Adam Silver's first crisis of his relatively short tenure as NBA commissioner has arrived, a race-tinged scandal that has those associated with the game wondering how strong and swift the league's ultimate response will end up being.
Allegations that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments quickly overshadowed what has been widely received as the most entertaining set of first-round playoff games in league history. The recording was obtained and released by TMZ, and there still has been no official confirmation that Sterling is the man on the tape.
Silver's first priority is verifying the voice on the tape is Sterling's and if it turns out that it is, what Silver can do is unclear. He works for the owners — but he may not run into any obstacles with his employers as so far that group seems to have no sympathy for Sterling's latest controversy.
"As an owner, I'm obviously disgusted that a fellow team owner could hold such sickening and offensive views," Charlotte owner and six-time NBA champion player Michael Jordan said in a statement Sunday. "I'm confident that Adam Silver will make a full investigation and take appropriate action quickly."
Added Miami Heat owner Micky Arison: "The comments reported by TMZ were offensive, appalling and very sad."
Silver took over as commissioner on Feb. 1, replacing the retired David Stern, who once famously said that the league decided to suspend Ron Artest — now known as 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.
This matter is far more thorny, since it involves an owner, not a player.
The players union, still without an executive director since firing Billy Hunter in February 2013, is following the situation closely. The union has asked former NBA All-Star and current Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to take a leading role on the players' behalf to address the Sterling matter.
The league and the Clippers are investigating, though whatever ultimately comes down from the league office will be widely perceived as Silver's decision.
"He's got to come down hard," Hall of Fame player Magic Johnson, who was referenced on the audio recording, said Sunday on ABC. Johnson added that he does not believe Sterling should continue to own a team.
The NBA Constitution is not a publicly available document, though it has been generally understood that the commissioner's powers are broad when it comes to dealing with matters deemed "prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of basketball." Silver himself suggested Saturday night that he has an array of options regarding how to proceed.
It's certainly conceivable that Silver could fine Sterling, suspend him, maybe even demand that he enrol in sensitivity training. Still, the exact scope of whatever powers he has remain vague, especially since it's also been long perceived that the so-called "best interests" clause is largely meant for discipline involving players.
And with the Clippers set to play Game 5 of their series against Golden State at home on Tuesday night, it would seem likely that some sort of resolution comes before then. Sterling agreed to not attend the Clippers' game at Golden State on Sunday, though there has been no word about his plans for any games going forward.
"What, he's been three months on the job? And he has to deal with an issue like this," Washington's Garrett Temple said Sunday of Silver. "It's unfair to him. It's tough, but I'm assuming he's probably called Mr. Sterling, but 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."
Silver hoped his media availability on Saturday night in Memphis — where he addressed the Sterling situation — would be a positive one, with lauding the Grizzlies for success within their market among his planned talking points. The mood in Memphis was dampened by news that former Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley had died, but even that was completely overshadowed by the Sterling matter.
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 controversies in the past, but this one, particularly coming during what has been an outstanding playoffs and with his own team looking like a championship contender, has perhaps generated more outcry than the others combined. Even President Barack Obama addressed the issue Sunday at a news conference in Malaysia.
"Black, White, Latino," Johnson said, "everybody is upset at Donald Sterling right now."