Although the new commissioner of the National Basketball Association Adam Silver has loved the game for most of his life, basketball has not always loved him back. Silver was a freshman undergraduate at Duke University in 1980, and he was randomly selected to participate in a fan contest during a break when attending his first game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. He had to hit a free throw.
“It was probably one of the most shocking things that had ever happened to me,” Silver said yesterday, speaking at Boston College’s Chief Executives’ Club of Boston event. Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck hosted Silver at the event, which brings together local CEOs and is put on in association with the Carroll School of Management.
If Silver hadn’t been sitting in the student section surrounded by people who knew his name, he would’ve tried to hide, but he was inevitably forced out onto the court.
“All I have to do is hit something,” he thought. Rim, backboard-anything solid.
Thankfully for Silver, the ball bounced off the front of the rim. He was safe.
“I’m sure I’d not be standing here today if I had shot an air-ball,” Silver joked.
Silver also wouldn’t have been standing at the podium in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel if the event had taken place two months ago. After 22 years working for the NBA, mainly as an assistant for previous commissioner David Stern, Silver took over on Feb. 1 following a unanimous vote by the league’s owners.
“My game hasn’t improved much since then, but the popularity of the game has grown tremendously over the years,” Silver said.
He went on to cite what he called “A Tale of Two Plays.” A few months after Silver successfully bricked that free throw, the Celtics were playing the Houston Rockets in the 1981 NBA Finals. The Celtics held a 3-2 series lead and had a strong advantage going into the fourth quarter of Game 6, but then the Rockets started to come back. Larry Bird, a second-year budding superstar for Boston, rattled off three clutch plays to secure a Celtics victory and the organization’s 14th national championship.
“You might guess that Celtics fans across the country were in bars and their homes jumping off stools and their couches and celebrating, but, of course, you’d be wrong,” Silver said.
The game, like many at the time, aired tape-delayed on CBS later that night.
Silver then shifted to Game 6 of last season’s NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs were also holding on to a 3-2 series lead on the road, and with 28 seconds left in the game they led the Miami Heat by five points. Heat fans started exiting the building. Shockingly, though, Miami came back and a thrilling 3-pointer by former Celtic Ray Allen sent the game into overtime, helping the Heat eventually win the series.
“Ray’s shot was literally a shot seen around the world,” Silver said.
As opposed to being tape delayed like Bird’s moment in 1981, Allen’s shot was seen live by around 900 million people. Twitter set a then record for traffic in the moments following Allen’s shot.
“The dramatic contrasts in those two games shows us how much the world has changed and where things are going,” Silver said.
Silver pointed out that most of the kids who pick up a basketball will never have the chance to see an NBA game in person.
“While we have hundreds of millions of fans around the world, only a minuscule percentage of them will ever go to a game, and only a select few will ever get that choice, courtside seat,” he said. He then joked that most of those people, including Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Bruins owner Charlie Jacobs, were in the room.
Silver said that one of his goals as commissioner is to capture that courtside experience, which he believes is not just one of the best in sports but in all of entertainment. He’s looking to expand the game as part of an NBA 3.0 movement that involves an even stronger global reach, something to which the CEOs in the room could relate.
“Basketball is global, mobile, and social,” Silver said. “Simply put, basketball is the sport of the 21st century.”