Silver successful in delivering required message

Kevin Johnson: 'The commissioner has done his duty'

Silver successful in delivering required message
April 30, 2014, 7:45 am
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This was Adam Silver's show, as produced by the men who pay him, and he performed it well.
Ray Ratto

For all the breathless caterwauling for the magnificent leadership shown Tuesday by Adam Silver in raining down administrative death upon Donald Sterling, one thing remained clear through it all.

Adam Silver didn’t lead anything or anyone. He made the announcement that made everyone smile, and that’s it.

Not that such an achievement, however modest by comparison, doesn’t have its value. After all, even if all he did was hum a few repetitive stanzas, “Ding Dong The Witch Is Banned And Being Forced To Sell,” he served his constitutional purpose.

[NEWS: Silver: Sterling banned from NBA for life]

But make no mistake here, even though you desperately want to do so. The people who gathered together to shove Sterling from their midst were his fellow owners -- the same ones who enabled him so cheerfully when his embarrassments were only wreaked upon the nameless middle-class renters that don’t tend to matter when stories like this are told.

Indeed, by the time Silver snapped into action, the wheels had already begun grinding on Sterling’s bones, and Silver’s question wasn’t, “I want this guy gone, will you support me?” but the far more fundamental, “Okay, what do you guys want to do with this one?”

And anyone who thinks otherwise thinks the Easter Bunny is a hard-bitten Bronx detective. And anyone who says otherwise buys into a contemptibly lazy narrative that died with Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Commissioners have their roles, to be sure. They are the face of management when owners wish to show a face -- typically during ribbon-cuttings, press conferences and CBA negotiations -- that isn’t theirs.

But when big things must be done, like exiling a national embarrassment who was suddenly costing the partnership money, power does not flow uphill. It never does. That’s a bald-faced lie dressed up as charming myth.

[RELATED: What they're saying: NBA bans Sterling for life]

This also works the other way. As David Stern is being excoriated for looking the other way on Sterling’s prior tributes to the Confederate States of America, it must -- MUST -- be said that he could no more punish Sterling unilaterally than he could eat the Staples Center. That, too, was the job of his bosses, and they looked the other way so that Stern could take the grief for doing so as well.

It’s the commissioner’s tradeoff. Get paid way more than you have coming to take the bullets, with the side perk that you get the naïve person’s credit when something like Donald Sterling crops up.

You see, the modern owner wants to work in the shadows, because publicity mostly sucks. There are a few who love to hear a lens cap fall or a smart phone hit record, but the vast majority of owners want never to have to deal with problems like the public record.

But the public record must be dealt with, thus the transformation of the modern commissioner. Landis was the only one of those to have unfettered power, and even then he knew when to protect the company. Stern comes a distant second, but when he fined Sterling $25 million for moving the San Diego Clippers to Los Angeles without permission and then had to back the fine down to 24 percent of that when Sterling threatened to sue the league for $100 million, that was Stern’s bosses, too, as in: “Find a number he can live with without dragging us into court.”

Silver had a good day Tuesday, don’t think otherwise. He’d been asked to play the hero in a one-sided battle, and he delivered the goods because . . . well, who can’t carry off acting the good guy?

But this was more about the unseen hands -- Peter Holt in San Antonio and Micky Arison in Miami and Jerry Reinsdorf in Chicago and Ted Leonsis in Washington and Tom Gores in Detroit, and the other owners who were staring at a business nightmare and, almost as bad, the re-galvanizing of the typically inert NBA Players Association. The players were ready to walk out on all three playoff games Tuesday, and might have stayed out tonight and into the future until the networks, which also have a vote in all league matters, rose up from their haunches and hit back at the programmers.

[RELATED: Warriors' Lacob applauds Silver's firm punishment]

So Sterling was doomed for crossing all those wires, and he deserves every bit of it. He was a repellent figure long before this, and shame on his partners for deciding this was just Don being Don. But when you mess with the business, the real hell comes.

But this wasn’t Adam Silver’s doing, not by along shot. This was his show, as produced by the men who pay him, and he performed it well. Never forget that. Sure, appearances matter, but Tuesday was the manifestation of ruthlessly hardball politics in which everyone agreed for once that one of theirs was to be cast out.

And Adam Silver was the guy who handled the gate announcement, in keeping with his true duty as commissioner.