|(Illustration created by Patrick Truby)|
"Come in," said the voice behind the door.
Adam Silver, deputy commissioner of the NBA, stepped inside the office. The room was lined with trophies and newspaper clippings, each signifying a long and accomplished career. Sitting in a rich, leather armchair behind a mahogany desk, with a white Persian cat resting comfortably on his lap, was the commissioner of the NBA: David Stern. The white-haired, bespectacled executive motioned Silver to take the seat in front of him, and the bald, middle-aged Silver complied.
"How are you doing?" Silver asked as he planted himself.
"I've been better," Stern said sourly.
"You needed to speak to me?"
"Yes, there are a few things we need to iron out before we make the transition final. To begin with -"
The intercom on Stern's desk buzzed loudly. Stern, shrugging tiredly, clicked a button and said, "Connie, I'm in the middle of a meeting."
"I know, Mr. Commissioner, but we need your input on the latest NBA Cares ad. It will only take a second."
"All right, let's hear it."
"Well, in the latest ad, the executives can't think of what to say."
"Oh for God's sake. Tell them... the NBA, uh, cares about our fans and is interested in... in..."
Stern looked over at Silver for help.
"Giving back to the community?" Silver offered.
"Yeah, giving back to the community," Stern said. "And building long-lasting relationships with... people... who... like us, or whatever. Please, don't put any Sacramento Kings in this ad though."
"Well, about that, we need you to choose which athlete will be speaking in it."
"Fine. Who are our choices?"
"Chris Andersen and Metta World Peace."
"Oh for fuck's sake. Isn't Stackhouse still in the league? Can't you get him to do it?"
"These are the only two players available."
"See," Stern said, looking at Silver, "see the shit I put up with everyday? Connie, tell them to go with Andersen, but let them know that if I can see a single tattoo, a single 'Free Bird,' heads are going to roll."
The intercom went silent.
"Sure seems like a lot to deal with," Silver said sheepishly.
"Now you know why I'm quitting next February," Stern said, his eyes closed, his right hand caressing the cat. "I'm making my break. I have to get out from all the wires, the loose threads. It's too much for me to untangle from the inside. But you, you're an outsider; it'll be much easier for you to maintain the status quo than it is for me. It's why you're perfect for this job."
"Thanks, I guess."
"You know, I can already map out how you're going to be received. It's clear as day. You're going to go out there, and they'll introduce you as the commissioner of the NBA. And people will say, 'Hey, it's the guy who reads names in the second half of the draft. Second-half-draft-guy is the commissioner! This is awesome.' And for a year, you'll be like Obama. People will actually cheer you when you're announced over a loudspeaker. And then... when that year is over... they'll see you as a rich, pompous, out-of-touch doofus who can be bullied by the owners into doing whatever the fuck they want. And you'll spend the next twenty years getting booed wherever you go."
"Well... I certainly hope it doesn't play out like that," Silver said. "I accepted your offer to become commissioner because I genuinely think I can be good at it -- as good as you are."
"I appreciate that," Stern said wanly. "Adam, tell me something, what did you think of that Serge Ibaka incident?"
Silver shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
"To be honest, I think I would have suspended him. A shot to the groin in the middle of a nationally-televised game? It was dirty and intentional, and I personally would've sat him down for a game, if only as to deterrent. But, that's me," he added quickly.
"Good," Stern said. "You have a reasonable sense of justice."
"I don't mean to second-guess why Ibaka wasn't suspended, mind you. I'm sure you had good reasons. If nothing else, it's ludicrous that some people think you'd didn't suspend Ibaka just so he could play against the Lakers in their next game."
"Hmm. Blake Griffin said as much. He said the L.A. game was big, and we'd want Ibaka to play in it."
"But, that doesn't make any sense," Silver chuckled. "If the league was really conspiring against teams, why would the league want the Lakers to play the Thunder at full-strength? If anything, it'd be the other way around. It'd be rigged so the Lakers would win every year. I mean, if the league was rigged so small-market teams could win, we'd be the worst masterminds of all time."
Stern tried to suppress a laugh but couldn't help himself, cackling gleefully and wiping tears from his eyes as the startled cat leaped to its feet and sprung onto the desk.
"Adam, Adam, Adam. One of the first things you'll learn is that you don't wage wars: you wage battles. You fight the small, winnable fights. You do what you have to do to protect the brand. And occasionally, that means keeping Serge Ibaka on the floor for a glitzy, important matchup on TNT."
Silver scratched at this cheek.
"I... don't follow you. You're joking, right?"
"I'm not joking," Stern said impassively. "I had a meeting with a few advisers, and we all agreed that while Ibaka's hit was indeed egregious, there was too much capital to be gained from him playing to justify suspending him."
"But... but David, you're not telling me those conspiracy theorists out there are right, are you?"
"Adam, my last request as commissioner is that you hound the living shit out of Blake Griffin the rest of his career. I want him to be unnecessarily punished at every given chance; I want players who slap him in the balls to get off without a suspension. I want to see defenders knock him to the ground and not get called for a foul."
"Trust me, Adam. You have no idea the world of good it'll do you."
Silver wiped his brow.
"I can't believe this. You called me here to tell me how the NBA is rigged?"
"It's the most important thing you need to know as the future commissioner of the NBA. The foundation of the league will be crested around your ability to manipulate the outcome of trades, games and if necessary entire playoff series."
"But... but... I don't know what to say."
"It's the truth, Adam. I know it's harsh, but it's how I've kept my job for 25 years. The NBA can't sustain itself without... intervention. Yes, that's a good word for it. Intervention."
"But it doesn't make sense. If the NBA is rigged, why are all these small-market teams able to flourish? How were the Spurs allowed to win four titles? Why were the Knicks allowed to suck for a decade? Why were the Clippers allowed to suck for two decades? It doesn't add up. If you were rigging the league, David, it'd only make sense to rig it for the teams in big markets."
"Exactly. That's the whole reason Serge Ibaka was allowed to play against the Lakers."
"So then the league is biased for small market teams?"
"Fuck no," Stern replied happily. "That's a silly question."
"Why let him play? That's simple: it's a red herring to the conspiracy theorists out there. If left to their own devices, the big market teams could easily dominate the small market teams year after after year. All the rich owners, all the best players, they're all consolidated around a select number of teams, and they're the same teams every year, and they're all in the biggest markets. That's mostly a good thing. But if we let the big teams win every year, the league would become stale, and people might start to realize that we're only invested in the big teams winning. So, every so often, it becomes necessary to let a small market team have its way. We let the Spurs win a few titles, we let the Knicks struggle. We do it to fuck with people who might otherwise catch on that we're mostly rigging it for the big teams. Letting Ibaka play against the Lakers was smart because it won't appear predestined when the Lakers beat the Thunder the next time they play."
"So, by that logic, that means the Chris Paul veto was also rigged."
"Ah, yes, that was my masterstroke." Stern said fondly. "Just thinking about it makes me tingle. I, controlling the Hornets, ordered the team to ship its franchise player to a team in the second-biggest market in the country, fully legitimizing the L.A. Clippers, and no one cared because I vetoed a separate trade that would've sent him to the Lakers. I actually got people to think the league was against the L.A. Lakers; do you know how hard that is to do? In one fell swoop, I bought enough collateral for the Lakers to become another dynasty without people thinking we actually wanted it."
"Why veto the Lakers trade if you want them to become a dynasty?"
"It was too much. There's a flow to these things, Adam, an order. An NBA team is supposed to win two, maybe three titles at the most. And then they fade away for the sake of parity. That Chris Paul trade was going to make the Lakers too good; they would've won too many titles. So we reeled it back. And of course, to make it palatable for Hornets fans, we rigged the next draft so they got Anthony Davis -- the same way we rigged it for the Cavaliers to get Kyrie Irving a year after LeBron left. Perception is about giving and taking -- sometimes you have to tip the scale to make it seem like the playing field is actually fair."
"Like letting Serge Ibaka play against the Lakers?"
"Exactly. It's a distraction. And if you'll allow me to rewind the conversation, that's why you need to put a fatwa on Blake Griffin. You need to create the perception to the morons on internet message boards, and Facebook, and the crazy loudmouths on ESPN that the league is against Blake Griffin. And you should do this because when the Clippers inevitably win a title, and it'll happen at some point on your watch, people will be less inclined to think we gifted them a championship -- even though we absolutely did."
"This is a lot to digest," Silver said.
"I know it is. That's why I'm telling you now. You have 11 months to learn everything I can teach, and I know you can do it, Adam. You're perfect this."
"But David, I can't do what you do. I'm not a compulsive liar; I couldn't look at myself in the mirror if I had to sully the sport on a day-to-day basis like that."
"Having seconds thought?"
"Well, yes, to be honest," Silver said indignantly. "The job you that you're describing doesn't have much appeal to me. If that's what being commissioner is, then I'm not interested. But I don't have to do it your way; I could legitimately just sit from the sidelines and watch these teams play each other, without interfering."
"You could," Stern mused. "And you might get lucky. The Heat may win another title, or maybe Chicago will win or Los Angeles. But one day, you'd wake up in a cold sweat because the Toronto Raptors would be facing the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA Finals, and you'd realize right then and there that you'd made the biggest mistake of your life.
"Adam, I called you in here because I knew this would be your reaction. I knew you would need some time to process all this -- and I'm going to give you 11 months worth of time. But what I've told you isn't a maxim or helpful advice: it's the way things have to be for the league to be successful. The NBA was insignificant before I took over, and it'll become insignificant all over again unless you do exactly what I've done all these years."
"And what if don't want to do it your way?" Silver asked him. "What if I don't want to rig the league?"
"It's not about wanting or not wanting, liking or not liking. A garbageman doesn't want to pick up garbage everyday. He doesn't like picking up garbage. But he does it because it's his job, and tricking the media, cheating drafts, fixing games, fucking with the fans -- these are all things that come with the territory. Take some time to really observe the league -- take a good hard look at how things really are, then come back in five months and tell me if you still want to play it straight. Because I already know what your answer will be."
Stern, smiling, offered Silver a hand. The bald man extended a limp appendage that was shaken vigorously and earnestly by the acting commissioner.
Silver was slow to leave the room. He got from his chair lethargically and kept taking half-glances at all the trophies and newspaper clippings as he made his way towards the exit. When he reached the door, the intercom buzzed, and rather than putting her on speakerphone, Stern answered his secretary with the receiver to his ear.
"Sure, let me hear the final version," Silver heard Stern say right before he shut the door. "'The NBA cares deeply about its fans and will continue to be as transparent and honest as the public demands us to be.' I love it. No, Connie, don't change a thing. That's perfect. That's fucking perfect."