Bulls

/ by K.C. Johnson
Presented By Bulls Insider
Bulls

This is the latter half of an exclusive two-part sitdown between Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson and NBA commissioner Adam Silver. In Part 1, which published Monday, Silver discussed All-Star weekend in Chicago and the ways the NBA will continue to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant.

NEW YORK — When the Bulls last hosted the NBA All-Star game in 1988, Adam Silver, then a student at the University of Chicago, attended the festivities at the old Chicago Stadium as a fan.

On Feb. 14, All-Star weekend begins at various venues around the city, culminating with the Feb. 16 All-Star game at the United Center.

“I’m looking forward to better seats,” Silver deadpanned.

Long before he succeeded David Stern as fifth commissioner in NBA history in 2014, Silver was a basketball fan. He grew up in New York as a Knicks fan and cheered for the Blue Devils as an undergraduate at Duke University before arriving in Chicago.

While studying law at the University of Chicago, where he called future Mayor Lori Lightfoot a classmate, Silver and friends used to catch Bulls games at Chicago Stadium and White Sox games at Comiskey Park.

Back then, you could walk up to the ticket window on game day and secure seats to watch a young Michael Jordan in action.

“There was a particular energy around the league at that time,” Silver said of Chicago Stadium, circa 1985-88. "You felt when you were at games that you were on to something that hadn’t gone mainstream. You felt like you were discovering something.”

 

Now, the NBA is a global behemoth. Many of its players have achieved one-name recognition status in all corners of the world.

But the league is also hurting emotionally. Stern passed away January 1 at age 77 after suffering a brain hemorrhage in December. And Kobe Bryant died tragically at age 41 on January 26 in a helicopter crash that claimed nine victims, including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.

Against that backdrop, Silver sat down with NBC Sports Chicago for a 40-minute interview at the NBA’s midtown Manhattan office. Here is Part 2:

NBC Sports Chicago: You attended the University of Chicago as a law student. What was your sporting relationship with the city? Did you begin cheering for any Chicago teams?

Silver: I was always a fan of New York teams. I’m a New Yorker. I never transferred. Prior to working for the league office, I grew up a Knicks fan in New York. I loved watching the Bulls and Michael Jordan. But I also attended Duke University. So I was very much a Duke fan over North Carolina fan. I enjoy seeing great basketball. But I never transferred my fandom even though I was temporarily a Chicago resident.

Prior to that 1988 NBA All-Star Game, over the course of my time in Chicago I attended lots of games with my friends in law school. My recollection is it was not difficult to get tickets. Even for the great Michael Jordan, you could go to the ticket window before the game and buy tickets. I certainly was not sitting courtside. This was pre-championships. But I remember having great experiences in the old Chicago Stadium. I certainly was always there when the Knicks played the Bulls. Michael Jordan was not superstar Michael. But he was a bourgeoning star, attracting a lot of attention in the league. Even though they weren’t winning championships, everyone enjoyed watching those teams.

I lived on the South Side, so I went to my fair share of White Sox games too. I don’t recall attending Bears games. But I loved the experience. I grew up an NBA fan, a college fan as well. What’s most memorable was it was a great experience going to Chicago Stadium. The league back then had a fraction of the popularity that it does today, especially globally. It still felt big-time to be at those games.

When All-Star weekend came in 1988, that was my last year at the University of Chicago, I attended both All-Star Saturday and [Sunday’s] game. What I remember about the dunk contest with Dominique [Wilkins] was when Michael did that dunk, that now iconic dunk, where he took off from the free-throw line. I remember him going to the opposite end of the court and clearing away the photographers or whoever was in his way. I remember the sense of anticipation was incredible. People didn’t really have a sense of what was about to happen. But he had that special sort of “Michael” look in his eyes of complete determination. And I just remember when he took off and ran the length of the floor, the flashbulbs going off back in those days.­ What a spectacular moment it was.

 

I remember the game. Michael had his 40-point game and what a big moment it felt like in the Stadium. I remember being in the player hotel, I think it was the Hyatt, and there wasn’t the same kind of security in those days. You could just walk in the lobby. And I remember just being mesmerized. I was there with a friend. We found a place to sit, pretending as if we belonged in the lobby on one of the couches, just watching the legends walking by. It was a different time. There was no social media, no way to have a more in-depth understanding of players. Even just to sit there and see how they were dressed, who they were talking to, I would’ve never for a moment predicted that I would one day end up working at the NBA, let alone being the commissioner. But I was definitely enthralled by it. There was a special energy to the league then. It did feel a bit subversive. It was not mainstream. We weren’t Major League Baseball. We weren’t the NFL. But you felt by the fact you were making a connection with it, you were special. You understood something that others didn’t.

Your relationship with Jordan has had several incarnations. You first encountered him as a fan. Then you worked with him as a colleague. Now he’s technically your boss. What’s that like?

Michael and I are roughly the same age. I think we’ve grown up together in this league. In my early days, when he was still a player and I was initially the special assistant to the commissioner and then worked at NBA Entertainment and ultimately ran NBA Entertainment, that’s how we intersected. Not just in terms of [the 2000 IMAX documentary] “Michael Jordan to the Max" but the documentary that was filmed then and is now finally being completed by Netflix and ESPN. Michael, Phil Jackson, the Reinsdorfs and I, we didn’t know what that would become. But access was more unusual in those days than it is today. And I think securing that kind of access and building that kind of trust, it let us capture those moments and we’ll see what it becomes, never predicting it would take 20-plus years for the public ultimately to have the ability to see it.

But I think what has been really fascinating to watch with Michael — and in some ways this is similar to Kobe — is the way he embraced the next chapter of his life. Building Jordan Brand as part of Nike into just a juggernaut global brand and business. His journey from player to then businessman to ultimately a part of this select group of principal NBA team owners to his level of sophistication as now not just an NBA owner but a senior statesman, someone who is very deeply involved in league matters. He chairs our labor relations committee. He has served on our competition committee. He is very involved in our planning committee, which oversees revenue sharing. I am in as much awe of him today as I was initially as a fan.

 

We were in Paris together just last week. Again, a fresh reminder, Michael doesn’t conduct many press conferences anymore these days. This was the rare moment because his team was playing the Milwaukee Bucks and [Bucks co-owner] Marc Lasry, Michael and I held a press conference. No surprise, virtually every question was directed at Michael.  Almost reminiscent of the Dream Team, most of the international reporters began their question by saying, ‘Mr. Jordan, what an honor it is to have the opportunity ask you a question.’ And I was sitting there, and I know Marc Lasry, who is about the same age as I am, I think he also was sitting there sort of I could tell more as a fan than as a fellow team owner. ‘Wow, we can’t forget this is still one of the most famous people on the planet.’ And also someone who really, at the end of the day, seems very much like that North Carolina kid. He answers questions completely authentically. He acknowledges what he knows and acknowledges what he doesn’t know. He talks about other players in the league both from the perspective of a fan and as a former superstar player. He continues to have, to me, just a special aura around him.

I feel that’s one of the privileges of being in this job. And not just Michael but whether it’s Magic [Johnson] or Larry [Bird] or Dominique, Bill Russell, these greats are still very much a part of our game. Very few have had the opportunity to move into team ownership. Grant Hill now has. David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, there are a few others who have small interest in teams. Back to where we started in terms of this NBA family, I think one of the things that makes our league so special is our greats remain involved in this game. In some cases they may be broadcasters or team employees, but it feels like once you join this league, to the extent you’re interested, it’s something that can be part of you forever.

Jerry Reinsdorf long took the public stance that he would never host another All-Star game because the league takes over the team’s building and displaces season-ticket holders. Did you ever think the All-Star game would return to Chicago?

Jerry, even when he said wasn’t interested, always had a twinkle in his eye. I think that for Jerry it didn’t take as much persuading as he’d like the rest of the world to believe. [Bulls president and chief operating officer] Michael [Reinsdorf] was passionate about doing it. Then-Mayor Emanuel thought it was very important for the city. I think Jerry plays the role of the reluctant owner and curmudgeon here. But I think he’s hugely proud of the fact that the game is coming back to Chicago after all these years. Without ultimately the enormous accommodations that Jerry and Michael are making, it wouldn’t be happening.

 

I give huge credit to ex-Mayor Emanuel. From the moment the [2017] Charlotte game became available, he was working the phone as he does so well. He had very willing partners in the Reinsdorfs. Now, seemingly also by happenstance, Mayor Lightfoot and I were at the University of Chicago Law School and are longtime friends. We had an opportunity to get together around the NBA combine and draft lottery when it took place in Chicago last Spring, and both of us were smiling. Two students from the University of Chicago Law School to now, who knew? It’s fascinating. We were friendly in law school. Our paths haven’t crossed that often over the years. I think we both sort of followed each other’s careers. But there we were saying, 'Isn’t this great, Lori? Here we are. We’re now partnering on the All-Star game in Chicago.'

The city is world class in its ability to host big events. It’s essentially turnkey for us. Because of Wintrust Arena, the United Center campus, the cooperation of the Mayor’s office, and some of the best hotels and restaurants in the world and a passionate sporting community, everybody is looking forward to being in Chicago. I’ve talked to our teams and our business partners. They’re excited to stay multiple days. I’ve said before, it could be more aptly called All-Star week these days. And the sport is played indoors, at least in the winter.

(Editor’s note: The NBA pulled the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte because of a North Carolina law deemed discriminatory against the LGBT community. After Chicago expressed interest in hosting, the league awarded that game to New Orleans and returned the game to Charlotte in 2019 after new legislation repealed some aspects of the state’s discriminatory law.)

I know you don’t get into individual teams’ business. But when teams in two of your three largest markets are in a downturn, does that make things difficult for the league?

It doesn’t. You want all 30 teams to be competitive. But you recognize there’s a competitive cycle to every team. I would just say the league is experiencing some of its all-time highs in popularity without teams in New York and Chicago at the top of their divisions. I think this is another example of the way the world has changed dramatically since that 1988 All-Star Game I attended. I use the example of Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. I don’t even like the term small market because I think what the world generally calls small markets are more aptly described as midsized markets. But when you have a team like the Bucks and Giannis competing at the highest level, he’s rewarded by being the No. 1 vote getter in the Eastern Conference. He’s globally known. His games are available by phone essentially to any corner of the planet you happen to be living on.

 

It was very real several decades ago that the league was assisted by having high-performing teams in large markets. I think these days as a league, we’re much more focused on the competitive nature of the entire league rather than particular markets. I’m rooting for all markets to do well. But I look at where the league is now and to suggest somehow we need a good Bulls team or a good Knicks team, it’d be nice to have those teams in competitive positions. But our players recognize that the rewards come from winning and correlate much more closely to winning than market size.

I look at where the NFL is. There’s almost no correlation in the NFL between interest in the Super Bowl and the size of the market. I recognize we’re not in the same territory. But we’re moving in that direction. And I think ultimately as a league, and my job as the commissioner, is to put in place the apparatus, and that includes the economic antennas for our teams and an appropriate collective bargaining agreement that allows teams in every market to be fully competitive. And if that is the case in a 30-team league, statistically it makes it less likely that particular franchises will dominate. Especially those that happen to be in larger markets.

I think we’re in good shape as a league. But I take in the case of the Chicago Bulls, it’s still those same Reinsdorfs who ultimately are the decision-makers for the team. They are very focused on the performance of the team. And I know that in some ways, for Jerry in particular, it’s one of the reasons why something like an All-Star Game can be a bit of a distraction because he knows success for him will always be measured in terms of championships. Over time, they’ll get it right.

The league moved the draft lottery out of the New York/New Jersey area in 2018 to tie it into the draft combine. How has that experience been and do you envision a long-term fit?

We have been very pleased in Chicago. Our community comes together in Chicago for our predraft camp and combine. It made perfect sense to also conduct the draft lottery there. And that was something that Mayor Emanuel never stopped reminding me of. Things can potentially change over time. We are enjoying being in Chicago. Because of the geographic location, it’s more convenient for our teams to be in a more central location. And Chicago, for the same reasons that makes it a fantastic All-Star host, has all the accommodations you need for our teams when they come together for our combine. My anticipation is we’ll be in Chicago for a while. And the city has been terrific to work with.

 

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