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New NBA Commissioner’s First Big Move Is a Huge One

5 minute read

Adam Silver silenced critics who might have questioned whether the green NBA commissioner was capable of swift action against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling on Tuesday. Silver, who took the reins in February, imposed a lifetime ban and maximum fine for Sterling after the billionaire’s racist rant was caught on tape.

Silver has long been seen as the “good cop” to his predecessor David Stern’s “bad cop.” While Stern had a reputation as an argumentative hot-head, Silver was known for his dispassionate logic: When Stern would play the tough negotiator, Silver would do the smoothing over and hard legwork. “Adam is much more of a bridge-builder,” Danny Schayes, who played in the NBA for 18 years, told Bloomberg Businessweek when Silver was selected as the next commissioner. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban—who Stern had fined more than $1.5 million for infractions over the years—joked that Silver taking over the job would “save [him] a lot of money.”

But Silver proved on Tuesday that he’s got the guts to levy heavy fines and worse. The move is meant to pressure Sterling to sell the Clippers. (Silver said he would push owners to force the sale.)

Those who have worked with Silver in the past say that his wit, diplomacy and persuasion have gotten him to the top of the league and will allow him to continue to handle tough decisions with grace. Before working for the NBA, Silver earned degrees from Duke University and the University of Chicago Law School. He clerked for a federal judge and worked for an Oregon congressman before practicing law at Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City.

“He showed an extraordinarily mature and rare ability to bring opponents together, and actually settle cases on his own, something I’ve never known any other law clerk to do,” Judge Kimba Wood, for whom Silver clerked, told TIME. “He used low-key, deft persuasion and good-humored wit to help parties reach a compromise that often benefited both sides.”

And while pushing Sterling out of the league will surely be a challenge, Wood believes he is capable of accomplishing such a feat. “He has delightful aplomb—for example, when a woman whose case was before another judge burst into my Chambers screaming wildly late one evening, Adam headed her off at the pass, before she got to me, convincing her that I was not in fact her enemy, and politely ushering her out the door. No task was ever beyond his power to handle, both swiftly and with an elegant presence.”

Wood also spoke highly of Silver’s humor—she recalled a time when he hired an actor to pretend to be a lawyer and burst into song when she took the bench. In fact, Silver could have had a career in comedy. Richard Appel, an executive producer on Family Guy, grew close to Silver during this time while they worked together as summer law associates. When Appel decided to pursue his dream as a comedy writer, he asked Silver to come with him, but Silver declined. “Adam is the smartest and funniest person I know,” Appel told the Wall Street Journal. “But he just looked at me and said, ‘That is not what I want to do.'”

Silver began his career at the NBA in 1992 after he sent a letter to then-NBA commissioner Stern asking him for career advice, ESPN reports. After a few meetings, Stern offered him a job as a special assistant to the commissioner, and Silver accepted.

Silver later spent eight years as the president and COO of NBA Entertainment, where he launched NBA TV and acted an executive producer on the IMAX movie Michael Jordan to the Max. He then spent six years as deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the NBA and shared an office with Stern, who groomed Silver to take over the league. Silver was unanimously chosen as commissioner of the NBA in October of 2012 and took over for Stern on Feb. 1. At the time, Peter Holt, owner of the San Antonio Spurs and the now-chairman of the league’s board of governors, called the decision a “no-brainer.”

Silver’s decision Tuesday was a popular one, and in taking the harshest stance against Sterling with an unprecedented ban of an owner, Silver has already done much to earn back player trust and affection, which was strained during contract negotiations with the Players’ Association in 2012. “I think he’s going to work very hard to repair the relationship with the players,” Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer for the NBA Players Association said of Silver in October 2012.

But while Silver earned praise from commentators and players alike on Tuesday, Silver’s role more than almost anything involves dealing with paperwork. He must oversee collective bargaining agreements, international TV deals and relationships with corporate sponsors. In short, he has to manage a $5-billion behemoth. And he’s quite good at it: Just three years after being named the head of the NBA’s business, Silver grew merchandising sales 67 percent. One of the ways he made his name as Stern’s right-hand man was by establishing NBA China as its own entity.

It’s a time-consuming job, and Silver has dedicated his life to it. The bachelor lives alone in New York and reportedly has few hobbies other than jogging and walking his dog.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com