With the first half of the NBA season wrapped up, it might seem a good time for commissioner Adam Silver to exhale.
It has been nearly a year, just four days short of an anniversary since Silver led the NBA — along with much of the rest of the sports world — to shut down as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in the nation.
Silver also led a return to action with a bubble-like campus to complete the 2019-20 season and then brought the league through a half-season in 2020-21, navigating through 31 postponed games and embarrassing nights in which teams could not field anything close to a representative team. But they got there, and his glass-half-full take was that 95% of the games were completed.
But in his state of the league news conference from Atlanta, where the All-Star Game will be staged Sunday night, Silver still had to explain just why he and 24 players were there.
The efforts to resume the season, the careful protocols that have gotten them this far and the empty arenas that have hosted many of the games all made sense. Rushing players to Atlanta for this game still seems a little unseemly.
"It’s sort of what we do," Silver said. "For me, it would have been a bigger deal not to have it. I mean, especially since we know how to operate a bubble and we have we’ll call it our mini-bubble here in Atlanta, from the moment the players land to when they leave, they’re only going to be operating between the hotel and the arena.
"Once we got to the point where we felt we could do it safely, we felt we definitely should go forward. We should do it for our fans and for our business."
Silver went through a litany of reasons, saying that there were economic considerations — reportedly worth $30 million to $60 million for a league that is taking a financial hit this season, with fans kept out for the most part.
He pushed hard on the efforts to honor Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including a donation of at least $3 million to them, naming the six schools in the Atlanta area.
(Of course, you may remember Atlanta in NBA pandemic terms as the city where Lou Williams picked up lemon pepper wings from a gentlemen’s club, nearly spoiling the bubble restart to last season.)
While the players and staff are tightly restricted in just how much enjoyment they can have this weekend — they’re required to arrive by 7 p.m. Saturday and are limited to their hotel and the arena — Atlanta hasn’t exactly maintained the low profile the league would like. While the NBA said there would be none of the parties and activities that usually accompany the weekend, the local businesses didn’t exactly comply, advertising all sorts of parties.
According to a New York Times report, the NBA sent out approximately 200 letters with cease-and-desist orders to party promoters in the area that were using the All-Star logo and event name. But they couldn’t stop the local politicians with the Brookhaven City Council voting to extend pouring hours for local bars and restaurants to 4 a.m. on All-Star Weekend (2:55 a.m. Saturday but 4 a.m. on March 4, 5 and 7).
"There was not pressure certainly from the teams," Silver said. "In fact, teams end up being largely on the side of players. It’s a bit lonely as the commissioner. To the extent their players are saying we’d rather not play, often the teams reflect those same sentiments.
"It’s my job to look out for the overall interest of the league. As I said earlier, I haven’t made it a secret out of the fact that economic interests are a factor.
"I’ll add, though, to me, when I say ‘economic interests are a factor,’ it’s less to do with the economics of one Sunday night on TNT in the United States. It has more to do with the larger brand value of the NBA. The fact this is our number one fan engagement event of the year. Because we went forward with All-Star, not only did roughly 100 million people vote for the All-Stars on a global basis, but based on past ratings, well over 100 million people will watch the game and the ancillary competitions. We’ll have over a billion social media views and engagements."
It hasn’t just been outside forces wondering about this, though. Some of the game’s biggest stars questioned this decision, including LeBron James.
"I know that some players have made public comments of course suggesting they’d rather not be at All-Star," Silver acknowledged. "I’m almost 30 years in the league. Many have told me directly they’re thrilled to be All-Stars. They recognize their careers are relatively short. For several of them, there’s several first-time All-Stars here, there’s many who only had been an All-Star a couple times. Even for them to be able to gather here, even over a short period of time, is truly meaningful.
"So maybe it should be judged when people are looking back as to what this meant to them as opposed to what some of the official reactions were from the players."
It’s understandable that the NBA needs to make money after last season and this one. But it’s also hard to understand in the midst of all these efforts to get back to normal that for an exhibition game, the league is gathering its best players in one place — a place where fans have screamed at players from courtside, where bars are welcoming customers and where what some players consider the best wings are served.
Normalcy for next year?
After the shutdown last year threw the schedule into disarray for this season — eliminating summer league and a December start — Silver said he is optimistic that the league can get back on a normal schedule next season.
"The plan remains to try to resume our season as close to so-called normal as possible next year," he said. "It was one of the reasons why, in setting the schedule this year, we decided to stop in mid-July. We both wanted to allow those players who wanted to participate in the Olympics to do so, but in addition, we realized if we were going to get back on cycle, and the players were going to get the appropriate down time before the season began, we didn’t want to go deep into the summer or fall, as we did last season.
"Frankly, I’m fairly optimistic at this point that we will be able to start on time and that roughly half of our teams have fans in their arenas right now. If vaccines continue on the pace they are and they continue to be as effective as they have been against the virus and its variants, we’re hopeful that we’ll have relatively full arenas next season as well."