OAKLAND, Calif. — Adam Silver’s free ride from second-guessing as NBA commissioner ended Wednesday night when one of his star players made a routine play during an NBA Finals game that brought him face-to-face with a billionaire. That billionaire happened to own a piece of the opposing team and responded with vulgarity and a shove.
In more than five years on the job, Silver has managed to handle the league’s various flare-ups as if he had tanks of foam strapped to his back, all the while maintaining the respect of the players, the trust of the owners and the embrace of the fans.
By Thursday afternoon, Silver might have taken a blow torch to all of it.
The NBA’s announcement that Golden State Warriors minority owner Mark Stevens has been banned from the league for a year and fined $500,000 for yelling "Go (expletive) yourself" repeatedly at Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry while aggressively reaching over to shove him during Game 3 isn’t enough.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver explains why Warriors investor Mark Stevens was given a one-year ban instead of a life-time ban pic.twitter.com/54dxMMObCc
It’s not going to be enough for Lowry, who explicitly said Thursday that Stevens should be ejected from the Warriors ownership group. It’s not going to be enough for a number of players around the league, who rightly noted on social media that they’d end up in jail if they went to a billionaire’s office and put their hands on him. And it shouldn’t be enough for the Warriors, who have held themselves up as a model NBA organization but will come out of this series looking like clownish hypocrites if they don’t actively pressure Stevens to sell his stake in the team.
"I think more should be done," Lowry said. "He's not a good look for the ownership group that they have. And I know (majority owner) Joe Lacob. Those guys are great guys. The ownership that they have that I know, they're unbelievable guys. But a guy like that, showing his true class, and he shouldn't be a part of our league. There's just no place for that."
For the most part, Silver has earned his reputation as a decidedly pro-player commissioner. Before the suspension and fine was handed down, players from both the Raptors and Warriors talked about having trust in the league to do the right thing in this situation.
But Thursday should remind us all who Silver really works for.
Balancing the best business interests of the league and its owners with what players want isn’t always easy for a commissioner, but Silver has navigated it deftly until now, particularly compared to his predecessor David Stern and the deeply unpopular figures who run the NFL and NHL.
- PUNISHMENT: Stevens banned from games for one year, fined $500K
- LOWRY REACTION: Warriors investor "shouldn't be a part of our league"
- GOT YOUR BACK: LeBron James speaks out in support of Lowry
- WHO IS STEVENS? Forbes: Venture capitalist is worth $2.3 billion
In this situation, though, the only real issue for Silver and the 29 other ownership groups should be the image of the league. Mark Stevens may be worth $2.3 billion according to Forbes, but the value he brings to the NBA should now only be measured in toxins.
In this world, he’s just the mega-rich guy with really good seats who felt privileged enough to put his hands on a player without thinking there would be significant consequences, though you can easily envision someone with less self-control than Lowry delivering those consequences right on the spot.
And can you imagine what would have happened then?
"Any time you're in a situation where you can do no right, like in defending yourself, you're vulnerable," Warriors forward Draymond Green said. "So if a fan says whatever they want to you and then you say something back, you're fined. If Kyle was to then hit back, a lot more than a fine would have then happened to Kyle."
This isn’t happening in a vacuum. The NBA this season already had to address two high-profile incidents involving Russell Westbrook and Blake Griffin where white fans sitting close to the court lobbed racist and homophobic insults at black players, generating reactions that were caught on camera.
It is difficult for the NBA to do much more in those situations than eject the fans. But when it comes to someone who’s part of an ownership group, the NBA should have zero tolerance for any kind of inappropriate action toward a player.
"The climate we're in now, no one is afraid to really express themselves, whether it be through their beliefs, whatever that is," Warriors forward Andre Igoudala said. "There are incentives to be brave with who you truly are."
Raptors' Kyle Lowry on the Game 3 fan incident: Part I #NBAFinalspic.twitter.com/jaO7T7ulDl
Raptors' Kyle Lowry on the Game 3 fan incident: Part II #NBAFinalspic.twitter.com/rYcnrh88PL
It doesn’t take much to read between the lines there. And if the Warriors’ players believe that Stevens’ action was an expression of who he really is, they won’t be satisfied with this, either.
Ultimately, someone like Stevens owning a small percentage of the Warriors gets him little more than some courtside seats and several million in profit when he eventually sells. But the real reason a tech billionaire buys a piece of the Warriors is for the social cachet of being part of the NBA Finals, of having access to this star-studded party they put on every spring during the playoffs.
Financially, for someone of Stevens’ wealth, the $500,000 the NBA fined him is a joke. The year-long ban, while certainly embarrassing to him, will be little more than an inconvenience in 2021 when he’s welcomed back among his fellow tech tycoons with open arms.
He should have forever lost the right to reap those benefits when he inserted himself into the NBA Finals. A year-long ban just isn’t enough. Not for the Warriors, who purport to be a socially conscious organization, and not for a league that is supposed to protect its players from the creeps who come to the games thinking the ticket they hold gives them the right to do or say whatever they want.
"What I feel is a guy like that shouldn't be a part of our league. Being honest with you. That's my personal opinion," Lowry said. "We have had situations like this before and the league has done the right thing. That's protecting the players and protecting the image of the league."
Silver might have acted quickly Thursday, but he abdicated his responsibility to protect the NBA’s image and the players by not coming down harder on Stevens. Most of what Silver has accomplished so far as commissioner has been wildly popular with his constituents. As of Thursday, that may no longer be the case.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.
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