Writing for Sports Illustrated, Lee Jenkins has written a compelling, in-depth profile of new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Here’s the beginning:
Masawani Jere, a chief of the Ngoni tribe, presides over a village of 120 in Malawi, a small, landlocked nation in southeastern Africa. The village, called Emchakachakeni, sits on a hill at the edge of a forest. Most Malawians live in rural areas and work in agriculture. Many of the 6,000 Ngoni, descended from the Zulus of South Africa, are timber merchants. Those in Emchakachakeni own no televisions or computers. But their chief must maintain some connection with the modern world, so he has a BlackBerry, on which he created a Facebook account. When Jere logged in on the last day of April he was struck by a story that all his cyberfriends were discussing about the bold new NBA commissioner, who had permanently banished the league’s longest-tenured owner for making racist remarks on a leaked audiotape. “Oh, yes,” the chief thought as he scrolled through the commissioner’s forceful words. “This sounds just like Adam.”Adam Silver is featured on the May 26 cover of Sports Illustrated.Painting by Tim O’Brien; photo reference by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
In 1977, Jere went to a house party in Rye, N.Y. He was a sophomore at Rye High, having moved to Westchester County three years earlier, when his father became a counselor to Malawi’s United Nations ambassador. Jere was desperate to fit in at the new school, even though he couldn’t help but stand out. He was one of the few black students in his class. At the party, kids downed beers before heading off to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in New Rochelle. As Jere tried to blend in, a long-limbed, clear-eyed freshman introduced himself. “That was Adam Silver,” Jere recalls. “All we had in common is we were the two who weren’t drinking.”
Rye is a posh suburb of New York City, just shy of the Connecticut line, and among its 15,000 residents were wealthy corporate executives and investment bankers. Silver’s father, Ed, was one of the most prominent labor lawyers in New York City. His mother, Melba, was a teacher and community activist. Adam grew up in a large Georgian house with a formal garden about a block from Long Island Sound. At Rye High he was an A student, a class president, a member of the cross-country team and editor-in-chief of The Garnet & Black newspaper. He played the stock market with the help of a broker on Main Street who indulged his modest trades. Mas, as Jere is known, was a soccer star who struggled with schoolwork. But he and Silver had more in common than their backgrounds indicated.
When Silver was 10 his parents separated and his dad moved to an apartment in Manhattan. By the time he turned 14, his three older siblings were off to college, and his mom was spending winters in Boca Raton, Fla. He was alone in that big colonial, along with Mas, whose parents regularly traveled back to Malawi. “He took me in,” Mas says. “He became my brother, and I became his.” Adam tutored Mas in history and algebra. He invited him to concerts and sporting events in the city. He took him to fancy restaurants. He even sold Mas his car, a Volkswagen Scirocco, for $2,000 on a layaway plan. “Adam was really Mas’s guide through the American experience,” says Roy Bostock, a Rye resident and the former Yahoo chairman, who has been a mentor to Silver since he was a teenager.
Mas’s other guide was Regan Orillac, a class president one year younger. The trio would drive to the Rye Nature Center after school, grab Tiger’s Milk bars and frozen yogurt and head to Adam’s. They pored over New Yorker cartoons, deconstructed the Abscam scandal and listened to Earth Wind & Fire. They stayed up late picking at pistachios and watching Johnny Carson. “I’m Irish Catholic,” Orillac says. “Mas is African. Adam is Jewish. We were an odd group, but we made a little family.”
Melba Silver employed a housekeeper, Eudel Baker, during the day and rented a back unit to adults with the understanding that they’d keep an eye on her youngest son. She also opened a charge account for Adam at Playland Market, a mile away, but getting there presented logistical challenges: Adam, at 15, occasionally had to drive there without a license. “I think that whole experience gave Adam skills that other people may attain later,” Orillac says. “You don’t hem and haw. You don’t ask a thousand people for advice. You just get it done, because no one else is around to get it done.”“He took me in,” Mas says of Silver. “He became my brother, and I became his.”
Adam was a cosmopolitan kid, as comfortable at Blind Brook Country Club for Easter brunch as at Carnegie Hall for the Spinners’ show. He once mimicked their act, pink tuxedo and all, for a school talent show. At Duke he introduced his freshman-year roommate to Al Green as well as to New York City mayor Ed Koch, who called their dorm looking for Ed Silver the day Adam moved in. “When we were all reading The Wall Street Journal for the market, Adam was reading the Journal and The New York Times for the market and the editorial page,” says Jim Zelter, the roommate, now a top executive at the private equity firm Apollo Global Management. Adam also had The Village Voice delivered to his campus mailbox.
In December 1983, Silver was a junior political science major visiting his mom in Boca Raton for winter break. Jere was a junior at Concordia College in suburban Bronxville, N.Y., eager to reconnect with old friends home for the holidays. Three nights before Christmas, Jere drove to a bar in New Rochelle with a high school buddy named Chris Pinto, who was premed at Johns Hopkins. According to Jere, they drank a few beers before returning to their neighborhood pub in Rye, The Maple Tree. They left after midnight: Jere, Pinto and a young woman Pinto had met inside. Jere and the woman reached the car first. “I was about to open the door,” Jere remembers, “and [she] said, ‘I’m not getting in the car with a n—–.’ ” Jere demanded an apology and looked around for Pinto, who was talking animatedly with two men on the other side of the street. A fight broke out, and Jere sprinted across the street to help, but the brawl left him bloodied and Pinto unconscious. The hoodlums ran away. An ambulance rushed Pinto to the hospital. He died several days later.
Jere was inconsolable, and, again, Silver was there. He flew up from Boca Raton, coaxed Jere to Pinto’s funeral and handed him a black blazer to wear. Jere blamed himself for Pinto’s death, and Silver explained that Jere too was an innocent victim. Jere never even learned what Pinto and the two men were fighting about. Detectives investigated the case and interviewed Jere and the alleged assailants, but a grand jury declined to hand down indictments. Jere underwent counseling. He nearly dropped out of college. In 1986 he moved back to Malawi, and Silver shipped him the Scirocco. Six years after that, Jere and his wife, Annie, had a son, whom they named Christopher. Silver sent the boy a Spalding basketball hoop, and he shot jumpers in the village. Now that boy is 22, and his father’s pal is recognized around the globe.
“Christopher,” Mas says, “has become a big fan of Adam Silver.”
Fifteen floors above Fifth Avenue the commissioner sits in a modest conference room at the NBA’s Midtown headquarters, sipping a cup of coffee. His navy suit jacket is draped over a chair. His red-and-blue-striped tie hangs loose around his neck. The window behind him looks out eight blocks north to Central Park, where Silver walks every night with his Labrador retriever, Eydie. He is used to being recognized by NBA junkies, who for more than seven years watched him announce second-round draft picks as the deputy commissioner, but now he is approached by observers who wouldn’t know a post-up from a pin-down.
Silver does not seem tired, though he just returned the night before from Los Angeles, where he watched the Clippers play the Thunder at Staples Center in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. It was his first trip to L.A. since April 29, when he announced he was banning Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and vowed to force a sale of the franchise. Club employees swung by his seat in the lower bowl to thank him for ridding them of a wretched boss, who built a reputation as the worst owner in pro sports by bungling hires, skimping on contracts and heckling his own players. Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, who sat with Silver, flashed back to the All-Star Game, which they attended together in New Orleans three months earlier. “The attention he got [in L.A.], the appreciation that was shown, the connection fans wanted to have with him, was completely different,” Iger says. Silver struggled to accept the adulation.
“This book is far from written,” he says in his first sit-down interview since he expelled Sterling. “I still feel I’m very much in the middle of it. I know what is appropriate here. I have no doubt. But it is one thing to have said what I said and another to execute it — to move the NBA through this chapter to a better place. I feel that obligation. I feel the weight of it on my shoulders.” Roughly three hours later Sterling will appear on CNN and issue perhaps the clumsiest public apology in history. The reality show continues.