Long before he ran the NBA, Adam Silver was a devoted young staff member, opening mail, writing notes, and carrying tons of glossy Bill Russell photos.
Russell, of course, was notoriously reluctant to sign autographs, preferring conversation and handshakes to scribbled signatures as a means of connecting with people. There was one picture. And Silver had the job of navigating those moments in his role as a special assistant to the Commissioner in the early 1990s.
“I was sick of it every time,” Silver recalls with a slight laugh. Russell, can I have your autograph?” And I was almost holding him back, and I would have jumped in, ‘Um, no.’
Russell always declined, sometimes brusquely. And then young Adam Silver jumped in: “But this is a picture of Mr. Russell!” Silver, now the NBA commissioner, laughs warmly at the memory.
Russell, who died on July 31 at the age of 88, was buried last week in a private ceremony in Seattle. Silver complimented. To basketball, Russell was a towering icon, the greatest winner, the greatest champion, and the strongest advocate for civil rights. For Silver, Russell was certainly all of that, but he was a close and trusted friend, confidant and mentor dating back to the early 1990s, when the two spent countless hours together traveling the country. There was also.
“He was one of the greatest storytellers of all time, so I was very green and wanted to hear him,” says Silver. “He had a huge impact on me.”
It’s common for the commissioners of each major sports league to interact with, and perhaps seek advice from, the living legends of the game at Hall of Fame ceremonies and All-Star Games. But such moments rarely breed true friendship. Or as Silver calls her bond with Russell a “special relationship” that goes beyond her work obligations.
That’s what has evolved over the past 30 years, as Silver rose from Special Assistant to Commissioner David Stern’s Chief of Staff to President and Deputy Commissioner of NBA Entertainment, to his current position in 2014. He played in the All-Star Game and Finals together and spoke frequently by phone and text.
“He was truly a part of my life. A truly unique person for the last big part of my life, the last 30 years, and in the world,” Silver, now 60, said of Russell.
Silver often sought Russell’s advice on major issues, especially when the league faced challenges beyond the court. When asked if there was a particular moment where Russell’s voice was key, Silver is quick to say “yes,” but doesn’t want to divulge any details.
“I usually consulted with Bill on important issues about the league, especially about racing,” says Silver.
Silver often referred to Russell as the Babe Ruth of the NBA, but since the NBA was relatively young for the league, this Babe Ruth roamed among modern-day descendants, offering a wealth of perspective and advice. Russell’s unrivaled success (11 championships and his five MVP awards) has made Russell one of the sport’s most revered legends. His unwavering activism in the 1960s, often in the face of extreme backlash, made him one of his most admired figures and a role model for today’s stars.
“He’s like the founder of the modern NBA,” Silver said. “And I think he’s become a part of the league’s DNA where players feel comfortable speaking out on social issues. Having a direct line to the bills across the silent dribbling crowd is what many modern players do.” I think it’s the courage of
When NFL’s Colin Kaepernick and other players were vilified for kneeling during the national anthem in protest against police brutality, Russell supported them on Twitter with a photo of himself on one knee. In August 2020, when NBA players went on a wildcat strike following the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Russell provided both support and perspective through alternative media outlets. twitter message: “In ’61, I walked out of an exhibition game like any NBA player did yesterday. I’m one of the few people who knows what it felt like to make such an important decision.”
As Silver points out, Russell attached an old newspaper clip with the headline “Russell Will Give Up Basketball For Rights.” This included a much more subtle quote from Russell.
“He recognized the value of the platform that came with being an MVP and an NBA champion player,” says Silver. “And he was realistic about it. tweeted in support of and said, “I have your back.” Again, classic Bill, he wasn’t saying it shouldn’t be played by you. ”
It’s no exaggeration to say that Silver, too, internalized these lessons through years of lengthy discussions with Russell. The Silver Executive also has a bit of a Russell element in his style. In particular, it features the collaborative approach that Silver is taking to various voters. Russell often compares players, owners and fans to a “three-legged stool” with his three legs propping up a chair, stating, “For the league, it’s about taking care of each of these elements. “It was about staying strong,” says Silver. This was a theme Russell frequently repeated as Silver prepared to be promoted to commissioner in 2014.
“Obviously, he thought his relationship with the players in the league office was very important, but it wasn’t the players above. [the league]’ says Silver. “He also recognized that without team owners there would be no league. But without the fans, there would be no league. I will give it to you.”
A diplomat famous for his executive roles, Silver admires Russell’s unwavering candor and candor (“If anything, I can get more out of it,” Silver says), never caring about the results or what people think of him. He said he admired his willingness to speak his mind openly.
Over the years, Silver has been delighted to see young players meet Russell, listen to him and soak up his experience. About his experience, about championships and personal sacrifice, forming a players association, and the challenges of being a black athlete of his time. decision to speak up.
“Bill seemed to give interested players unlimited hours to tell them what the early days of the league were like,” says Silver. “There was no bitterness. Never, never. It’s more like, ‘This was my experience. This is how I experienced the league.
Over the years, have there been any autograph requests from hopeful fans? Well, says Silver, Russell signed occasionally. It wasn’t. As Silver explains, Russell preferred true dialogue—conversation. He asked, “How are you?” Once the person responded, Russell began asking follow-up questions.
“So he was comfortable engaging with people,” says Silver. “For him, it was that nothing was as superficial as him signing a piece of paper, as opposed to a conversation with him.”
“For him, supporting his fans meant more than signing autographs,” adds Silver. “It meant professionalism. It meant how the players approached the game. I think that’s what he meant by what they owe the fans.”
Silver was thrilled when Stern named the Finals MVP trophy in Russell’s honor in 2009. If Russell wasn’t feeling well enough to watch courtside, Silver would often spend parts of the game with him in the back room of the house watching TV. “And just talking was fun,” says Silver. “He was in a good mood.”
The June tradition was mostly maintained until this year, when Russell was unable to attend the Warriors’ closeout game in Boston due to health concerns.
At last week’s funeral, Silver revealed to the gathered friends and family that Russell’s number 6 jersey would be the first league-wide retirement in the NBA. I thought,” he says.
In the years to come, Silver will continue to draw on the friendship, the wisdom and lessons Russell so generously offered, and the example he set. It’s still early days, but we’ll never run out of words when the time comes.
Russell truly lived in the moment, never rushed, he would say, and kept a firm personal focus in his conversations with passionate fans, curious young athletes and NBA executives. . This is a skill that seems increasingly important in the age of multitasking and distraction.
“At that moment, Bill was doing one thing. He was talking to you. And if I could teach my daughters that skill…” Silver says.
Ultimately, of course, he also talks about basketball, about all those banners, and how Daddy’s friend Bill became one of the all-time champions.
“Whatever my children want to do in life, it may have nothing to do with sports, or traditionally be considered a competition in which people are objectively ranked. Hmm,” Silver says. He wants to teach them a disposition to be genuinely willing and committed to what he is passionate about. And that’s the unique quality that Bill possessed. ”
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