'Very different': NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addresses Robert Sarver-Donald Sterling comparisons

Duane Rankin
Arizona Republic

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has heard it just as much as anyone else.

As soon as the ESPN's Nov. 4 report detailed allegations that Robert Sarver created a "toxic" work environment, the Suns team owner drew comparisons to former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was banned from the NBA for life in 2014 for his racist comments.

Sarver took offense to the comments back in November 2021.

 "It’s hard to even dignify those comparisons with a response," said Sarver during an interview with The Republic. "There is no comparison at all."

Ten months later, Sarver, majority owner of the Suns and Phoenix WNBA's Phoenix Mercury, has been suspended for one year from any activities involving both teams beginning Tuesday and fined $10 million for ''workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies'' found during an NBA investigation.

MORE: Suns owner Robert Sarver suspended one year, fined $10 million

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks at the start of the NBA basketball draft on Thursday, June 23, 2022, in New York.

Sarver used the N-word multiple times, made sex-related comments towards women and exhibited other inappropriate behavior during his 18-year tenure as Suns team owner, but Silver isn't comparing him to Sterling.

"This case is very different," said Sliver during a Board of Governors press conference Wednesday. "It’s not that one was captured on tape and the other one isn’t, because as we went through this investigation, and what was pointed out in the investigator’s report is Mr. Sarver ultimately has acknowledged his behavior."

"There may be some disagreement around the edges, but it’s not really about a factual dispute here. It’s not Mr. Sarver saying, 'I never said that. What is lost, though, in differentiating between the facts in this situation and Donald Sterling, is the context."

MORE: Sarver vs. Sterling: Both acted bad, so why was only one banned for life?

Sterling's then girlfriend, V. Stiviano, recorded a conversation with him in which Sterling got upset with her for bringing Blacks to the Clippers games. Once TMZ made that public, that created a form of chaos that sped up Silver's clock to do something.

Nearly a decade later, Silver found himself having to explain why the Sarver and Sterling cases are different.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attends the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on Jan. 10, 2014.

"For me, the situations were dramatically different," Silver said. "I think what we saw in the case of Donald Sterling was blatant racist conduct directed at a select group of people. While it’s difficult to know what is in someone’s heart or in their mind, we heard those words. Then there was a follow-up from the league office, and that became public, as well, in terms of what Mr. Sterling even subsequently said about his actions."

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz law firm headed both investigations.

"In the case of Robert Sarver, I’d say, first of all, we’re looking at the totality of circumstances over an 18-year period in which he’s owned these teams, and ultimately we made a judgment. I made a judgment, that in the circumstances in which he had used that language and that behavior, that while, as I said, it was indefensible is not strong enough. It’s beyond the pale in every possible way to use language and behave that way, but that it was wholly of a different kind than what we saw in that earlier case."

Silver concluded the one-year suspension and fine of $10 million, which is the maximum amount allowed under NBA constitution and by-laws, were "appropriate" punishments for the 60-year-old Sarver.

"I had the option to go longer," Silver said. "I landed on one year."

Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver walks to his seat during the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Footprint Center in Phoenix on April 10, 2022.

Silver made a point to discuss Sarver's history of hiring minorities in positions of power for the Suns with two of the latest being General Manager James Jones and head coach Monty Williams.

Jones and Williams are African-Americans.

"I’d also say that I would like to think that all of us would want to be judged by the totality of everything they’ve done, good and bad," Silver said. "It may be that in certain cases something you’ve done is so bad, it doesn’t matter what all the other good things you’ve done. But I think in this case, looking back over his track record of hiring, his track record of support of particular employees, what the actual people said about him — remember, while there were these terrible things, there were also many, many people who had very positive things to say about him through this process."

Silver later said there weren't any discussions to remove Sarver as team owner.

"I don’t have the right to take away his team," Silver said. "I don’t want to rest on that legal point because of course there could be a process to take away someone’s team in this league. It’s very involved, and I ultimately made the decision that it didn’t rise to that level.

"But to me, the consequences are severe here on Mr. Sarver. Reputationally, it’s hard to even make those comparisons to somebody who commits an inappropriate act in the workplace in somewhat of an anonymous fashion versus what is a huge public issue now around this person."

Dec 19, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver watches the game from court side against the Charlotte Hornets at Footprint Center.

MORE:Somers column: Sarver doesn't deserve to continue as owner of Suns, Mercury

NBA executive vice president of communications Michael Bass informed The Republic that a process is underway to identify another team owner to act as "interim Governor" for the Suns. Sarver is majority owner of the Suns and Mercury as part of an ownership group, Suns Legacy Partners LLC,  that includes mutiple minority partners.

Silver said Sarver has "evolved" as a person during his tenure as Suns owner.

"You’re looking at behavior over an 18-year period," Silver sad. "I do believe that Mr. Sarver clearly has evolved as a person over that 18-year period. I think much of the behavior in question stems from much earlier in his tenure as an NBA owner. I think what your litany leaves out are many very positive things he did, as well, and also leaves out how those events were characterized by those people who were directly involved in them and how they described them to the investigators."

Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been calling for Sarver to be removed as team owner for months, has issues with how Silver is trying to justify the year suspension and fine.

“I have a deep respect for Commissioner Silver as we have worked together to raise the bar of what it means to own an NBA team," said Rev. Sharpton in a statement through National Action Network.

Director Spike Lee, left, and journalist Al Sharpton, right, attend the premiere for "Loudmouth" at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center during the 2022 Tribeca Festival on Saturday, June 18, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

"Unfortunately, trying to explain away the light punishment on Robert Sarver greatly misses the mark. Nobody can evolve from being a bigot. This one-year suspension is a band aid on a tumor. To say it is in remission while it grows will only make the entire league sicker. We must remove this cancer swiftly and precisely, while sending a message that hate has no place in American sports. It’s time for the players, the fans, and the corporate sponsors to rise up and demand that Robert Sarver be immediately removed from the NBA."

With "roughly" 80% of the league's players being African-American, Silver understands the sensitivity of the subject, saying he has talked to some of the players in private.

"I’d only say disheartening," said Silver about the reactions of the players. "Same reaction I’ve had in many cases. I think these are — I think saddened, as I was, I think, for those players to see that we continue to deal with these issues."

"... More than half our coaches are Black. I will say that none of them maybe are as shocked as I am, living their lives, that I don’t think they’re reading this saying, oh, my God, I can’t believe this happens. But at the same time, I think they look to the league, look to the partnership that the league has with the Players Association to see, how can we do better, how can we improve things."

May 10, 2022; Phoenix, Arizona; USA; Suns Chris Paul (3) and Mavericks Frank Ntilikina (21) watch free throws during game 5 of the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs.

Back in November, Sarver took offense to being compared to Sterling.

"I have a 40-year-long track record of advocating for inclusion in hiring and promoting minorities and women, and I have devoted my time and resources to fighting for equality and supporting underserved communities," Sarver said in a November interview with The Republic.

MORE: Robert Sarver disputes ESPN report as misleading and inaccurate

"I’m proud of the Suns organization’s record on these issues. Up until this ESPN story, there has never been any claim or mention of me being racist or sexist. It’s just not who I am. My long-time business partners, co-workers, friends, and family will tell you the same."

Now Silver found himself Wednesday taking a barrage of questions about not only comparisons between Sarver and Sterling, but the difference in punishments.

"I would only say in the situation for me, looking at the totality, looking at what Mr. Sarver’s rights are as an owner, looking at what the options were available to me, I thought I came out with the right outcome," Silver said.

Have opinion about current state of the Suns? Reach Suns Insider Duane Rankin at or contact him at 480-787-1240. Follow him on Twitter at @DuaneRankin.

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