Bill Russell and Adam Silver: “A Special Relationship”


Long before leading the NBA, Adam Silver was a passionate young staffer whose duties included opening mail, writing memos and carrying large stacks of glossy photos of Bill Russell – all important, but nothing special. gratifying as the last.

Russell, of course, was notoriously reluctant to sign autographs, preferring a conversation or a handshake to a scribbled signature as a way to connect with people. But for the fan who needed something tangible, there were the glossy photos. And Silver, in his role as special assistant to the commissioner in the early 1990s, had the task of navigating those moments.

“I would back off every time,” Silver recalled with a light chuckle, “because there were a few generations of fans who didn’t know that Bill Russell didn’t sign autographs and apparently would naively say, ‘Mr. Russell, can I get your autograph? And I’d almost hold it back, and I’d jump, ‘Uh, no.'”

Invariably, sometimes abruptly, Russell refused. And then the young Adam Silver intervened: “But here is a picture of Mr. Russell! Silver, now the NBA commissioner, laughs heartily at the memory.

Russell, who died July 31 at the age of 88, was buried last week in a private ceremony in Seattle. Silver delivered a eulogy. For the basketball world, Russell was a towering icon – its greatest winner, its greatest champion, and its fiercest civil rights defender. To Silver, Russell was all that, yes, but also a close and trusted friend, confidant and sounding board, dating back to when he traveled the country in the early 1990s, when the two spent countless hours together.

“I was so green and eager to hear his stories, because he was one of the greatest storytellers of all time,” Silver says. “He had a profound influence on me.”

It’s common for commissioners from each of the major sports leagues to mingle with the living legends of their games, at Hall of Fame and All-Star Games ceremonies, and perhaps even ask for advice. But rarely do those moments engender true friendship or, as Silver calls her bond with Russell, “a special relationship” that transcends the duties of the job.

That’s what evolved over the past three decades, as Silver rose from special assistant to Commissioner David Stern’s chief of staff, to chairman of NBA Entertainment, to assistant commissioner, and finally to his current role in 2014. They shared long flights and limo rides, took in all-star games and finals together, and spoke frequently by phone or text.

“He was really a part of my life – for the last big part of my life, for the last 30 years – and just a really unique person in the world,” Silver, now 60, said of Russell.

Silver often sought Russell’s advice on major issues, particularly when the league faced challenges that went beyond the field. Silver immediately says “yes,” when asked if there were any specific times when Russell’s voice was essential, though he’d rather not divulge the details.

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“I’ll just tell you that on important matters involving the league, especially race, I would usually consult with Bill,” Silver says.

Silver often called Russell the Babe Ruth of the NBA, except that due to the relative youth of the NBA as a league, this Babe Ruth still walked among his modern-day descendants, offering a wealth of insight and advice. Russell’s unprecedented success – 11 championships and five MVP awards – has made him one of the sport’s most revered legends. His unwavering activism in the 1960s, in the face of often extreme backlash, made him one of the most admired, and a role model for, stars today.

“He’s sort of the founding father of the modern NBA,” Silver says. “And with that, I think it’s become the DNA of the league for our players to feel comfortable speaking up about societal issues. I would say a lot of courage from modern players, there’s has a direct line to Bill, against the whole crowd that was silent and dribbling.

When the 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 staged a wildcat strike following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Russell offered both support and perspective via another Twitter post“In ’61, I came out of an exhibition game much like the NBA players did yesterday. I’m one of the few people who knows what it’s like to make such an important decision.

As Silver notes, Russell attached an old newspaper clip, titled ‘Russell Would Quit Basketball For Rights’, which included a much more nuanced quote from Russell – that he would only quit if he truly believed that would have an impact.

“He recognized the value of the platform given to him by being an MVP, NBA champion player,” Silver said. “And he was realistic about it. …He ultimately decided, obviously, that he could do more with the platform the game gave him. But he tweeted this clearly in support of these players, saying: “I support you”. And again, classic Bill, he wasn’t saying that means you shouldn’t play – because he kept playing – but he was just saying, “I get it.” This is something you should all be thinking about.

It’s fair to say that Silver also internalized those lessons through his long discussions with Russell over the years. There’s also a bit of Russell to Silver’s executive style, particularly the collaborative approach Silver takes with his various constituencies. Russell often used the analogy of a “three-legged stool”, in which the players, owners and fans are the three legs supporting the seat, “and how important it was that each of these elements be taken in charge for the league. stay strong,” Silver says. It was a theme Russell repeated often as Silver prepared for his rise to commissioner in 2014.

“Obviously he thought the relationships with the players in the league office were critically important, but it wasn’t the players above [the league]says Silver. “He also recognized that without the team owners we wouldn’t have a league. But also without the fans we wouldn’t have a league. And constantly reminding me to take care of the three groups.

A famous diplomat as a leader, Silver says he admired Russell’s forthrightness and candor (“if anything, I could use more,” Silver says), a willingness to speak his mind without care about the consequences or what people think of him.

Russell's impact has reached today's NBA players, including LeBron James.

Russell’s impact has reached today’s NBA players, including LeBron James.

Over the years, Silver was thrilled to see young players meet Russell, hear his stories and soak up his experiences – about championships and personal sacrifice, about forming the players’ association, about challenges of being a black athlete in his time, on his decision to speak out.

“Bill took it upon himself, for interested players, to have seemingly unlimited time to tell them how it was at the start of the league,” Silver said. “There was never any bitterness. It was never this notion, ‘If I won the money you made today’ or ‘You have it easier than me.’ Never again. It was more, ‘That was my experience. That’s how I experienced the league.

As for those autograph requests from hopeful fans over the years? Well, said Silver, sometimes Russell signed one. But his reluctance was never a sign of disdain or indifference. As Silver explains, Russell preferred real interaction, conversation. He asked, “How are you? And when the person answered, Russell would start asking follow-up questions.

“So he was happy to engage with people,” Silver says. “It was just that for him, there was nothing more superficial than his signature on a piece of paper, as opposed to a conversation with him.”

“For him, supporting the fans meant more than signing autographs,” Silver adds. “It was synonymous with professionalism. It meant how the players approached the game. It meant the willingness of the players to play as a team, to give everything to win. That’s what I think he meant by what they owed the fans.

Silver was thrilled when, in 2009, Stern named the Finals MVP trophy in Russell’s honour, not just because of the gesture, but because it meant Russell would be in attendance every June at the Finals, another chance to reconnect with his friend. In cases where Russell was not feeling well enough to watch the court, Silver would often spend part of the match with him in a room at the back of the house, watching television. “And it was fun to tell stories,” Silver says. “He remained in good spirits.”

The Finals MVP ceremony allowed Silver to share the stage with his good friend.

The Finals MVP ceremony allowed Silver to share the stage with his good friend.

The June tradition mostly carried on until this year, when health issues prevented Russell from attending the Warriors’ closing game in Boston, although Silver claims Russell could have made it to a potential Game 7 in San Francisco, given the shorter flight from his home in Seattle.

At the funeral last week, Silver revealed to friends and family gathered that Russell’s No. 6 would be retired league-wide, a first for the NBA. “I thought this seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that, to tell his family and close friends first,” he says.

In the years to come, Silver will surely continue to draw on the friendship, the wisdom and the lessons Russell generously offered, the example he set. It’s still too early for Silver to pass on these lessons to her two daughters (ages 5 and 2), but there will be no shortage of words when the time comes.

He’ll tell them that Russell was someone who really lived in the moment, who was never in a hurry, who in the middle of that conversation – with the adoring fan or the curious young athlete or the NBA executive – was firmly focused. on personal connection, a skill that seems all the more vital in an age of multitasking and distraction.

“Bill was doing one thing at the time: he was talking to you. What if I could teach my daughters this skill…” Silver says.

Eventually, of course, he’ll also tell them about basketball, all those banners, and how dad’s friend Bill became one of the greatest champions of all time.

“For what my kids want to do with their lives, it might not have anything to do with sports, or it might not be something that you traditionally think of as a competition where people are ranked objectively. “Silver says, “but I want to teach them that quality of really being willing to give it your all for what you’re passionate about. And that’s the unique quality that Bill had.

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