Adam Silver's first crisis of his short tenure as NBA commissioner has arrived, a race-tinged scandal leaving those associated with the game wondering how strongly and swiftly the league will respond.
Allegations that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments rapidly overshadowed perhaps the most entertaining opening playoff round in league history. The recording was first released by TMZ, and there still has been no official confirmation that Sterling is on the tape. Another tape was released Sunday by Deadspin.
Silver's first priority is verifying Sterling's voice is in the recording. From there, Silver's next move remains unclear. He works for the owners - and so far that group seems to have no sympathy for Sterling's latest controversy.
"I'm obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views," said Michael Jordan, the six-time NBA champion player who owns the Charlotte Bobcats. "I'm confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly."
Miami owner Micky Arison called the comments "offensive, appalling and very sad."
Silver started as commissioner Feb. 1, replacing the retired David Stern, who once famously said that the league decided to suspend Ron Artest - now Metta World Peace - for virtually an entire season by a vote that was "unanimous." By that, he meant the vote was 1-0, his being the lone voice that mattered.
On this, Silver probably needs more of a consensus.
The players union, still without an executive director since firing Billy Hunter in February 2013, asked former NBA All-Star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to take a leading role on the players' behalf.
Kevin Johnson said he called an emergency phone meeting of every player representative to the union Saturday and spoke with Silver before the Warriors-Clippers game Sunday. Calling it a "defining moment" for the league and commissioner, Johnson said the players trust Silver will accommodate their requests, which include:
Sterling doesn't attend any NBA games for the rest of the playoffs because of the "enormous distraction."
Give a full account of past allegations of discrimination by Sterling and why the league never sanctioned him.
Explain the range of penalties that the league could bring against Sterling.
Assurance the NBA and the union will be partners in the investigation.
A decisive ruling, hopefully before the Clippers host the Warriors for Game 5 on Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
"They trust that Adam Silver will do the right thing," Johnson said.
The league and the Clippers are investigating, though ultimately the decision will be perceived as Silver's.
"He's got to come down hard," Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson, who was referenced on the audio recording, said Sunday on ABC.
The NBA Constitution is not public, though it's understood the commissioner's powers are broad when it comes to dealing with matters deemed "prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball." A fine, a suspension, a demand for sensitivity training, all that and more is surely at Silver's disposal.
It seems probable some sort of resolution comes before Game 5 of the series in Los Angeles.
"We're going home now," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after Sunday's 118-97 loss. "Usually that would mean we're going to our safe haven. And I don't even know if that's true, to be honest."
Sterling agreed to not attend Sunday's game, though his wife - who has filed suit against the woman alleged to be on the tape - was present. There could be more audio coming; a person in the office of attorney Mac E. Nehoray, who represents the woman allegedly on the tape, said the full recording lasts about an hour. The attorney's office also insists that the recording is legitimate and that Sterling is the man on the tape.
Some players feel for the magnitude of the task Silver is facing.
"What, he's been three months on the job? And he has to deal with an issue like this," Washington's Garrett Temple said of Silver. "It's unfair to him. ... It's going to be a difficult situation for him to take care of, and he's probably going to act swiftly as he said. And he needs to do so. It's a very tough issue. A lot of different sides. But it's more than basketball."
The situation has elicited some incredibly sharp comments from players, with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant making no effort to hide their disgust.
"I couldn't play for him," Bryant wrote on Twitter.
Added former Clippers guard Baron Davis, also in a tweet: "Been going on for a long time."
Sterling has been the subject of many past controversies but this, particularly at playoff time and with his own team a potential title contender, has perhaps generated more outcry than the others combined. Even President Barack Obama addressed the issue Sunday at a news conference in Malaysia.
The next move will be made by Silver.
"The commissioner," Indiana's Paul George said, "is going to make the right call."
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