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From law to the NBA: Duke alum Adam Silver reflects on career as NBA commissioner

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Trinity ‘84, spoke at the Duke Law School about his career on Sept. 29. The talk was part of a speaker series titled “Lawyers and Leaders,” presented by the law school, featuring notable figures both within and beyond the legal world. 

Silver earned a degree in political science as an undergraduate at Duke, then attended law school at the University of Chicago. Prior to his role as NBA commissioner, he worked as a litigation associate at the New York-based law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore. 

Silver always had an interest in basketball, which he said began with his father taking him to New York Knicks games. 

“I was a huge basketball fan coming out of Duke,” he said.

Being a litigator, however, was not Silver’s ideal career. 

“You’d get in a car, and you’d go to Delaware for some filing, and you’d stay up all night at the printer,” Silver said of being a junior associate. “You kind of felt like all the action’s [elsewhere].”

Silver ultimately left law and found ways to explore his interests in business. He worked as an assistant to David Stern, the NBA commissioner at the time, who had previously worked at the same law firm as his father. According to Silver, working for Stern changed his life.

“I feel like I can’t thank him enough,” Silver said.

Silver reflected on his desire to take this leap, saying that “it really stems, I think, from desire and curiosity and willingness to also take some chances.”

However, Silver doesn’t believe that his years spent as a litigator were a waste.

“What I learned in law school, I apply virtually every day in my life,” Silver said. 

Silver also discussed major decisions he has made as NBA commissioner. When he first assumed his position as commissioner, he was tasked with handling the controversy involving Donald Sterling, then-owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was caught on tape making racist remarks. In order to make the decision to ban Sterling for life from association with the Clippers or the NBA, Silver sought out the perspectives and counsel of “a diverse group of colleagues.” 

Finally, Silver discussed his vision for the future of the NBA. He hopes to expand the NBA “largely through new forms of media,” such as bringing the experience of sitting courtside to virtual reality. 

Silver also intends to expand the NBA’s international presence. Beyond expanding the NBA into Africa, Silver is also looking to expand to Europe. 

Silver reflected on how being NBA commissioner allows him to “think about things in unconventional ways,” saying that being able to discover his passion and switch careers was the “serendipity of life.” 


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