SBJ/May 5-11, 2014/Opinion

Who mattered, when and why in the NBA’s historic week

Who stood out to me — all in public view — for the right reasons as the NBA progressed through one of the most important weeks in its history.

CHARLES BARKLEY: News of the audio recording of Donald Sterling broke on Saturday, April 26, and TNT’s “Inside the NBA” studio crew had the first opportunity to position the story and its importance to viewers that afternoon. It delivered, especially Barkley. He can be over the top at times, but I hope viewers never take his honest, rooted-in-reality approach for granted. He was serious, articulate and firm in laying out the issues threatening the league and a membership/fan base that is largely African-American. “This is the first test of Adam Silver,” Barkley explained. “[Sterling] has to be suspended. … We can’t have an NBA owner discriminating against a league — we’re a black league. … I’d probably say 80 percent of our players are black.” Kudos as well to host Ernie Johnson, who closed by stating, “There’s no place in the NBA for Donald Sterling, in my mind.” Any viewer watching that immediately understood the importance of the crisis on the league and society.

BILL SIMMONS: After TNT set the agenda, Simmons smartly positioned what was next. Over the weekend on ABC/ESPN, Simmons offered a personal viewpoint as an NBA and Clippers fan who attends games. “We have the best first round of the playoffs ever ruined by this bozo,” he said pointing to an image of Sterling. He then offered the pragmatic voice of an insider who understands the league and the league office. While others were expressing “outrage” or calling to “get rid of Sterling,” Simmons calmly noted the bylaw challenges and Sterling’s legal history. “This is probably the most stubborn owner of any sport and somebody who loves going into courtrooms and fighting battles,” Simmons said, detailing Sterling’s legal issues with former coach Mike Dunleavy and former general manager Elgin Baylor. He noted the difficult steps ahead for Silver and league owners “in trying to push him somehow to sell.” But he didn’t flinch in calling out the league for the Sterling problem. “The league itself [needs to] look in the mirror a little bit; don’t just blame Donald Sterling. This is a guy they kept around for three-plus decades. … They have to take some accountability. … They entitled him,” he said. As a fan and a business follower of the league, Simmons offered viewers a better understanding of the issues that would play out over the next few days.

LeBRON JAMES: An overwhelming number of players took to Twitter with articulate denouncements of Sterling, but James clearly was the most influential and gave the money quote on that Saturday night, while the controversy was less than 24 hours old. “There is no room for Donald Sterling in our league,” James said before that night’s game against the Bobcats in Charlotte. “There is no room for him.” For the game’s most influential voice to speak so forcefully fueled player unity and resolve, and it clearly established to Silver and the owners that the players would not be bystanders, but instead force decisive action.

MICHAEL JORDAN: After James’ comments on Saturday in the home arena of Jordan’s Bobcats, the former player turned owner had no comment on the issue. But that quickly changed. On Sunday morning, Jordan offered an aggressive statement, saying he was “disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views. … There is no room in the NBA — or anywhere else — for [that] kind of racism and hatred.” Jordan’s spirited comments startled insiders who are used to him remaining on the sideline on controversial social issues. This time, he was among the first in the league’s ownership circle to go public, and as the only African-American owner in the league, speaking out early and strongly lifted his voice above the noise. Jordan’s stance drove the story into its second-day news cycle, and coming on the heels of James’ statements, it showed an emboldened and rarely seen unified message from the two most popular figures in the game.

KEVIN JOHNSON: Can anyone doubt the influence and force of Johnson, who served as the de facto leader of the National Basketball Players Association? While the NBPA drifts without a voice, he was called in to assist in the search for a new executive director, and during a pivotal period, he served as a strong, clear voice for the players. On Sunday night, he outlined the players’ demands, calling for swift action but also expressing full confidence and trust in Silver. He was firm but not antagonistic or divisive. Later in the week, after Silver’s ruling, he again showed a rare example of unification when he said Silver “is not only the owners’ commissioner, he is the players’ commissioner.”

MARK CUBAN: Traditionally the nonconformist voice, Cuban was at first muted, saying over the weekend, “I have plenty of opinions, just not going to share them.” He added, “It’s not my problem.” On Monday, he acknowledged what Sterling said was “abhorrent,” but he was the first and only owner to express concern about the precedent over what was said in private. “You’ve got to be very, very careful when you start making blanket statements about what people say and think, as opposed to what they do,” he said. “It’s a very, very slippery slope.” After Silver’s announcement on Tuesday, Cuban joined his fellow owners, issuing a public statement of support for the decision (“I agree 100% with Commissioner Silver’s findings and the actions taken against Donald Sterling,” Cuban tweeted), but Cuban’s earlier comments are to be remembered as well. He intelligently laid the foundation of what could be the biggest chasm and concern in the league’s constitution regarding ownership actions for years to come.

ADAM SILVER: Saturday night, I watched at home while Silver spoke to the media in Memphis for the first time since the Sterling story broke. He first announced the death of former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley, and in easy familiarity talked of Heisley’s impact on the league as a “friend of the NBA.” But then, Silver seemed to become more uncomfortable and scripted when talking about Sterling’s alleged comments, referencing a prepared statement while making his remarks. A friend in the business instantly texted me, “Not impressed with delivery. Referencing written cue cards didn’t seem natural and he appeared uncomfortable.” While agreeing that Silver seemed not at ease, I suggested he let it play out a bit, that Silver would prove his mettle.

We know how Silver’s final decision was received. I don’t ever recall such unanimous praise of a sports leader’s decisive action. Even a newsroom full of cynics was impressed by his ruling. I admire Silver’s approach in acting on behalf of owners and players, and it was symbolic that for the first time in my memory, players and owners were united. Silver’s smart enough to know this can all change quickly: Maybe a lawsuit by Sterling forces fissures in ownership; surely the next player discipline issue upsets the union. But under this critical and glaring spotlight, Silver proved to be a leader for the entire game and every constituency.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.


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