Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
UPDATE: This story has been updated to clarify Silver's communications with retired sportswriter Peter Vecsey. The communication took place via email and not text. A spokesperson for the NBA said that Silver's messages to Vecsey didn't convey that Silver initially contemplated a lighter punishment, as a previous version of this story suggested.
On April 26, Adam Silver, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, sent an email message to an old friend, the retired sportswriter Peter Vecsey.
Silver was by then faced with what must have been among the most fraught decisions of his life. A day earlier, the enormous entertainment gossip site TMZ went public with the now-infamous recording in which Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made racist remarks about African-Americans. How would the NBA -- a league where 80 percent of the players are black -- respond?
According to Vecsey, in response to a question he posed about the punishment, Silver mentioned a moderate financial punishment and made no reference to a move to strip Sterling of the team he had owned for more than three decades.
Vecsey's message asked, "'Could you tell me what is the maximum you could do? I want to tweet it,’” he told the International Business Times. At that point, Vecsey said, no one had asked how far the league could go with Sterling’s prospective punishment. He says Silver texted back: “suspension and a $1 million fine.” Vecsey tweeted Silver’s response that night.
Silver confirmed to IBTimes through an NBA spokesman that he had indeed messaged Vecsey, but the commissioner was merely confirming that his available powers included imposing a suspension of indeterminate length, and levying a fine.
On Monday, as Silver stepped up to a podium in New York to deliver his verdict, the terms were dramatic: The commissioner banished Sterling “for life,” while announcing his intent to persuade other NBA owners to force a sale of the Clippers.
The commissioner's decision to impose a lifetime ban and seek a forced sale speaks to the dramatic pressures he faced in shepherding a league that has become a global business, in an age when racist speech has become broadly anathema.
It was not only a public relations issue. Billions of dollars were at stake as horrified sponsors swiftly yanked their associations with the Clippers -- an exciting basketball team whose brand had suddenly become radioactive. Then there was the issue of possible player walkouts in the middle of the playoffs if Sterling appeared to have gotten off lightly.
According to Vecsey, who counts himself friends with Silver, it was soon obvious that a lesser punishment “would not play well with the players.”
The extent of that reality emerged on Tuesday via comments published in the Washington Post from Roger Mason Jr., the first vice president of the National Basketball Players Association. Mason told the Post that many players conveyed to the league their willingness to boycott a slate of playoff games on Tuesday night unless Silver meted out a substantial punishment.
“I heard from our players and all of our players felt like boycotting the games tonight,” Mason said. “We’re talking about all NBA players. We’re talking about the playoff games tonight.”
Games between the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards, the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Golden State Warriors and Clippers would have all been threatened.
For the NBA, that outcome was simply unthinkable -- no less than a full-scale disaster.
“I can’t imagine what would have happened if all the teams decided not to play their games last night,” PR strategist Jack Deschauer told IBTimes. “Just the television implications alone ... You know, four games getting moved in the playoffs, and this does become a billion dollar question for the NBA.”
The threatened walk-off was the culmination of rapidly escalating reactions to Sterling’s comments that began almost immediately after TMZ delivered its blockbuster, the recording of an April 9 conversation with his girlfriend, V. Stiviano, in which he admonished her for socializing with African-Americans, including the legendary Los Angeles Laker point guard Magic Johnson.
As the news took fire in social and conventional media, Silver was compelled to act quickly to contain the damage. Deschauer, who makes his living advising clients about how to handle crisis situations, said Silver’s first move was probably to get in touch with his attorneys to see what his options were, and next, to speak with the NBA players association or the owners of other NBA teams that he trusted, to gauge their support.
Silver has said that he consulted with Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson (a former player), Union president Chris Paul, rapper (and potential buyer) Rick Ross and L.A. Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
During subsequent conversations, “I’m sure he got word that a temporary suspension and a fine of $1 million just isn’t going to do it this time," Deschauer said.
Sports agent Chris Patrick -- whose firm Relativity Sports represents DeAndre Jordan, a Clippers player -- noted that the players’ mounting outrage stemmed from their perception that Sterling was racist, despite his claims to the contrary on April 26. The players were also buoyed by comments from key people, such as Magic Johnson, who the same day tweeted that he felt sorry for Clippers coach Doc Rivers for having to work under Sterling, and NBPA president Chris Paul; Kevin Johnson, who reacted by saying the controversy was a defining moment in the history of the NBA, and asked players to speak out. Later that night, Silver announced at a news conference that the NBA was investigating the matter.
That same day, Vecsey emailed Silver to ask what maximum penalty could apply in this situation. Silver replied: "Suspension and fine up to $1mm."
Vecsey followed up with another question: "Can it be longer?"
According to Vecsey, Silver didn't reply.
The next day, Deadspin posted a link to an extended version of the taped conversation; Michael Jordan released a statement, saying he was “appalled that this type of ignorance still exists within our country and at the highest levels of our sport”; LeBron James and Kobe Bryant weighed in; President Obama said that the comments were “incredibly offensive”; and Chris Paul announced that he had spoken with players about boycotting Game 4 (instead, they removed their shooting shirts with the big Clippers logo and left them at midcourt, and wore their shirts inside-out with black armbands).
The next day, the first corporate sponsor -- Carmax -- pulled out, followed by State Farm, Virgin America and Kia, all of which said that they appreciated Silver’s comments and might reconsider their association with the Clippers once the matter was fully resolved. Then, Rockets owner Leslie Alexander spoke up, as did Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the Lakers’ Jeanie Buss, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen, and Pacers owner Herb Simon. The NAACP also announced that Sterling wouldn't receive a Lifetime achievement award as had been planned.
It was against that swelling chorus that Silver’s behind-the-scenes deliberations and conversations took place. And, as Deschauer noted, the upcoming collective bargaining talks with players was also likely on his mind.
In the end, Silver opted for the maximum penalty, shifting the story to the next phase -- the jump ball for ownership of the Clippers.