Years ago, when then-NBA Commissioner David Stern decided to make the Draft his masterwork of dramatic theater, he searched far and wide for just the right villain, the antagonist who would balance out the parade of young men who would march to the podium each year and shake his hand, each one radiating the promise of a dream fulfilled, of lives just cracking the cover on the stories they had to tell. The fans would soon alert Stern that he need look no further: there was no villain in the NBA universe so good as himself. For the remainder of his tenure, then, Stern embraced the role and attacked it with enough scene-chewing vigor as to make a late-career Al Pacino blush.
And Stern never quit working on his performance. By his final draft in 2013, bathed in a shower of boos, Stern would use the slightest pause, the most subtle dropping of “your World Champion Miami Heat,” to whip the crowd into stiffer and stiffer peaks of fervor.
And the fans loved it. They used the draft as their own performance, the most direct interaction they were allowed with the league and the man who governed it. So, I wondered what would happen this year? Would the 2014 Draft would miss Stern’s antics—or did new Commissioner, Adam Silver, have a performance of his own in store?
It turned out that a performance was exactly what Silver had planned but, as has been the case with many of Silver’s actions in his first few months on the job, he showed a strong departure from his predecessor. If Stern’s Drafts were WWE, Silver’s was the Hallmark Channel. The NBA now really is where caring happens.
It’s easy to forget that Silver has only been manning the league since mid-February. He has already navigated the league through his first scandal: the lifetime ban and forced sale of the Los Angeles Clippers imposed by the NBA on Donald Sterling. When asked about his personal reaction upon hearing the tapes of Sterling’s racist comments, Silver responded simply, “I think my response was as a human being.”
At the NBA Draft Lottery last month, Silver described his vision of the NBA in terms of Kevin Durant’s emotional MVP acceptance speech. The feelings roused by Durant as he talked, tearfully and thankfully, to his mother, his teammates and his coaches—that kind of emotional moment—Silver said, was what the NBA was really about.
So, when planning his signature event as Commissioner (the Draft is, after all, the most screen time the Commissioner gets all year), Silver looked to continue to spread the good feelings around. He invited 21 players and their families to New York, up from 13 the year before. People love seeing the players hear their names announced, love seeing them celebrate with their families, love seeing them walk on stage to shake the Commissioner’s hand. So, why not let them see that happen more?
But just as you might be tempted to feel the least bit cynical about Silver’s new sentimental NBA, Silver paused the draft after the 15th pick to pay tribute to Baylor F/C, Isaiah Austin. Austin, who was diagnosed with Marfan Syndrome, a potentially life-threatening genetic condition, less than a week ago while he was preparing for the draft, was forced to give up playing basketball. He had been projected as a second round pick before his diagnosis, but Silver invited him to attend the draft as the Commissioner’s personal guest.
Austin got to hear the Commissioner say, “with the next pick, the NBA selects … Isaiah Austin.” He got to hear the entire crowd at the Barclays Center rise to their feet and cheer as he stood, got handed his draft hat, walked up on stage and shook the Commissioner’s hand. The two men then turned out to face the crowd who continued to cheer as Austin smiled and dabbed at his tear-filled eyes.
“For Commissioner Adam Silver to even invite me here was a tremendous blessing, and it shows how much class that man has,” Austin said later. “I have so much respect for him and the NBA, and I’m thankful that I’m in this position today.”
This is one of the moments Silver was talking about. To him, Isaiah Austin is as much what the NBA is about as Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
“I forgot about the syndrome for a while,” Austin continued. “I just couldn’t stop thinking of, I’m going to New York, I’m going to New York for the NBA Draft. … I’m here today, and I’m blessed, and I’m thankful.”
So, no, the crowd didn’t get to boo the Commissioner on Draft night. But, so far, Silver is proving much more deserving of our cheers.