Adam Silver on the Hawks’ popularity, Trae Young and ‘next generation’

With NBA commissioner Adam Silver attending the Hawks’ Game 3 matchup against the 76ers in Atlanta on Friday, Silver caught up with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to discuss the direction of the franchise and the league’s return to (somewhat) normalcy in the playoffs.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity:

What has it been like to watch this return to normalcy, with packed arenas again (outside of a few fans causing issues)?

It’s been a fantastic experience. For me, I think, both to see our arenas returning to close to full capacity but also maybe in a symbolic way, what it means for the country that lots of people in other industries have said to me that when we shut down in March of 2020, that sent a signal to the rest of the country on how serious this coronavirus was. In the same way, when people in other industries saw people back in our arenas, that to them signaled that it was time to get back to business as usual. So I think it brought a huge lift to our league, but I think it transcended sport, and really was a greater signifier for our economy and our country that we were clearly back on a path to normalcy.

Atlanta at State Farm Arena started hosting small portions of fans pretty early and went to full capacity pretty early. Did the Hawks do anything in particular to get the green light, or is that a function of state guidelines?

I go back to the MLK Day game in State Farm, when the Hawks had approximately 10% capacity, which was around 1,700 fans. From getting to those 1,700 fans to the approximately 16,000 they’ll have (Friday) in large part was led by (principal owner) Tony Ressler and (CEO) Steve Koonin’s drive to, working within the appropriate local guidelines, get back to significant capacity as soon as possible. I think that was, in the early days, in a very responsible way, both Tony and Steve said they saw an opportunity to be a leader among teams in the league, demonstrating that as the vaccine became more widely distributed that, in the same way I talk about the larger symbolism for the country, they saw an opportunity for the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia to demonstrate that there was a responsible way to return to business.

So I think while they worked hand-in-hand with local officials and of course followed the guidelines, it required sort of a commitment by them to, and which we’ve seen, to get from that 1,700 to 16,000. And I think it was determination along with ingenuity. … (When the Hawks hosted the All-Star game), they stepped up and said, when Indiana was unable to host the All-Star game, that we’ll figure out a way to do this in our community and recognize that it’ll be with limited fans.

But I thought, even at the time, there was, to me … it was important we host an All-Star game, and as it worked out, we were able together with the Hawks do it in a safe and responsible way, and we had no incidents of COVID and things were done safely and responsibly. So I thought that’s a marker along the way of the 1,700 to 16,000 that shouldn’t be lost, and it demonstrated their determination to help bring us back to normal.

The Hawks sold out both their home games in the first round vs. the Knicks and sold out Game 3 vs. Philly. Also, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Gulch (now known as Centennial Yards), the project Ressler is involved in downtown. And, the Hawks have been on national TV more than they normally are. I’m just curious if you’ve seen the franchise’s star rise, so to speak?

I feel lucky that I’m able to get a ticket tonight, given the popularity of this team. First, on the Gulch, I know that’s something that Tony is extremely passionate about, and from Day 1 owning the team, he saw this as something much larger than basketball, but he had a vision that he could transform downtown Atlanta and not just in terms of a first-class basketball organization, but in terms of dining, shopping, entertainment, affordable housing, and just as importantly, the creation of more jobs. So that was part of Tony’s vision when he and his partners acquired the team.

And I think now, to see that vision turn into actuality and to have such an exciting young team, and to see the fans responding in Atlanta the way they are, is a commissioner’s dream. And all the component parts are coming together. I’d add on top of that, we’re seeing, not just in Atlanta but around the league in these playoffs, the emergence of a next generation of stars, and of course Trae Young is one of those. The last component you mentioned, television exposure, of course teams are in essence rewarded through performance by virtue of the fact that every playoff game isn’t just nationally available in the United States, but is globally transmitted to 215 countries and territories.

So what comes with playoff success is massive distribution on conventional and digital media, which not only serves the purposes of growing a team and the league, but also Atlanta and Georgia are put on the map for many people, particularly outside the United States, who might not be as familiar with your community.

I’m glad you brought up Trae. A lot has been made of LeBron (James) and the Lakers and Steph (Curry) and the Warriors being out of the playoffs, but is this also an opportunity for people to get to know other teams and a new generation of stars?

No question about it. It’s part and parcel of professional sports that there’s invariably a passing of the torch. And while I’m not suggesting that LeBron James doesn’t have something left in the tank, and the league has no doubt benefited from his global popularity, the fact is that there are a new generation of stars emerging. Trae, I’ve said, is one of them, and it’s an incredible opportunity for this new generation of stars to perform on the biggest stage and in front of an enormous global audience.

I know we’re kind of returning to normal, but you still have some masks, you still have some testing, some other stuff going on. I’m sure it’s hard to exactly predict, but whether it’s fans, whether it’s media, do you have any kind of grid for if or when you expect things to get back to the normal we were used to before March 11 of last year?

It’s my hope that we will return to something that looks very close to normal next season. … We shared with our teams yesterday that we are projecting to open next season Oct. 19, which is exactly the date that is in our normal format. And as I said, certainly I’m not going to try to predict the precise path of this virus and its variants, but at least based on the information that I have to date, we expect our games and our protocols to look very close to normal.

It may be that for those who choose not to get vaccinated, there may be some additional measures that will be necessary to protect them, but short of that, as I said, I think as we’re seeing greater, broader society. It’s been remarkable the progress we’ve seen as a country over the last month, so again, it’s my expectation that by next Oct. 19, which we plan to be the opening of our regular season, things will look very much like normal.

On the topic of vaccines, what did you think of the Hawks’ vaccine PSAs they’ve been running?

We work closely with the Hawks and all of our teams on that kind of public-service messaging around the benefits of vaccinations. Again, the Hawks have been a leader in that area. They’ve been innovative and creative in terms of how they’ve messaged to their fans and the community, and it’s been very successful, and I think the hallmark of Tony and his partners’ group is the community involvement, and that’s just one more area where I think they’ve stepped up and been a leader.

You mentioned All-Star before, but obviously it wasn’t a normal one. Are you keeping Atlanta in mind to host an upcoming All-Star game?

The answer is a resounding yes, that was always part of the understanding with Tony and Steve that the league was very appreciative that they came through for us on relative short notice and agreed to host that All-Star game, and now of course talking to you after the fact, it was even, frankly, more successful than we thought it would have been. The players had a great experience. The Historically Black Colleges and Universities that we partnered with saw the impact of the national and global audience and what it meant to them in terms of new resources and awareness, and the community was a great partner. So we have some locked in commitments, but it certainly moved Atlanta up on the list, and it’s something that I think once this season is over, we’ll turn back to the Hawks to have those discussions.