Silver is a stickler for the rules and if those rules state that a player can’t play for three clubs in one season, then that player can’t play. Silver is serious. The organisation he runs is arguably the most savvy sports federation in the world and he doesn’t mind dishing out punishment regardless of the recipient. He fined a former legend of the National Basketball Association and the NBA’s most popular team $500 000 for a wink.
Magic Johnson, NBA legend, member of the 1992 ‘Dream Team’ and currently president of basketball operations at the LA Lakers (the Manchester United of the NBA, just without Mourinho and a whole lot more celebrity fans) winked on a late night talkshow in the US when talking about a player at another team and Silver and the NBA fined the Lakers half-a-million dollars.
Silver, doesn’t take kindly to the rules being broken and unlike the PSL and Irvin Khoza doesn’t need a court of law to sort the problem out. The 56-year-old NBA Commissioner is one of the most powerful and respected sports administrators in the world. He’s got a trail of awards from business journals and even Time magazine to prove it. But you’d never think it when listening to and seeing Silver, a thin, bespectacled lawyer.
Under his watch, the NBA is the most innovative and outwardly thinking sports federation on earth; it's embraced social media making entities like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube et al work for it to help grow the brand. A women's professional league has taken off under Silver, the NBA is an expanding global brand, players are encouraged to speak freely about social issues - and the NBA itself has never been more popular as evidenced by the last broadcast deal it signed in 2014 - a nine-year $24-billion agreement.
Silver may have put the players at the forefront, but that has not compromised his authority something many administrators in South Africa, could learn.
“The NBA’s success in so many ways is due to partnerships with our players, our broadcasters, our marketing partners, sponsors and licensees, that’s why we’ve been able to grow this game,” said Silver during his stopover in Johannesburg last week, to watch the NBA Africa Game.
Just by organising the Africa Game, the NBA and Silver have shown a commitment to the continent that is missing from so many other businesses and sports organisations including those from across Africa. Of course the NBA sees financial opportunity for itself in Africa, but Silver also recognises what Africa has given to basketball and the NBA and stresses the importance of investing here.
“The NBA well understands sports as a business, and as we conduct events in South Africa and other opportunities we see through the entire continent, we believe sports can be used as a spark to spur economic development in many communities. Whether that be through the building of additional arenas, the operation of leagues or frankly the confidence and inspiration it gives young girls and boys to want to be entrepreneurs.”
Silver explained that the NBA's biggest developmental initiative, the Basketball Without Borders programme - which just hosted its 16th camp in Johannesburg last week - is much more than about simply finding the next LeBron James. “One of things we talk to the kids at Basketball Without Borders about, as great as the talent is there, that very few of those young boys and girls will likely ever play pro basketball. But we said the skills they are learning at the programme, the life-skills - how to work hard, be disciplined, build relationships, to remain motivated, to take care of your body, get proper sleep, eat properly to help deal with stress - those are the same life skills that are necessary to help deal with things off the court. I often tell people that there are far more jobs wearing suits working in the League office than there are on the court, so maybe they’re better off dreaming about being me.”
The same could be said for many adults. For the most part sports administrators in SA have a bad reputation, with the public and even with the sportsmen and women themselves.
From money not being paid, to disagreements with player unions (if the sport even has a viable players union) to paying lip service to concerns from sponsors, many sports federations in this country resemble an amateur club set-up, more proficient at lining the pockets of administrators than managing the sport. “I look at the model of the way a lot of other businesses are run in this day and age and I believe they are partnerships, between management and their employees. I believe that is the right model not just in sport but all business. That comes through a mutual respect."
Rather than treat the players union - NBA Players Association - as the enemy, Silver works hand in hand with it, knowing that happy players produce a good product, which will sell well to advertisers and broadcast executives. “Michelle Roberts (Executive Director of the NBAPA) needs to be commended for the spirit of co-operation with which we approach these programmes,” remarks Silver.
“Coming on these trips (to SA) and the five days we spend together,, you develop these special bonds and when it then becomes time to sit across the table from our players and negotiate business relationships it’s just a different context because we see a broader world. That doesn’t mean we don’t have adversarial issues at times, it’s what helps us develop these relationships and gives us a deeper sense of the obligations to the game and the world and a realisation of how fortunate we all are.”
There are certainly lessons for SA sports administrators to take from the NBA. Basketball in this country has suffered through rank maladministration and corruption, Relationships are vital as is adherence to rules, no matter if your team is Ajax Cape Town, Kaizer Chiefs, or the LA Lakers.
“Context is everything, and there had been a prior issue with the Lakers early this season,” Silver said about the fine handed to Magic Johnson. “And the message to not just Magic but to all the executives in the league is: Stop talking about players on other teams.”
That’s how to maintain order and still come across as a good guy.