‘Their Duke experience is just beginning’: NBA Commissioner, commencement speaker Adam Silver recalls time at Duke

<p>NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Trinity '84, at a Sept. 29, 2022 talk at the Duke Law School.</p>

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, Trinity '84, at a Sept. 29, 2022 talk at the Duke Law School.

National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver, Trinity ‘84, will deliver the commencement address for the Class of 2023. 

Once people heard the news, Silver said that they were excited. 

“When people found out I was going to be the commencement speaker at Duke, [what they said] was along the lines of, ‘Wow, what a fantastic honor.’ Pause. ‘I can’t remember who my graduation speaker was.’” Silver said in an interview with The Chronicle.

But Silver, unlike those who congratulated him, does remember who the speaker was at his graduation — and for him, it was most impactful. 

The commencement speaker for the Class of 1984 was Katharine Graham, chairwoman of the Washington Post Company. Graham had led the Post as publisher during the infamous Watergate scandal, which ended in the resignation of former President Richard Nixon, Law School ‘37. Silver described the event as a generational marker.

“Not only was I a political science major,” Silver recalled. “I had already moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Congress at the time of my graduation, so Katharine Graham was a particularly meaningful person to me. And while I can’t remember her precise speech, I remember her speaking about the importance of an independent and free media for our democracy.”

Now, nearly forty years later, Silver will take the stage at graduation. President Vincent Price announced Silver as this year's speaker in a video at a men’s basketball game against N.C. State in February. The NBA Commissioner will address the Class of 2023 at their commencement ceremony May 14 at Wallace Wade Stadium.

‘All of three seconds’ 

Silver learned the news during a call with Price in the fall of last year. When Price said the purpose of the call was to gauge his interest in being the commencement speaker, Silver took “all of three seconds” to say yes. 

When asked what he planned to discuss in his commencement address, Silver was reluctant to say, stating that he doesn’t want to “give anything away.” However, he did provide a preview to some ideas he wanted to cover. 

“One of the things I would like to focus on is not just the importance of [the graduates’] Duke education, but the role of Durham in shaping their perspective of the country and of the world.” Silver said. “For me, going down to Durham for school from New York, where I grew up, … exposed me to a region of the country I had never lived in before and helped form my perspective on the country which has remained with me to this day.”

The path to the NBA

Silver came to Duke as an undergraduate student in 1980. While at Duke, Silver served as a legislator for the Associated Students of Duke University, the student government at the time. After earning a degree in political science, he attended law school at the University of Chicago. Silver worked as a litigation associate at Cravanth, Swaine & Morre, a New York-based law firm, and clerked for a federal district court judge in New York City before joining the NBA under then-commissioner David Stern.

“I feel like I can’t thank him enough,” Silver said of Stern at a Duke Law event in October 2022. Stern, who had previously worked at the same law firm as Silver’s father, opened a door that combined two of his interests — business and basketball. He would go on to serve as the NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer.

In 2014, Silver was elected NBA commissioner by the NBA Board of Governors. Since then, he has been named SportsBusiness Journal’s Executive of the Decade and ranked No. 1 on its annual list of the 50 Most Influential People in Sports Business.

Silver was appointed to the University’s Board of Trustees in 2015 and currently serves as vice chair and a member of its Executive Committee. He received Duke’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2015.

Silver also serves on the Board of Trustees for the Rockefeller Foundation and the Paley Center for Media and is Vice Chairman of the Board of the Lustgarten Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Business Council.

As commissioner, Silver has led “the negotiation of three collective bargaining agreements with the National Basketball Players Association; the development of the WNBA, NBA G League, NBA 2K League and the Basketball Africa League; the partnership with Turner Broadcasting to manage the NBA’s digital assets; and the creation of NBA China and NBA Africa,” according to the NBA website. Silver is now in the midst of a busy playoff season.

“It has been, it's the most exciting time of the year for the league,” Silver said. “I do a lot more traveling around the playoffs around the country to games, and so that adds to the busyness — no question about it. But I’ve been to a lot of really good games.”

‘An experience that stays with you’

Price said in a March press release that he is “thrilled” that Silver will be this year’s commencement speaker.

“Adam is not only a visionary global leader in sports and business; he is also a committed Blue Devil who loves and continues to serve the Duke University community — including as a member of the Board of Trustees and adviser to me.” Price said. “I am certain that he will inspire our graduates and their families and offer the Class of 2023 a fittingly triumphant sendoff.”

This graduating class is particularly important to Silver, by an unlikely coincidence. His Duke roommate’s son is part of the Class of 2023. 

“We both said to each other multiple times when I called him and told him I was going to be the graduation speaker for the class his son is graduating in — what were the chances that could have happened from when we first met?” Silver said. “Some of my very best friends in the world today are my classmates that I met many years ago when I came to Duke.”

“The fact is that their Duke experience is just beginning — it’s not ending by virtue of their graduation,” he added. “It’s really an experience that stays with you for your whole life, whether it's through the friends that you meet when you are at Duke, your relationships that you have with your professors or ongoing involvement directly with the University.”

Senou Kounouho profile
Senou Kounouho | University News Editor

Senou Kounouho is a Pratt sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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