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The NBA Transition, From David to Adam

Today’s post is courtesy of guest blogger Michael Dittelman.

Many who work in the sports industry started out in lower level, or “entry level” roles. As such, those who hold the lower level roles learn what our parents often tried to implore to us: To learn humility, you need be humiliated. For those who have worked at the NBA league offices in certain business units these past many years under the man whose name is emblazoned on the sacred orange ball – David J. Stern – have had ample opportunity to learn humility. And for good reason: David’s obviously incredibly smart, with a strong personality who governs the NBA firmly. His grip on the NBA brand, and his dedicated efforts to protect and nurture it have increased the value of franchises for owners, created entertaining content for fans to consume, and enabled thousands of employees to be a part of the NBA business infrastructure.

Within David’s regime is a culture that speaks to, and often times resembles, David’s work-place personality: There are high standards for employees, with a corporate culture and environment that is hard-driving, steel-strong in its devotion to the goals of the corporate governance at the helm. The residue of this culture often brings challenges that bear out in the “weeding out” of employees with a “weak personality,” who may find it difficult to assimilate to the environment. This is proven by the somewhat high turnover rate within certain units at the league office: Compare the average length of tenure of lower and mid-level employees within Marketing Partnership divisions (aka “sponsorship sellers”) at each of the leagues as proof of this.

Yet, this unwritten and natural progression of “weeding out” is not necessarily a bad thing. And clearly, the successes the NBA has had – on many fronts – are a testament to the culture that starts at the top of the organization, and flows down to all employees.

With the public announcement of David’s impending exit from the league, there’s been talk – and questions – of a change in culture, and a subsequent fear in some camps of doom looming around the corner, once David’s replacement Adam Silver takes office.

Anyone who’s met Adam sees immediately that Adam Silver is not David Stern. Aside from the immediate recognition of a difference in size – as Adam stands as tall as many of the NBA’s players – the personalities and “presence” within the work place of Adam and David differ greatly. Yet, this is not a bad thing… And in no way does this denigrate, nor criticize David Stern: From team owners, ranging from the steady business savvy of Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, to the outspoken tradition-challenging maverick Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, to the combined hard-core avid fan and media personalities akin to Bill Simmons (ESPN’s “Sports Guy,” and author of the tome “The Book of Basketball”) to the casual fan, each surely recognizes the value, the growth and the relevance of the NBA brought forth under David.

But, change is inevitable. The speed of change can vary, but it comes. So, with transition from David to Adam Silver the culture of the NBA will surely change: Adam’s open, warm, receptive and welcoming personality will be the main influence of such a culture change. His approach in the work place, where he’s known to gain consensus among colleagues and constituents, where he entrusts employees with relative autonomy to do their job and excel, may not differ from David. Yet, his Adam’s presence, always welcomed and invited into the room to lend guidance, advice or opinion, is always well received. Adam doesn’t engender fear from junior or mid-level employees within the NBA, as David could be known for (probably somewhat unbeknownst to him at first), simply because of who he is, how he acts, and the strength of his personality. Rather, a multitude of NBA employees look up to Adam, and respect him just as much as they do David. The difference is, they don’t fear Adam.

So where there may be a rise in “noise” reflecting a “The King is Dead” scenario from David’s coming exit, the exit shouldn’t be construed as a negative, nor should there be fear in a lapse in the NBA’s continued growth and successes: Those who have had the opportunity to be in the room with David, to sit next to him in meetings, or to hear him address employees en masse or individually, have no doubt absorbed what they could, and as fast as they could. Given that Adam Silver’s been at David’s side for a number of years, he’s seen the immediate daily, the short term and the long term challenges the league faces, and he’s taken them on directly. Adam’s used guile and smarts all his own, but has certainly culled and garnered skills from his time with David.

Above all, the league will be – and is – in very good hands with Adam Silver. He’ll provide strong direction at the helm, engaging business partners, sponsors, media, team owners, players and fans alike with his own style and comfortable nature. These varied entities, with their own agendas and needs will take heed, as Adam, with his own voice, his own style and his own resolve, having learned humility (hopefully having not been humiliated too recently) will steer the ship, navigating waters that may become choppy ahead of him from time to time, but will surely be calm in his wake. The result will be a shout from all on board the vessel of “Long Live the [New] King.”

A former NBA league office employee, Michael Dittelman has enjoyed a career focused on sports media, with leadership roles in marketing, business development and management with the likes of each Sports Illustrated, USA Today Sports Media, Sporting News, the NBA and the Harlem Globetrotters. Michael can reached via email at MikeDittelman@gmail.com