Commissioner Adam Silver recalled highlights and details from previous visits to France in the hour or so before the Chicago Bulls and Detroit Pistons met in the NBA Paris Game 2023 Thursday.
Back to the clash of Milwaukee and Charlotte in January 2020, the league’s first regular-season game in the City of Lights. And beyond that to the Bulls’ iconic trip for a pair of preseason games against European club teams in October 1997. Overall, the Bulls-Pistons game at Accor Arena was the 12th game in France since 1991.
In looking back, though, Silver couldn’t neglect the gap since the Bucks and Hornets made the trip.
“I actually remember when we were here then … we started to see people wearing masks,” he told reporters at his news conference. “People knew something was coming. No one was predicting at that time that the world was going to shut down and we’d go on to play in a bubble, etc.
“Our hope is, of course, that we’ve bookended that pandemic, and the worst is behind us. … We don’t see a lot of masks, and Paris is the vibrant city it was back then. That’s fantastic news.”
International events – the NBA’s initiative to spread the league, the game and the benefits of sports globally – has been part of its brand for decades. That ground to a halt, however, with the arrival of COVID-19 and measures taken to stem its spread.
From March 2020 when it halted its schedule in an unprecedented precautionary move through the resumption of play in the “Orlando Bubble” that summer and all the way into 2022, including testing, vaccines and various restrictions on players, media and fans, the league had its hands full domestically.
The normalcy that pervades 2022-23 allowed for the NBA and its teams to focus again on overseas endeavors, including global games and the newly announced collaboration between the league and the French government to develop and promote the sport at all levels in France and in Africa.
Or as Silver remarked at one point, “the world is back and people are traveling again.”
Asked to reflect on the COVID crisis and its impact on the league, the commissioner called it “a bit of a blur.” But he added: “I think it has made us stronger. When at least our belief is that if we can deal directly with issues, speak frankly to them, be transparent, accept criticism, change when we think the criticism is valid, it will make us a better league.”
The league’s teams and players, he said, are closer than before the pandemic. “There was no blueprint for that,” Silver said. “It taught us that everybody had a common interest.”
The league’s shareholders navigated a period of social unrest simultaneously with the virus challenges. Television networks and other business partners dealt with significant shifts to the NBA calendar, and involved parties learned the value of compromise in honoring or re-working contracts.
“When you go through that, I think it does bring you closer to your partners, to your friends,” the commissioner said. “You learn who are your true partners who are in it for the long term with you.”
Silver noted the results of having NBA teams, players and games function as ambassadors for the league and basketball in general. When Michael Jordan and the Bulls played those two exhibition games in 1997, about 7% of NBA players were born outside the United States. Now, he said, 120 of the approximately 450 players are foreign-born.
There are nine players from France, the past four MVP trophies went to international players (Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, two each) and four of the league’s top scorers – Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, Antetokounmpo and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – come from outside U.S. borders.
“Getting back out in the market is giving us an opportunity to sit with our colleagues in Europe and formulate new plans,” Silver said of upcoming overseas events. “Stay tuned.”
Silver responded to other questions on a variety of topics, including:
• Silver assured reporters the league will not whiff when LeBron James passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading points champion. The game in which it happens will get not only a national but a global TV audience with ceremonies during and after.
With a gap of 283 points and at James’ 29.8 scoring average, it is likely James (38,104) will catch and pass Abdul-Jabbar (38,387) in the first half of February. That would enable the league to use All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City as “the perfect opportunity to honor him.”
• While trying to avoid saying too much before the record actually falls, Silver did say of James’ being in this position: “Just the physical endurance itself, to play that many years. … I think about the wear and tear on his body and the lack of sleep and the three-and-a-half games a week, season after season, how he takes care of himself. I hope the young players pay attention to that.”
Silver mentioned James’ physical and mental drive to push through two decades on sports’ biggest and brightest stages. “It’s quite remarkable,” he said, adding: “And he’s not just … hanging around to get that record. He’s still playing at an incredibly high level.”
• On the spate of high-scoring games by individual players this season, the commissioner said: “For me, a fan, the talent level is just off the charts, and that has a lot to do with what we’re seeing. Of course, the enormous increase in three-point shooting is going to lead to more scoring, too, especially when these guys, even the big men, shoot three-point shots as well as they do.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily a case that defense is not being focused on as it once was. I’ve been around the league long enough to remember when the claim was guys played no defense at all, and so there’s a fair amount of defense played.”
Silver said the league and its Competition Committee are “constantly reassessing” to determine if rules need tweaking to balance the game.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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