

Silver was Stern’s assistant and then the league’s chief of staff before joining NBA Entertainment as a vice president. He spent several years as the COO of NBA Entertainment.

With a new labor deal in place, Silver’s primary concern when he begins his tenure as commissioner will be negotiating a new TV deal. The league’s pact with ABC/ESPN, worth $930 million per year, ends after the 2015–16 season.

Cuban believes that Silver’s “biggest challenge is guessing the direction of the entertainment business.” As for the on-court issues, such as rule changes and playoff formats, Cuban adds, “basketball is the easiest part of the job to learn.”

Content to operate behind the scenes for so long, Silver will soon become one of the most high-profile sports executives in the country—with his name literally imprinted on the game. Spalding is replacing Stern’s signature with Silver’s on its official basketballs on Feb. 1. Then it really will be Silver’s league.

Originally published on January 27, 2014.