Take the silence Tuesday stemming from the fact no vote is necessary to oust Donald Sterling from the league for what it is: Proof Adam Silver is the Michael Corleone of the NBA.
Instead of a media circus – to say nothing of a vote made difficult and ugly by the sentiments of owners like Mark Cuban uncomfortable with being stuck between taking on racism and setting a precedent to oust one of their own, or of a never-ending battle with a billionaire as litigious as he is racist – we have a date that can serve as a piece of trivia: June 3, 2014, the day the NBA’s Board of Governors had planned to vote to remove Sterling from the league.
Silver, an untested commissioner many believed to be too new, too fresh, and too damn nice win a bloody battle against someone as formidable as Sterling utterly crushed him.
While Sterling geared up to head to the mattresses, the nemesis he didn’t take seriously enough hatched a surprise plan to resoundingly remove him from the equation.
Hell, we all missed it. We all thought Sterling would fight, would go to court, would drag out the ugliness we heard on those tapes through stables of lawyers, reams of lawsuits, hours of depositions and more dollars than most of us will ever see.
Instead Sterling pulled a Michael, moving every piece where it belonged along a board few of us even saw before ending a contest most of us thought would begin in earnest June 3. Count Sterling among those stooges who didn’t remember to fear the silent ones.
There are many who get credit here: LeBron James for having the courage and grace under the pressure of a breaking news story to immediately and forcefully denounce Sterling and his place in the game. Shelly Sterling, at least at the end, for being willing to agree, on behalf of herself and the Sterling trust, to indemnify the NBA against any legal victories Donald may score in the future. All of us who put forth enough outrage to keep the pressure up.
But this has also been an instructive window in the leadership of Adam Silver, and to him goes an enormous amount of credit. This was, in the end, his battle, to win or lose. And the new, just-on-the-job, he’s-not-Stern commish shocked even the most optimistic fan with his remarkable leadership, skill and ruthlessness.
What a change from Feb. 1, when he took the reins from his friend and mentor David Stern and the impressions of the NBA’s new leader made their away around the league. Well-respected. Well liked. A nice guy.
But a killer?
A mercenary, the way David Stern was when necessary? No. No. Silver was Michael before the transformation – before his own outrage brought out what was inside – and that was mostly a mild-mannered heir without the inner-bully and inner-badass capable of raining down hell when the moment demanded.
Stern, of course, was that man. Love him or hate him – and many hated him – he oozed power. I sat in a room with both men a little more than a year ago for an hour-long meet and greet, and over the course of a long and fascinating conversation in which both men radiated deep intellect and confidence I left believing there were big differences between them.
Stern seemed, even with all that charm, the mercenary able to cut you off at the kneecaps if the moment called for it. Talking to him really wasn’t that different from the opening scene of the Godfather, when person after person comes before the don and sees in the shadows and among that sharp mind and easy charm the danger of being in the same room.
Silver was cool, funny, charming – the young guy in the corner, sitting in the sunshine, destined perhaps to lead but never to have to fight the battles of his mentor.
It all seemed so obvious: Stern was the wartime don who’d forged a kingdom. Silver was the peacetime consigliore who, when he took over the family business, would be a peacetime don, too.
And why not? What real wars could there be, in the immediate future? The new collective bargaining agreement was in place, the league was burgeoning with stars and relevance and a bright future, and there were no concussion lawsuits or steroids scandals that needed a heavy-handed – even cutthroat – leader.
Even then, as much as we liked and rooted for the young don, Silver took his time. There was the impromptu press conference in Memphis, and talk of waiting, of being patient with the process, and you could almost see now looking back Michael’s captains’ perplexed expressions as he moved at a pace or with a plan they neither liked nor, deep down, respected.
Let’s not rewrite history. In that moment and the few days that followed, we wondered what the hell he was doing. We thought he might be too weak to truly punish Sterling. We thought, “Does he have the guts to ban him a year? Longer?” We – as we tend to be – were captives of the moment, Sonny-esque in our fury and anger motivating our thinking and timelines, while thinking that the guy from the past, Stern, would have been better suited to this.
And still he took his time. Collected his facts. And who knows? Even then maybe he was formulating his endgame. Then he stepped to the podium for a second and final press conference and said words that literally made colleagues of mine at FOX Sports 1’s newsroom gasp: “… effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling” – here, he actually paused just as Pacino does in critical scenes of Godfather I and II, then went on in a forceful voice – “for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA.”
That’s when we knew he was willing to go to war against Sterling. Tuesday, June 3, is the day we knew he was capable of winning it.
That was the day we marked on our calendars as a decisive moment. That was the day Sterling would have been able to face his fellow owners and have his say. And while Sterling’s legal and public relations strategy and tactical approach seemed to surround using that vote as the start of the real war, Silver had a plan to end it before it began.
Like Michael Corleone, Silver’s slow, less-than-intimidating approach masked a brilliant stroke that would end it all once and for all.
In getting Shelly Sterling to agree to what she has, her husband Donald Sterling becomes a dog chasing his own tail. He may catch it – may inflict damage, even serious damage – but in the end the pain will be his. Whatever he might win in court in the future, his own funds will end up reimbursing the NBA for them. He is, if you follow the money, actually suing himself.
So see this day and the ending of the Sterling saga for what it is: a man sitting before us in the silence that comes after having already won, the door slowly closing, the stark change from what we first saw and what we now know him to be defining forever going forward just who Adam Silver is and what it means if you insult him or, more to the point, mess with the NBA family.
Bill Reiter is a national columnist for FOXSports.com, a national radio host at Fox Sports Radio and regularly appears on FOX Sports 1. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.