Adam Silver was unnerved Wednesday, as unsteady and unsure of himself as he has been in his eight-year tenure as NBA commissioner. And he had every right to those emotions. He was relegated to defending someone who doesn’t deserve defending.
The NBA suspended Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver for one year and fined him $10 million for racist, sexist, and misogynistic statements to players and team employees over 18 years. An in-depth ESPN story by former Globe reporter Baxter Holmes sparked a one-year NBA investigation that found Sarver said the N-word to staff at least five times when trying to describe what another person said. He made comments about the weight of female employees, asked suggestive questions about the sex lives of players, and even referred to the size of his own genitalia.
He offended a plethora of employees, burned through coaches, turned Phoenix into an undesirable destination for free agents, and was considered one of the league’s worst owners until he hired James Jones as general manager and Monty Williams as coach. Only five teams have a Black coach and general manager.
Sarver likely saved his ownership with the overhaul of his once toxic organizational environment. Eighteen years of deplorable behavior appeared to be enough to force Sarver to sell the Suns. But it was apparent the NBA Board of Governors wanted no part of a legal war with Sarver if they demanded such a bold move.
So Sarver received a minor penalty for his actions, and Silver, usually confident and revered among his NBA brethren, was the unpopular messenger forced to explain why a repeat and consistent offender kept his team.
“I did issue a statement yesterday, but let me add a little to it now and just say from a personal standpoint, I was in disbelief to a certain extent about what I learned that had transpired over the last 18 years in the Suns organization,” Silver said Wednesday. “I was saddened by it, disheartened. I want to, again, apologize to the former and in some cases current employees of the Phoenix Suns for what they had to experience. There’s absolutely no excuse for it.
“We addressed it. I, of course, have been following what’s been said since we issued those findings. Let me reiterate, the conduct is indefensible. But I feel we dealt with it in a fair manner in both taking into account the totality of the circumstances, not just those particular allegations, but the 18 years in which Mr. Sarver has owned the Suns and the [WNBA] Mercury.”
Silver looked like a man who had been overruled, who implored owners to dethrone Sarver but to no avail. He represents the owners. He is part of the Board of Governors, but the league appears toothless when it claims to value diversity and inclusion with 80 percent Black player membership.
He defended the findings of an independent investigation by a group that did not have the power to levy penalties. Its 40-page report simply described Sarver’s actions — positive and negative — and Silver was responsible for the final decision.
The investigative team interviewed more than 300 people, and Silver said there was difficulty corroborating information because in some cases, more than a decade had passed.
“I have access to information that the public doesn’t, and again, I’m able to look at the totality of the circumstances around those events in a way that we’re not able to completely bring to life the nuance that you see when you read a report or deal with it sort of in short bursts of news reporting,” Silver said. “I think that puts me in a different position ultimately as the person who has to render the ultimate judgment about what is a fair outcome here.
“I will say, I think that that’s in some ways a legal distinction. I think as I interpret their report to be saying that we are not able to conclude, based on the context of those statements, that they were said out of racial animus. I think also they are in essence saying that we do not know what is in his heart or ultimately in his mind, but that in the broader context of him saying those things, as foolish as it was for him to say that and as indefensible as it was for him to say that, we do not find that the motivation in the instances of saying those things was based on race. But that is their finding.
“They have the benefit of the larger context of doing those interviews, of seeing the full context in which those things were said. I understand the inference that can be drawn from those things, but they ultimately found there was insufficient evidence to make those findings.”
The report said Sarver’s comments and actions weren’t fueled by discrimination or sexism, but poor taste and lack of self control. In other words, what he said was racist, sexist, and offensive, but he proved to be none of those things in terms of hiring or preferential treatment of employees.
“I accept their work; to follow what we believe is appropriate process here, to bring in a law firm, to have them spend essentially nine months on this, to do the extensive kinds of interviews they can, I’m not able to put myself in their shoes,” Silver said. “I respect the work they’ve done, we’ve done. Worked with them in the past. They’re very good at what they do. They’re very experienced at what they do. The fact is I am given a factual record and then I make determinations based on that. I do accept what they found.”
Silver said there was never a discussion to force Sarver to sell the team. Silver suspended former Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after his racists comments were made public via an audio recording. Silver said concrete evidence was pivotal in that ruling.
He intimated the evidence regarding Sarver was not nearly as strong.
“I don’t have the right to take away his team,” Silver said. “I don’t want to rest on that legal point because, of course, there could be a process to take away someone’s team in this league. It’s very involved, and I ultimately made the decision that it didn’t rise to that level.
“But to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver. Reputationally, it’s hard to even make those comparisons to somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in somewhat of an anonymous fashion versus what is a huge public issue now around this person.
“There’s no neat answer here, other than owning property, the rights that come with owning an NBA team, how that’s set up within our constitution, what it would take to remove that team from his control is a very involved process, and it’s different than holding a job. It just is, when you actually own a team. It’s just a very different proposition.”
In other words, it’s hard to take an NBA team from an owner unless he’s dumb enough to allow himself to be recorded.
Silver had to explain to 450 players how an owner kept his team despite racist and sexist behavior. How many people does Sarver need to offend to pay the ultimate price? Lakers star LeBron James and the Suns’ Chris Paul voiced displeasure with the perceived lack of discipline.
“I think it’s no secret this is a league where roughly 80 percent of our players are Black,” Silver said. “More than half our coaches are Black. I will say that none of them maybe are as shocked as I am, living their lives, that I don’t think they’re reading this saying, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe this happens.’ But at the same time, I think they look to the league, look to the partnership that the league has with the Players Association, to see how can we do better, how can we improve things?”
Civil rights activist Al Sharpton and National Basketball Players Association executive director Tamika Tremaglio criticized the NBA.
“I don’t want it to be lost, there’s so much I’m proud about in terms of this league, particularly on these issues,” Silver said. “I think one of the things that makes it so painful for me when — even the questions you’re asking me today and to read the report is to think about how much this league means, has meant in the African-American community, how much progress we’ve made in terms of women’s sports, the WNBA. I was up at the Hall of Fame on Saturday night listening to Swin Cash and some of those great speeches that the inductees were giving about the meaning of this game and these leagues and how we’ve transformed people’s lives and the impact we’ve had on society. And then something like this happens, and you’re disgusted by it.
“I’m glad that we were able to be transparent about this. Certainly, we’re not hiding from this. We recognize it happened. It happened in our league.
“I accept and understand that some people disagree with what the ultimate consequences were for Mr. Sarver, and I’m also hopeful that Mr. Sarver uses this time to not just express his remorse but demonstrate it.”
Where does WNBA go from here?
Interest in the WNBA, especially with television coverage, has been soaring. And this year’s Finals features two of the league’s top stars in their prime in Las Vegas forward A’ja Wilson and Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, the last two league MVPs.
With mainstays Sue Bird and Sylvia Fowles retiring, the league will have to sell its next class of stars, hoping players such as Wilson, Jones, Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd, and Atlanta’s Rhyne Howard emerge over the coming years. The league also needs an infusion of talent after a couple of disappointing rookie classes.
“Building rivalries and household names has been an important part of where I studied prior leagues and their rise into really valuable sports media and entertainment properties,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said. “I think what we have going on right now is kind of a change of the guard with Sue and Sylvia and others retiring this year. But handing off to, and there was no better series to show that rivalry building than Seattle and Vegas with the changing of the guard to a Sylvia, a Kelsey [Plum] and [Stewart].”
Engelbert is promising the league will invest more in promoting players. Bird leaves a huge void because she played so long, also with Team USA, and was wildly popular. All-time greats Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi appear close to retirement. The next generation needs to emerge.
“That is part what we want to happen obviously organically, but also we are doubling our marketing budget to market more around these rivalries and make sure we are putting front and center with our [advertising] partners, that we are putting front and center these athletes that Americans are seeing them more and globally they are more recognized,” Engelbert said.
“We are getting there, and that’s certainly a big part of the strategy.”
The prospect of expansion keeps coming up, especially with how difficult it has become for quality college players to make WNBA rosters. And there are cities such as Oakland and Toronto that would love to have a team. Boston would be a possibility if an ownership group emerges.
Engelbert said the league is looking at market size, potential fan base, NCAA popularity, and whether there is a viable venue. The days of playing in cavernous NBA arenas and losing money appear to be done.
“So we’re not in any rush as I say, coming off two kind of tough COVID years for ownership,” Engelbert said. “We want to make sure the new ownership group is set up for success. So we will announce it when it’s right, when we have reached agreements with different ownership groups. But we continue to work hard on it, but it’s been a pretty intense season and we’ll work even harder in the offseason.”
There has been support for a return to Northern California. The Sacramento Monarchs were one of the league’s original teams before dissolving in 2009. With the success of the Stanford women’s program and Oakland seeking more professional sports after losing the NFL Raiders and NBA Warriors, it would seem a natural fit.
“I think I made it no secret coming into the league coming off of a large career at Deloitte with a large Bay Area practice, not to have a team in the Bay Area, whether it’s Oakland, San Francisco, or the Silicon Valley, didn’t seem right to me,” Engelbert said. “Certainly Bay Area generally, including Oakland or San Francisco, is certainly on our list, high on our list. If you think about if you’re running a data analysis which informs, you can find the right ownership groups, the psychographics, the demographics. The W is everywhere right now. But such a great market out there given women’s college basketball and very popular in the Bay Area. Yes, that’s definitely on the list.”
A player who increased his free agent stock with his performance at EuroBasket is former Celtics guard Dennis Schröder, who flourished for the German national team. Schröder remained unsigned after finishing last season with the Rockets, but is now returning to the Lakers on a one-year, $2.64 million deal, his agent told ESPN hours after Germany was eliminated by Spain. Schröder didn’t command a huge salary, but he has proved to be productive and was the best guard on the market … The 2023 Hall of Fame class could be headlined by Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, and Tony Parker after the wait time for retirees was reduced to four years. Other candidates who were final cuts in 2022 are former NBA All-Star Marques Johnson, the first Wooden Award winner while at UCLA; former Laker and defensive player of the year Michael Cooper; and former WNBA All-Star and current Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon … Many NBA teams have decided to invite younger players to training camp and will wait to see if there are roster spots remaining for veterans. Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, and LaMarcus Aldridge are still looking for work. With the advent of two-way contracts, there is more opportunity for younger players to get roster chances if they impress in camp. The Celtics have one two-way roster spot remaining and players such as former first-round draft picks Denzel Valentine, Bruno Caboclo, and Noah Vonleh competing for spots … The Bulls are concerned with point guard Lonzo Ball’s surgically repaired knee, which won’t be 100 percent entering camp. Ball was supposed to be the final piece to the Bulls competing for the Eastern Conference title, but the club is uncertain if he’ll return healthy or if the injury is chronic. Ball has not played more than 63 games in any of his first five seasons. If you recall, the Lakers took Ball over Jayson Tatum in the 2017 draft.