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Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
After 20 years toiling at the elbow of NBA Commissioner David Stern, Adam Silver needed only minutes last spring to show that he’s ready to run the league.
Silver listened as debate raged between NBA owners, a phalanx of lawyers and Stern; the point of contention was whether ownership would allow the Sacramento Kings to be sold to a group that would move the team more than 625 miles north to Seattle. In the balance was an astounding franchise price of $406 million, along with a relocation
When Adam Silver takes over as NBA commissioner in February, insiders expect a seamless transfer of power.
Photo by:USA Today Sports
None of that mattered to Silver as he surgically cut through the posturing, pushing to keep the Kings in California and sending a message to owners and the fans about the importance of franchise stability.
“Adam was very blunt and it changed the conversation in the room,” Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said. “The lawyers spoke and David spoke, but Adam found a higher calling that all of us tapped into.”
It was vintage Silver; a performance displaying the skills learned working under Stern. Skills learned, too, by growing up the son of one of New York City’s most prominent lawyers, a low-key approach that dates to law school. Sit. Listen. Then act.
While Stern remains in charge until he retires Feb. 1, after 30 years as commissioner, insiders know the transfer of power will be seamless. It’s a succession honed by 20 years of Stern grooming Silver to take his job.
Stern and Silver have distinct personalities. Each man is described by friends and businesses colleagues as the proverbial smartest man in the room. Stern, arguably the most accomplished commissioner in sports history, can be autocratic, and sometimes irascible. Silver’s wit is legendary and if he has an ego, no one has seen it.
Yet in terms of intellect, perspective and vision, Silver and Stern are so analogous that the longtime commissioner
NBA Commissioner David Stern introduces Adam Silver at this year’s draft.
Photo by:USA Today Sports
“Ninety percent of the day-to-day dealings between the NBA and ESPN at the highest level happen between me and Adam,” said ESPN President John Skipper. “He never says he has to go check. That’s a tribute to how closely aligned they are.”
While Silver’s vision for the NBA mirrors that of his boss, the difference between Stern and Silver is their personalities.
“David is big, dynamic, unbelievably smart, quick,” Skipper said. “You make a misstep on a stat or a fact or a recollection with David and, man, he is on it. He can be quite intimidating. Adam is intellectually intimidating.”
Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger concurred that while the style of the two men at the top of the NBA is different, their substance is analogous.
“David is more larger than life than Adam is ever going to be,” said Iger, who has known Silver for 20 years. “It’s just a completely different shtick. They both bring great strengths to the table. People have a tendency to dismiss Adam because he is mild-mannered and not as colorful. But anyone that does that underestimates Adam.”
Added NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus, “There is certainly a difference in their volume [level]. But while their volume may be different, the starkness and import of what they are saying is always the same.’’
Or as Tim Leiweke, CEO of Toronto Raptors parent Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment put it, “Adam will tell you to go to hell and you will look forward to the trip.”
Path to the top
Silver’s path to the NBA began in Rye, N.Y., about 30 miles from the NBA’s headquarters above Fifth Avenue, which overlooks St. Patrick’s Cathedral in midtown Manhattan.
Silver is one of five children, with two brothers and two sisters. It is a family of diverse careers. Erik Silver is director of tennis at a resort in Boca Raton, Fla.; Ann Silver runs her own company helping nonprofits with sustainability in Nevada; Owen Silver is an entrepreneur in Boulder, Colo.; and Emily Geier is a homemaker in Ohio.
Silver attended Rye High School and received his undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1984. He worked
Then, as now, Silver was self-effacing, focusing on results over recognition.
“Adam is the opposite of an egotist; he’s ego-less,’’ said Bill Daugherty, former NBA senior vice president of business development, who was at the league from 1991-99.
Silver turned down requests to be interviewed for this story, a practice that the publicity-shy deputy commissioner has ordered “hundreds of times” previously in response to media requests, according to a former NBA public relations official.
“He’s all about getting the job done,” said law school classmate Michael Alter, who now owns the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. “We had a lot of guys [in law school] who needed to let everyone know how smart they are, and Adam definitely wasn’t one of those.”
Silver’s roots at the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park Chicago campus run deep. He sits on the law school’s visiting committee and chairs its annual giving program.
“He is extraordinarily well-liked by his class and alumni,” said Michael Schill, dean of the University of Chicago Law School. “Adam harkens back to the age when lawyers did things beyond law.”
The NBA was not on Silver’s radar when he graduated from law school and moved to New York City to clerk for U.S. District Judge Kimba Wood in the Southern District of New York.
Joseph Ravitch, co-founder of The Raine Group, a boutique investment firm focused on media and entertainment, knew Silver as a family friend growing up and got to know him as a personal friend when they were both clerking for judges in the Southern District.
“Adam hasn’t changed,” said Ravitch. “He treats my sons with the same respect he treats his owners. That quality is absent in so many people, particularly at the mogul level that he operates in.”
Father-son legal bond
Silver’s work as a clerk put him on track to follow his father’s legal career. Ed Silver was a lawyer’s lawyer; a labor attorney also recognized for his personal grace. He chaired the Proskauer Rose law firm from 1981 to 1991 and was special counsel to New York City under Mayors John Lindsay, Abraham Beame, Ed Koch and David Dinkins — a span of 27 years. The elder Silver worked at Proskauer with a promising attorney in Stern, for whom he became a mentor.
Silver shakes hands with Russ Granik in 2006 after the NBA Board of Governors appointed Silver to be Granik’s successor as deputy commissioner.
Photo by:NBAE / Getty Images
Stern gave Silver a spiel about the sports industry and later decided to offer him a job as his special assistant.
“I was happy to take him on as a special assistant … so the exploitation began,” Stern joked. “He is inordinately smart and hardworking. He has an easy manner and likes to learn. You can’t do better than that.”
Silver fit Stern’s executive prototype. Other top league executives, such as Gary Bettman, who would later become NHL commissioner, and Russ Granik, who became NBA deputy commissioner, both worked at big law firms before joining the NBA. However, Granik and Bettman began in the NBA’s legal department; as a special assistant, Silver took on a generalist’s role.
“From the beginning, it was apparent Adam was going to be a commissioner,” said Daugherty, citing Sliver’s leadership on projects such as the NBA’s 50th anniversary in 1996, and the connections that put the league at the nexus of sports of entertainment. “And from the beginning, his instincts have been dead on. He could always make things happen and make them happen smoothly.”
Silver quickly proved he could match Stern in stamina, as both worked brutal hours.
“He shares with David … a willingness to work very hard,” Granik said. “Sometimes people discount that and look at style or personality. Adam was always available. I hate the phrase 24/7, but Adam always understood that.”
To a league with an acronym often jokingly referred to as standing for “Nothing But Attorneys,” Silver brought a business-first style that front-line executives appreciated.
“[Silver] got really good at forgetting about legal ramifications,” said Tom O’Grady, a former creative director at the NBA who worked at the league from 1990-2003 and now runs his own Gameplan Creative agency. “He would tell us to do what is best for the business and then he’d go back and deal with the legal issues.”
Known as a quick study, Silver learned from sports’ most experienced commissioner in Stern the attributes that served him well as he progressed through the league office.
“The three areas of expertise required for any commissioner are labor relations, media distribution and negotiations, along with marketing and branding,” said former NBAE President David Schreff, who now heads consultancy Bedare Sports and Entertainment. “Adam mastered each of those early on and learned from the master himself. It was a 20-year apprenticeship.”
Along with an ability to quickly process and synthesize information, Silver’s vision was immediately apparent.
“Adam understood how all the synapses in the NBA were connected right away,” said former NBAE President Gary Stevenson, now president and managing director of MLS Business Ventures. “At a very early age, Adam had a long-term view of the business. He has always had a very good understanding of both the value of NBA content and where that content would eventually be distributed some day. He has always been ahead of the games, domestically and internationally, because of that.”
New media savvy
Under Stern’s command, Silver helped start NBA.com in 1995, making the NBA the first league to integrate team and league websites into a single network. By 1999, Silver helped engineer the launch of NBA TV (originally NBA.com TV) the first league-owned cable network.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into when we started it,” O’Grady said. “NBA TV was a big deal and NBA.com was sputtering when it first came out. … But Adam understood the cumulative power of it all.”
Silver guided the launch of NBA TV, the first league-owned cable network.
Photo by:NBAE / Getty Images
“Adam could always see way down the line,” said Sperling, now vice president and executive producer of Giants Entertainment, the media, programming and production arm of the New York Giants. “There was a lot of debate in the late ’90s about the future and media convergence. He really had vision on that.”
Silver also dovetailed with the incumbent; not a trivial matter at the NBA. “He understood David from the beginning,” said Shawn Bryant, former special assistant at the NBA.
Silver was named chief of staff in 1993; senior vice president and COO of NBAE in 1995; NBAE president and COO in 1997; and deputy commissioner in 2006.
“Adam had the right combination of talent and intellect to be successful, but with David, that just gets you to first base,” said Rick Welts, Golden State Warriors president and COO, and former league CMO. “Everything David Stern was involved with, Adam was involved with. [Silver] was smart enough to not talk when he was learning about something and became a real trusted alter ego for Stern.”
Silver became known for his technology expertise with an eye for the entertainment side of the business.
Among his biggest deals was negotiating with Stern in 2007 the league’s current $7.5 billion television deal with Turner, ABC and ESPN. That deal expires after the 2015-16 season and both sides already are talking about a new agreement with a rights fee that is expected to dwarf the existing contract.
“Adam understands the digital business better than anyone,” said Turner President David Levy. “A great negotiated deal is one where you never have to pull out the contract, and Adam and I have never pulled out the contract.”
A new generation
As a new generation of ownership emerged, Silver became a confidant to industrialists who made their fortunes in
“There is a new group of younger owners and Adam has really reached out to all of us,” said Leonsis, who has owned the Washington Wizards since 2010.
“Adam has complete buy-in from ownership across the league,” Welts said. “That’s something he’s earned and you can’t underestimate the importance of that.”
Comparisons of Stern and Silver are inevitable. No one expects the NBA’s business course to change much after January. Both Stern and Silver have been focused on digital and global expansion for years. Business partners do expect a change in tenor, if not direction, under Silver’s leadership.
“David is a little more aggressive stylistically — a little quicker to get in the face, if necessary,” Skipper said. “I do believe our noses have touched — mine and David’s. I’m not sure my nose has ever touched Adam’s. I know where he stands just as clearly as I know where David stands. I don’t think there’s a significant difference in the outcome between Adam and David.”
Said Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Phoenix Suns and the current chairman of USA Basketball: “[Silver] has the experience, intelligence, and work ethic to do it all, but he will do it with a different style.”
Friends say that along with a commanding intellect, Silver’s “really a guy you can have belly laughs with,” said broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, who has known Silver since his early days at NBAE. “And he’s as comfortable in his own skin as anyone I know.”
Colleagues say that despite his schedule, Silver is quick to make time for people. Here he attends the unveiling of an NBA Cares Learn and Play Center in Miami.
Photo by:NBAE / Getty Images
“We were facing the possibility of losing a season, but I never saw him sweat,” said Jeanie Buss, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Lakers and a member of the league’s labor committee. “You never saw him look like a guy in the movies who has been up for three days. He never showed any worse for the wear and that makes him such a leader.”
If Stern is known for tirelessly carrying the ball himself, Adam’s ability to coalesce effort from the best team members is also renowned.
“Adam is a great macro-manager,” Sperling said. “Anyone can micro-manage, but Adam will give you the freedom to be creative.”
For any senior executive, not to mention commissioner-in-training, Silver is widely lauded for his responsiveness and accessibility. Former NBA execs, along with players, friends and business associates, all laud him for personally returning emails and calls in hours, not days.
“As a business executive, he is the ultimate multiprocessor,” Schreff said.
Added Rashad, “I promise you, if the 12th guy on the Timberwolves calls him, Adam calls him back within a few hours.”
In a similar vein, Silver is celebrated for having time for just about anybody.
“Even as an intern, you could engage him and he always showed a genuine interest in what I was doing,” said Malcolm Turner, a managing director at Wasserman Media Group, who interned at the league in 1997.
“Like many people, he has just a few really close friends,” Ravitch said. “But everyone feels liked by him.”
NBA business partners commend Silver for a straightforward approach.
“Adam’s always honest, direct, and at least trying to understand my perspective, even if we don’t always agree,” said John Slusher, executive vice president of global sports marketing at Nike, an NBA licensee since 1992. “What we have in common is that he understands the power and value of promoting and protecting your brand. He has great relationships with players and can relate to them, which is not necessarily common for a senior executive in sports. Players respect him, but also feel at ease with him.”
Sue Bird, the longtime member of the WNBA’s Seattle Storm and a friend, said that she met Silver after she was drafted by the Storm in 2002. She interrupted — and subsequently shared — a meal in New York that Silver was having with former agent Leonard Armato.
“I was the dinner crasher and Adam was totally cool with it,” Bird said. “He’s the guy I’d call for a ride home or to talk about a career change.”
Second no more
Those who know Silver well advise that because of his longtime role assisting Stern, the incoming commissioner’s persona has not been widely revealed.
“Adam’s personality is very complementary to David and it has been for a long time,” said Sal LaRocca, NBA
Silver will inherit a job that has grown more complex, but his peers say he is ready and the best person for the position.
Photo by:Bloomberg / Getty Images
“When you are No. 2, it’s really important to be respectful and understand who runs the place,” said Disney’s Iger, who worked under former Disney CEO Michael Eisner for a decade, before assuming the top spot. “The world doesn’t know Adam well yet, because he really hasn’t been given that opportunity.”
Or as Welts explained, “You always knew when David walked into a room, just by the force of his personality. Adam wins on substance and has a very different style. It will be interesting to see how he takes that style and creates his own brand of leadership.”
Stern was 42 when he became commissioner. Silver, who will be 51 when he takes command, often jokes about his 20-year apprenticeship. Stern has increased franchise values exponentially and took a drug-tainted league with its championship finals on tape-delayed national TV to the league with the most “globality,” to borrow one of his pet terms.
Consequently, the spotlight on Silver will be brighter. It’s a more complex job, now conducted in a global fishbowl.
“There are very few human beings that can walk into David’s shoes,” Leiweke said. “That is Adam’s hardest challenge, but he will be the best at it.”
It’s impossible to believe that anyone has been better prepared to assume the job of league commissioner.
“Anybody who works for David runs the gauntlet and either comes out the other side battered and discouraged or better for the process and a much better finished product,” said Welts, a fellow Stern protégé. “Adam is the latter.”
Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.
■ Adam Silver hired as special assistant to the commissioner.
■ NBA.com debuts.
■ The NBA becomes the first league to launch its own network, NBA.com TV (now NBA TV).
■ NBA Entertainment and NBA Properties are reorganized, with the operations of the two companies combined under Silver.
■ The NBA reaches six-year deals, totaling $4.6 billion, with ABC/ESPN and AOL Time Warner to televise games beginning with the 2002-03 season.
■ Silver assumes oversight of the league’s team marketing services division following the departure of senior vice president Bernie Mullin.
■ NBA Board of Governors approves Silver as NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer.
■ The NBA agrees to eight-year, $7.5 billion media rights renewals with Turner and ESPN/ABC.
■ Turner and the NBA announce a partnership through which the companies will jointly manage the NBA’s digital businesses from the 2008-09 season through the 2015-16 season.
■ Beginning this season, the league allows teams to sell ads on their practice jerseys.
■ NBA TV increases its distribution to more than 45 million homes with carriage deals with Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Dish Network.
■ The NBA institutes a lockout on July 1. In December, the owners and players ratify a new labor agreement, ending the 161-day lockout.
■ Commissioner David Stern says he will recommend Silver to succeed him as commissioner when he retires.
■ Google agrees to pay the NBA a rights fee in the low six figures to stream 350 NBA D-League games.
■ The NBA and SAP AG launch NBA.com/Stats, providing comprehensive league statistics.
Source: SportsBusiness Journal research
Adam Silver will take over as NBA commissioner on Feb. 1, when he replaces David Stern during one of the league’s most prosperous eras. With the NBA’s collective-bargaining deal and a revamped revenue-sharing plan in place since 2011, teams are more financially competitive than ever. Franchise values are skyrocketing, the league’s global footprint is expanding, and a crop of superstar players is providing balance across the league. But Silver still has his work cut out for him as he looks to put his own stamp on the NBA.
The league’s next media rights package will likely be the first major deal Silver will negotiate as commissioner.
Photo by:NBAE / Getty Images
■ Make no mistake: The next media rights deal will be Silver’s deal, not Stern’s. It’s set up to be his first big deal and probably will be his biggest. Informal negotiations already have started with ESPN and Turner, even though their combined eight-year, $7.5 billion deals end after the 2015-16 season. With Fox Sports and NBC Sports also expressing interest, the new deals are certain to be a windfall for the league and offer Silver his first opportunity to make his own major imprint on the league.
Hire a No. 2?
■ Who will be the next NBA deputy commissioner? Will the job be a more hands-on operator or will the job entail more legal heft? Or will Silver decide that he doesn’t yet need to hire a second-in-command and go a different route? All are crucial questions for Silver as he sets up his own inner circle. If he does name an immediate deputy, will it be a current loyal top NBA executive? Someone like Joel Litvin, president of league operations, or Bill Koenig, executive vice president of business affairs and general counsel, or Mark Tatum, executive vice president of global marketing partnerships. Or will Silver go outside the league and bring in another executive?
■ Silver must forge an effective working relationship with whomever is named to replace ousted Billy Hunter as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. When a new union leader is named is anyone’s guess, but with long-term labor peace in hand, Silver has a rare and opportunistic chance to build a relationship from the ground up to grow the game.
Chinese fans of the Golden State Warriors cheer at this month’s Global Games in Beijing.
Photo by:NBAE / Getty Images
■ No league has been as aggressive as the NBA in expanding its global footprint and Silver will no doubt drive even more overseas growth. With current NBA International President Heidi Ueberroth set to leave the league at the end of 2013, Silver will likely reorganize the league’s international structure and put in place his own agenda for international development.
The Golden State Warriors want to build a $1 billion arena on the waterfront in San Francisco.
■ The Golden State Warriors continue their push for a $1 billion arena and development project along the waterfront in San Francisco. The centerpiece is an 18,000-seat arena that the team wants to open in 2017. But it’s a complex project full of political hurdles that will test the patience and skills of team President and COO Rick Welts. While Welts works on the arena, the Warriors work on becoming one of the NBA’s most successful teams off the court. The team boasts a franchise record season-ticket base of 14,000 and a 38-game sellout streak behind rising star Stephen Curry. It bears watching whether the Warriors can continue to prosper while lobbying to complete their massive arena development plan.
Kings and their court
■ Some 90 miles to the northwest of San Francisco, Sacramento Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadivé wants to build a $448 million downtown facility to replace Sleep Train Arena. The arena project was critical in the Kings’ sale to the Ranadivé group over a group that wanted to move the franchise to Seattle. Keeping the project on the fast track while rebuilding the Kings franchise is job one for Ranadivé, who hired respected NBA executive Chris Granger as team president. Granger has loads of talent and experience gained from running the NBA’s team marketing and business operations division. How he takes to his new position while driving the Kings’ business will be worth watching.
■ The NBA this season is allowing teams to sell advertising space on the playing floor in front of the team benches as a compromise of sorts for failed efforts to allow uniform advertising. The highly visible on-court space is seen as prized sponsorship inventory that could generate seven-figure deals, but it bears watching to see how many teams land deals — and at what price.
New coach Brett Brown is among those trying to get the 76ers pointed in the right direction.
Photo by:NBAE / Getty Images
■ Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris has been busy trying to turn around a beleaguered franchise that last year ranked near the bottom in the league in average attendance and season-ticket sales. Harris hired a new head coach in Brett Brown, a new general manager in Sam Hinkie, and a new CEO in Scott O’Neil. O’Neil, the former president of Madison Square Garden Sports, is known as an effective and creative manager, but reversing the course in Philadelphia for an impatient owner poses a big challenge.
■ Can the Los Angeles Lakers rebound after a soap-opera-like 2012-13 season? The team battled through the failed Dwight Howard experiment, the firing of former head coach Mike Brown after only five games, and the loss of Kobe Bryant to injury. The Lakers squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of last season and were promptly swept out of the first round. Off the court, the Lakers suffered the loss of legendary owner Jerry Buss. The question remains whether the team can thrive under the direction of Jeanie and Jim Buss and whether the aging Bryant can return to form after rupturing his Achilles last year.
Rudy Gay (left), Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan have some fun at Raptors Media Day in September.
Photo by:Getty Images
■ Nobody has been more aggressive in ushering in change as Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Toronto Raptors. The changes in Toronto have been coming fast and furious since the brash Leiweke joined MLSE in April. He revamped the team’s front office, moving out Bryan Colangelo and hiring a new general manager in Masai Ujiri, and restructured the team’s sales and marketing functions. He also helped persuade the NBA to bring the 2016 NBA All-Star Game north of the border and insists on making the Raptors more relevant not only in Toronto but in the league. A new team branding effort is under way with new colors and a new identity aimed at changing the culture surrounding a franchise that hasn’t been to the playoffs in the past five years.
Half of NBA teams didn’t offer a mobile application last season, but that all changes this year. According to John Acunto, vice president of marketing communications at the NBA, virtually every team will offer an app by the start of the 2013-14 season.
YinzCam, a popular mobile app developer offering in-venue instant replay for some NFL and NHL teams, confirmed last week that 14 NBA teams will be using its platform in the upcoming season. Presently, the only team on the platform is the Washington Wizards.
The list of teams that will jump onto the YinzCam bandwagon has not been confirmed, but the NBA made it clear that there is no leaguewide arrangement with the Pittsburgh-based vendor.
“The teams have complete control over their mobile applications, and that includes the developer,” Acunto said.
Of the 15 teams that already have active mobile apps, the list of developers varies widely. There are 12 vendors in play, and only three appear twice: B3Connect, OneUpGames and XCO Software.
Here is a look at some of the current mobile apps around the league.
— Amie Sheridan
■ Developer: Brooklyn Nets, WillowTree Apps
■ What it offers: Live game tracking, team information, stats, schedule, video, tickets, Nets shop and social features.
■ Standout features: Fans can post a text or photo to the scoreboard. Ticketing integration includes an American Express preferred seating option.
■ Biggest problem(s): The Nets shop opens the desktop site. The Instagram gallery does not allow users to swipe the screen to view the next image. Instead, each image must be opened and closed individually.
■ Available on: iPhone, Android
■ Bottom line: This app has a sleek interface with a few standout features. It’s not perfect, but it covers the basics and looks great.
■ Developer: Boston Celtics, Adept Mobile
■ What it offers: Live game tracking, team information, stats, schedule, video, tickets and Celtics shop.
■ Standout features: Fans can listen to live radio broadcasts on WEEI. Trading card-style player, coach and dancer profiles add some sizzle.
■ Biggest problem(s): Store, tickets and seat upgrades push users to the Celtics desktop site.
■ Available on: iPhone, Android
■ Bottom line: The game-time section is a real draw with live audio and play-by-play. App developers smartly included sharing features around their video. Other sections could use some refreshing.
■ Developer: B3Connect
■ What it offers: Live game tracking, team information, stats, schedule, news, video, tickets, social integration and arena information.
■ Standout features: An in-game shot chart shows placement of missed and made shots by both teams. Key player matchups are presented by game. Seat upgrades can be made within the app via pogoseat.com.
■ Biggest problem(s): Tapping on individual player stats shuts down the app. The social section does not load properly.
■ Available on: iPhone, Android
■ Bottom line: The Pistons offer an excellent mobile in-game experience with features that set them apart from other teams. While there are some issues, the app succeeds in delivering an intuitive and complementary experience for fans.
■ Developer: YinzCam
■ What it offers: Live game tracking, team information, stats, schedule, video, tickets, social features and alerts.
■ Standout features: Gametracker features shot chart with heat map. Fan Zone includes Great Wall of Assists, a John Wall assist tracker.
■ Biggest problem(s): Load time is slow at times.
■ Available on: iPhone, Android
■ Bottom line: Info-packed and made for mobile, this experience works.
Amie Sheridan(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in Philadelphia.