Adam Silver wishes he could make his words go away and regrets even saying them.
The forward-thinking NBA commissioner recognizes that comments he made during an interview with HBO in 2019 regarding what was then an alleged assault by Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri on a police officer working security after Game 6 of the NBA Finals were poorly chosen at the time and more so given everything that has come out since.
“When I watch that last bit of the interview, in light of what we now know, I would love to take those words back,” Silver told Sportsnet during a recent phone interview. “[Masai] and I at this point have probably talked about that night 100 times since then. He has my full and unequivocal support.
“But I apologize to Masai for what I said in that interview…. Believe me, when I look at that now, I cringe when I watch it.”
The Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel feature aired on Oct. 24, 2019, and traces Ujiri’s remarkable rise through the basketball world and the NBA, culminating with a touching scene where the first African-born president of a major sports franchise returns to Nigeria to present the Larry O’Brien Trophy to his parents.
But the piece also includes discussion of the disturbing confrontation Ujiri had with Alameda County sheriff’s deputy Alan Strickland as he made his way to the on-court celebration after the horn sounded on the Raptors’ championship-deciding victory at Oracle Arena on June 13, 2019.
Ujiri was shoved forcefully twice by Strickland even as he was trying to present his NBA-issued credential. Ujiri then pushed back at the officer before they were separated and a clearly shaken Ujiri was escorted onto the floor by Raptors guard Kyle Lowry.
Shortly after the game, the Alameda sheriff’s office announced they would be investigating Ujiri for a misdemeanor assault.
Ujiri was never charged by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, though Strickland launched a lawsuit in February of 2020. Ujiri counter-sued, and the video evidence that came out last August as part of the suit clearly supported his version of events and showed Strickland’s claims to be false.
Earlier this month Strickland dropped his civil lawsuit and Ujiri dropped his counter-suit.
Otherwise, Ujiri has largely tied off what was a traumatizing moment that robbed him of what should have been an unfettered celebration and became a revealing and highly symbolic legal battle.
During an interview on Good Morning America on Wednesday – his first public comments on the subject since the legal matters were put to rest – Ujiri said the incident had spurred him to make change on behalf of others who have similar experiences at the hands of law enforcement.
“I lost a moment. People have lost their lives,” he said. “I say it as humbly as I can, maybe the privilege or the job that I have [means] I have to fight this.”
But the comments that Silver made in the fall of 2019 are a remaining loose end and are more notable in hindsight given the NBA’s commitment to supporting Black Lives Matter and the push for racial justice that followed the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last May:
“It’s part and parcel of what comes with someone who is living on the edge a bit and is hard-wired to sort of march forward with incredible energy,” said Silver in the interview. “Lessons learned for him – without assigning culpability or blame to anyone – as a leader, those are the kinds of situations he needs to learn to avoid.”
Some context is important: At the time of the interview, the NBA was still working behind the scenes to discourage the district attorney’s office from pressing charges; middle-ground diplomacy and avoiding saying anything that could tip the balance against Ujiri was likely top of mind for Silver.
At that point, body-camera footage hadn’t been made available. There was just the police investigation’s version of events, Ujiri’s version of events, and the agreed-upon fact that at some point during the confrontation the Raptors president had pushed a police officer.
Silver regrets making any comment at all.
“I should have known better, as a lawyer, not to comment on a pending investigation, which was the case at the time,” he said. “Even as I watch myself in that interview, I can see myself searching for the appropriate words and now see that I clearly misspoke.”
But even in that light, Silver’s comments gave the impression the NBA commissioner accepted at face value that one of his most respected executives shared responsibility for what was subsequently proved to be an unprovoked and flagrant abuse of power by a police officer on a Black man. As the legal process carried on, clips of Silver’s interview would circulate on social media begging the question: Does the commissioner of the NBA owe its highest-profile Black executive an apology?
It’s worth noting that those aren’t questions raised by Ujiri. He and Silver are close, with a relationship that goes back to Ujiri’s days trying to break into the NBA as an unpaid international scout working on behalf of the Orlando Magic while Silver was still a rising executive in the league offices. They have worked on the NBA’s push to connect with Africa, travelled together and consider themselves friends. For nearly two years they have lived together on the inside of the legal battle – the NBA was also named in Strickland’s suit – and now that they are on the other side of it, they are good.
“This hasn’t been an issue between us in the past and it isn’t now,” Ujiri said to me via text message. “We have talked about it; I know I have Adam’s support and he has mine.
“Let’s move forward from this and focus on what we can do to make positive change. And I know the fans have been supporting me through all this – I really appreciate their concern. It’s been unbelievable.”
From Silver’s point of view, the experience has already prompted meaningful and tangible change. Going forward, the NBA will have its own security staff at access points for key league events and during the NBA Finals, in particular, to make sure that something like what happened to Ujiri won’t happen again.
“It’s my responsibility, at least in terms of these kinds of incidences, that I put in place practices so something like what happened to Masai doesn’t happen to other Black executives in our arena or an any NBA event,” said Silver. “We should have had our own security person standing there who knows who to let centre court for the ceremony…. It’s on me, not [Ujiri], that similar situations like that don’t happen in the future.”
Silver appreciates the larger context as well. The NBA is unavoidably a crucible for racial issues given it’s a league where 75 per cent of players are Black. It’s why social-justice messaging and support for Black Lives Matter was so prominent during the league’s return to play in the bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort last August.
That the league’s top-ranking executive was predisposed to giving equal weight to the word of a police officer in a confrontation with one of its Black leaders carries symbolic weight, too.
Ujiri had a platform, financial means and the unequivocal support of his employer, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, as well as the legal backing of the NBA — not everyone is so lucky. And yet, despite all, his reputation hinged on the word of what proved to be an unreliable police witness.
“That’s something he and I have talked about many times, and trying to imagine what the scenario could have been for someone who wasn’t surrounded by 20,000 people, which was the case when this incident happened on the arena floor, or with, probably, at least 25 cameras pointed at the floor, and what would that have meant either for him or the next person if there wasn’t that kind of coverage,” said Silver.
“I know for me, I’ve learned from it to, sort of, check my own built-in implicit biases around a particular situation…. I don’t have the lived experience of a Black person, particularly a Black male who may have a very different experience with law enforcement. We’ve been having these same conversations with our teams and the league offices and, in some cases, with our own colleagues, many of whom — in the league office — who are former law enforcement officers, who are Black and who have talked about their own experiences, even as off-duty police officers dealing with uniformed police and how they saw, in the eyes of the person accusing them, certain presumptions of guilt.
“To me the lesson learned is we should be talking about this, which is why I appreciate you even asking me the questions and we not just put this in the rear-view mirror.”