National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver reflected on how attending Duke positions graduates to take on social issues during his Commencement address to the Class of 2023.
President Vincent Price introduced Silver, Trinity ‘84, as “rounding out our starting five” after the four honorary degree recipients were conferred their degrees. Price used basketball references to describe Silver, calling him a “power forward thinker” and a “point guard for integrity.”
Silver was appointed to the University’s Board of Trustees in 2015 and currently serves as its vice chair. He joined the NBA in 1992 and was unanimously elected as its commissioner in 2014.
Silver began by saying that he was going to tell a story — and because Commencement was in North Carolina and because he was the NBA commissioner, that story was going to be about basketball.
“Imagine somewhere today, down 15-501 and all across the state. There's a gym or a playground with a game going on,” Silver said. “Maybe it's a regular game among friends and acquaintances. Maybe it's a pickup game among strangers or something more organized.”
Basketball is in many ways “as normal as can be,” Silver added.
“It can be fun and joyful, but also sometimes pretty chaotic and messy. In other words, basketball is life. You play to exercise. You play to compete and win. Even if you come up short, you do your best, or at least you tried to.”
But even if it is as simple as many aspects of life, basketball games have the power to send powerful messages.
The story that Silver told was of the Secret Game, a 1944 game between an all-white team of medical students from Duke and an all-Black team from North Carolina College for Negroes, now known as North Carolina Central University.
“Now, imagine a different Sunday morning in Durham in the spring of 1944. World War II. Jim Crow. Ten years before Brown v. Board of Education desegregated North Carolina public schools. Sixteen years before Dr. King inspired citizens in Greensboro and 19 years before Duke admitted its first Black students,” Silver described.
NCC was a basketball powerhouse at the time, Silver said. The Eagles were led by head coach John McClendon, who studied basketball under its founder James Naismith at the University of Kansas, and was a coaching legend and innovator of the game in his own right. In 1944, however, the NCAA tournament was segregated. Though NCC won its conference championship, it was not invited to participate.
The group of Duke medical students, many of whom had been All-Americans during their undergraduate years at other schools, realized this. Wanting to play the best competition they could, they reached out to NCC to set up a game, at a time when “participating in that game could mean going to jail or worse,” Silver said. The game happened behind closed doors and in secret. It was the first integrated game to be played in the segregated South, and historians say that it sparked a new era of basketball.
“The secret game happened because those players, young people your age, challenged convention and took a calculated risk to do what they thought was right,” Silver said.
Silver enrolled at Duke nearly 40 years later.
“Much had changed. But the complex history of the South continued to weigh as heavily as it does today on American culture and politics,” Silver said. “Like many of you, my first exposure to North Carolina was when I came here as a freshman.”
He said that one of his most meaningful experiences was taking a seminar class with the late John Hope Franklin, who was James B. Duke professor of history.
“Professor Franklin was one of the Duke professors who were a powerful influence on me. And I still have my notes from his seminar and one of his books that he signed in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture,” Silver said.
“There's a quote from Dr. Franklin, inscribed on a wall, that I think is very appropriate for today. It reads ‘Whatever you do, it must be done in the spirit of your goodwill, and mutual respect and even love. How else can we overcome the past and be worthy of our forebears and face the future with confidence and with hope?’”
Silver said that as he looks back, his Duke experience taught him how to “face the future with confidence and hope,” as Franklin said. It is a theme that Silver hopes the Class of 2023 will carry forward in their own lives, as he does now and as the Duke medical students did at the time of the Secret Game.
Six years after the Secret Game was played, the NBA signed its first Black player. But contentious and controversial issues within sports, particularly surrounding race and gender, haven’t gone away, Silver said.
“My job is to ensure the league stays true to its founding principles and enduring legacy and provide space for debate and dialogue,” Silver said. “Not everyone agrees on everything. It's messy. It's nuanced. It's not always black and white, but requires building relationships, finding compromise, forging consensus.”
Silver pointed to the Secret Game as just one example of how Duke and its students can play a large part in influencing society in the United States. He added that graduates are “better prepared than any prior generation” to do so.
“For me, basketball is life. For you, it might be something different, but I sincerely believe that Duke, in part because of its unique history and location, will play an outsized role in shaping the future of our culture and society, as it did on that Sunday in 1944,” Silver said. “And all of you graduates, educated here, are uniquely positioned to lead us forward.”
Silver left graduates with a final piece of advice — to treat their Duke experience as only just beginning.
“One of the best parts of my job is not just shaking the hands of Duke basketball players at the draft. It's meeting Duke graduates all around the world who are doing amazing things. This university will help open up such incredible doors for you throughout your life,” Silver said.
“So I encourage you to take advantage of all those opportunities. Because it's not a secret. You are forever Duke. Face the future with confidence and with hope.”
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Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity junior and news editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.