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Salary cap, betting, scheduling on second-year commissioner's radar

COURTESY OF NBA - Making changes in the NBA schedule is one of the major topics new commissioner Adam Silver is looking at as he moves into his second year at the top.Adam Silver’s impact on the NBA in his first year as commissioner has been exponential.

His quick, precise handling of the Donald Sterling controversy brought him immediate attention and affirmation nationwide and gave the league an even greater credibility among its followers.

In December, Silver topped the SportsBusiness Journal’s list of the 50 most influential people in sports business, ranking ahead of ESPN’s John Skipper, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, former Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. SportsBusiness Journal is not alone in such appraisal. Many believe Silver to be the best commissioner in all of professional sports.

Silver, who turns 53 in April, is a suburban New York City native who received his bachelor’s degree at Duke and law degree at the University of Chicago Law School. He began working for the NBA in 1992, first moving up the ladder to the presidency of the NBA Entertainment division, then serving eight years as deputy commissioner and chief operating officer under David Stern.

On Friday, Silver called in from his New York office for a question-and-answer session with the Portland Tribune.

Tribune: You observed your first anniversary as commissioner on Feb. 1. How has the experience been for you so far?

Silver: What’s the best way to put it — chock full? It’s been exciting. The first year went by incredibly quickly. It has been fulfilling and challenging at the same time.

Tribune: Before we deal with issues regarding the NBA, I’d like to ask about your background as an athlete. How good a basketball player were you growing up in suburban New York? Were you on your high school varsity team?

Silver: I was not. I was a very mediocre basketball player. I didn’t hit my growth spurt until my senior year of high school. I was 5-9 — I’m 6-3 now. If I had grown a little earlier, maybe I’d have pursued basketball harder. I was a runner. I participated in cross country and ran the middle distances in track. But I enjoyed basketball and played a lot of the game in people’s driveways.

Tribune: You arrived at Duke in 1980 and were there for the first four years of the Mike Krzyzewski era. How involved were you as a Duke basketball follower as an undergrad?

Silver: I was an enthusiastic fan. I never had to sleep outside Cameron Indoor Stadium, though, to get a ticket. The team wasn’t very good in those years. One of the great benefits, if you loved basketball, was they reserved the best seats for students. My dorm was a short walk from Cameron. If it was a 3 p.m. game, you walked down there at a quarter to 3 and got a seat. I saw some incredible ACC basketball while I was there. Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins were at North Carolina. Ralph Sampson was at Virginia. Growing up, I was mainly an NBA fan. I became a huge lover of college basketball while I was at Duke.

Tribune: You once worked as a legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin from Oregon in 1984-85.

Silver: The summer after my junior year at Duke, I received an LBJ fellowship to work for Congress. I was assigned to Les AuCoin and worked for him for the summer. I ended up leaving Duke a semester early to work for him full-time as a legislative assistant. I spent a little more than a year with him in Washington, helping with such things as agriculture issues in the early days of Oregon wineries, with salmon hatchery and Native American issues, and also covered health care for him. Les and I are close to this day. We were just emailing back and forth yesterday.

Tribune: Are you aware the NBA All-Star Game was awarded to Portland in the 1980s, only to have it taken back by a policy change — moving toward bigger markets? Then when the policy was reversed again, the city was skipped.

Silver: I was not aware of that. I’ve not heard that story. There’s no policy in place now regarding size of markets.

Tribune: The Trail Blazers initially submitted a bid to host the 2017 or ‘18 All-Star Game. Because of an impending Convention Center hotel project that has gained approval for funding by Metro, the club has pushed that back, with hopes of landing the game in 2019 or ‘20. Even without a headquarters hotel, though, there are dozens of top-quality hotels and thousands of hotel rooms within short drives and on the MAX line to the Moda Center. What are Portland’s chances of gaining a bid in the near future, given that Portland is one of five current franchise cities (also Toronto, Sacramento, Memphis and Oklahoma City) to have never hosted?

Silver: We’re not against trying to cull together lots of rooms from top-notch smaller hotels to stretch to make it work in Portland. We want the All-Star Game to be hosted by cities where we’ve never been before.

Tribune: You received a tremendous amount of positive publicity and attention for your swift decision regarding Donald Sterling. Does it surprise you that you got virtually universal support on the issue? And have you had any second thoughts at all about your decision?

Silver: It did surprise me initially how much attention the league and I received for the Sterling affair. No, I have not had any second thoughts about what we did.

Tribune: The Western Conference has been stronger than the East for many years, and you have talked about the possibility of eliminating divisions or conference affiliation when seeding for playoffs. How would that work?

Silver: It’s something we’re in the early stages of looking at. There are teams, fans, media on both sides of the issues. There’s an acknowledgement by everyone that there is no perfect solution. Frankly, it’s not just a playoff issue, it’s also a health issue for the players. What happens when Portland plays Miami in the first round? If you seed teams from one to 16 based on record, we would no longer play an unbalanced schedule. It would require a wholesale change in the schedule, which potentially would require more travel. That works against trying to provide maximum rest for our players over a long season. It’s a complex issue. I’m open-minded at taking a fresh look at it. We’re beginning that process now. If there were an obvious solution, David would have implemented it years ago.

Tribune: The schedule was changed this year to provide a longer break around All-Star weekend in deference to players’ health. You have talked about lengthening the schedule to cut down on back-to-back games or four games in five nights. Are those things feasible?

Silver: If we were to reduce the number of preseason games, it would make sense to start the season a little earlier and potentially go a little bit later with the regular season. Some owners have asked us to look into moving back the Finals and playing into July. That’s something we need to talk about with our TV partners. I’m not sure it makes sense, but we’re willing to look at it. (The longer All-Star break) allows us to make a dramatic impact on the number of times teams must play four games in five nights. We’re going to take a closer look at the distance teams are traveling to get to games, how far they’re flying, how many time zones they’re crossing and so on.

Tribune: The league recently made the decision to release supervisor assessments of late-game calls and noncalls by referees in close games. Why?

Silver: To increase transparency. We have the best officials in the world, but they do make mistakes. We want to be forthcoming with our fans and with the media and with our teams. It will show fans the vast majority of calls are right, and we think, ultimately, the officials will improve based on making sure everyone is seeing precisely which calls are right and which are wrong.

Tribune: If a late call is determined to be wrong that affected the outcome of the game, what can be done about it?

Silver: There are provisions in our constitution for challenges of games, but they’re only based on misapplication of rules, not on judgment of calls. (In the latter case), just like a player who misses a shot, there’s generally nothing that can be done. Even so, over time with transparency, the hope is our officials will be getting better because of this. That’s the best we can hope for.

Tribune: You support the idea of sports betting on the NBA. Are you at all concerned that criminal elements could lead to point shaving or throwing games or things of that nature?

Silver: I’m always concerned about that. Making it legal with transparency and making it a regulated industry will decrease the likelihood of a scandal involving betting on our games, and allow us and the government to monitor betting as it’s done in Las Vegas in a way we can’t right now, when it’s almost exclusively underground.

Tribune: You’d like to raise the minimum player age from 19 to 20. The union says it wants the age moved back to 18. What do you foresee happening when the next CBA is negotiated in 2017?

Silver: It’s too early to say. I’ve made my position clear for some time. There is new leadership in the union. I’m reading what it is they’ve been saying about the issue. When we sit down at the table to negotiate, it’ll be on the agenda.

Tribune: As an attorney, you’re the perfect person to ask this question: What prevents an athlete from filing suit, charging that the NFL or NBA hinders the right to make a living by setting an age limit?

Silver: There are age limits in baseball and hockey, too; they’re just set at (lower) ages. The legal response is because those age limits are collectively bargained, they are protected. People often ask why the NBA doesn’t raise its limit to 20. We don’t have the unilateral right to lower it or raise it. The 19-year-old limit is the result of the last CBA.

Tribune: Is there an inevitability of having ads on jerseys? When will it happen?

Silver: During the slam dunk competition on Saturday night of All-Star Weekend, all the contestants were wearing a Sprite logo on their jersey. It was fascinating to me it got almost no attention. That goes to show that, while I understand what the notion of NASCAR-like uniform conjures in fans, there is a tasteful way to have relatively small branding added to the jerseys that would provide additional value to our sponsors and the league.

Tribune: You have proposed a harder salary cap. Why is that necessary?

Silver: We proposed it during the last CBA round because we think it creates more parity around the league. No doubt, there’s a correlation between payroll and success on the floor. For us, the ultimate goal is to have a 30-team league in which teams win championships based on management and not on the the size of their market or the owner’s willingness to lose money in order to win. We look at the NFL system with a hard cap; they have the best parity in all sports, and an “Any Given Sunday” notion. Granted, we’re a very different sport, because a superstar player who plays virtually the entire game can have a far greater impact on a game than in the NFL. But with a harder cap, we can create more parity throughout the league. We’ve done that to an extent with provisions put into place in the new CBA, with a higher luxury tax and additional limitations on which players you can sign.

Tribune: Do you like the game the way it is? Is there anything else you think that needs to be changed, such as raising of the basket to 11 feet, or widening the court?

Silver: I love the game the way it is right now.

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