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Silver Gives Behind the Scenes at Sterling Scandal; NHL Hall of Famer Reflects on His Sport; World Cup Kicks Off

Aired June 13, 2014 - 22:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on UNGUARDED WITH RACHEL NICHOLS, unvarnished. NBA commissioner Adam Silver sits down to reveal the behind-the-scenes details of one of the biggest scandals his sport has ever seen.

ADAM SILVER, NBA COMMISSIONER: I was hoping it wasn't Donald. I thought it was so outrageous.

ANNOUNCER: Unselfish. Hall of Famer Mark Messier on how he became one of the greatest leaders of his era.

MARK MESSIER, NHL HALL OF FAMER: What a leader has the capacity to do is to step outside his own little circle and live 20 or 25 different lives.

ANNOUNCER: Unpopular. The coach of the American team at the World Cup is causing a stir by saying his team doesn't have a chance to win.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's certainly not a popular thing to say, but this is an honest thing that he said.



There is no doubt what the biggest story in sports has been over the past couple months, the saga of Clippers owner, Donald Sterling. From the moment his rants were posted online, the NBA was thrust into a national debate on everything from race to property rights.

And as news on this continues to develop daily, smack in the center of it remains the league's brand-new commissioner, Adam Silver. I sat down with Silver to get the behind-the-scenes story of one of the most gripping sagas of the year. This is a very unguarded conversation, starting when he reminded me that, whenever you think this thing might be over, it's not.


SILVER: It's not done. Donald Sterling still has $1 billion lawsuit filed against the league, against me personally. I'm not worried about that, because I can't afford it, but there's still a last issue, and that is Donald dropping his lawsuit, resolving his former issues with his wife.

NICHOLS: Are you in "I'll believe it when I see it" mode?

SILVER: Absolutely. I've been there with him before. He's almost sold his club several times over the years. There's well known incidents in the league when he was right there at a closing and at the last minute decided not to sell, and until he signs that document, we still have a pending litigation with him.

NICHOLS: This is amazing when you think you're only four months into this job. Welcome to the NBA commissionership, by the way.

SILVER: Thank you. I'm going to deal with the cards as they're dealt. And this wasn't anything anybody could have expected, and we sort of -- and we dealt with it.

NICHOLS: All right. So take things back. TMZ first posted the very first audio recording of Donald Sterling and V. Stiviano on its website, I believe on your birthday, right? That Friday night?

SILVER: I had been, for my birthday, at the Nets game the night -- that Friday night.


SILVER: And then I had known the team had called a day or so before to say there was going to be a recording. Wasn't quite clear whether he was saying he'd heard it, but he knew it was going to be bad.

DONALD STERLING, CLIPPERS OWNER: You don't have to have yourself walking with black people.

NICHOLS: So when you actually heard the recordings, when you clicked and played them, what went through your head?

SILVER: I was hoping it wasn't Donald. I thought it was so outrageous. I -- I've known Donald Sterling for more than 20 years, and I never heard anything like that come out of his mouth. And I was hoping that maybe beyond hope that he was going to say it was fraudulent, his voice had been doctored, something, but that it wasn't him.

NICHOLS: So as the NBA starts to investigate this over the next few days, who did you lean on the most? What was the behind the scenes?

SILVER: That Saturday morning, I had a preplanned trip to Memphis for a Memphis that afternoon for Memphis-Oklahoma City playoff game. And it was all breaking so quickly I got on a plane and went to Memphis. It wasn't until I was in the airport on my way to the arena that I was watching the crawl on ESPN and saw that they were promoting a press conference, and that I was the one holding the press conference. And I stopped and gathered my thoughts in the airport, because I really didn't know anything at that point.

NICHOLS: And as the evidence comes in, you are put in this position of being America's racial conscience in that moment. What is the weight of that like? SILVER: I haven't quite absorbed that yet. I mean, I have a sense

from people who talk to me, people on the street, how symbolic this position has become.

Don't get me wrong. I understand for people out there why this takes on so much symbolism, but I haven't really had a chance to think about the meaning for -- for a larger society, because it -- as I said, it's not over.

NICHOLS: How did you decide, given everything that you knew in that moment, to go for the maximum? The maximum fine, the maximum lifetime ban, the maximum step of trying to disassociate him from the team?

SILVER: I knew I was going to go for the maximum after I heard the tape and then heard the results of the investigation. The fact was he wasn't denying he said it. The context in which he said it, while important, didn't ultimately change my view in any way, and frankly, he wasn't remorseful.

NICHOLS: So we all saw you come out for that press conference, which will now be a historic press conference. Give me the behind the scenes, the five minutes before you walked onto that podium. What was going through your head and what was going on?

SILVER: I generally tend to get a little bit nervous in those situations, and I haven't walked out in such a large stage, really ever in my career with that many cameras, that many members of the media. And up until the last second, I was really writing what I was going to say.

Effective immediately, I am banning Mr. Sterling for life from any association with the Clippers organization or the NBA.

NICHOLS: All right. So then what about the five minutes after you walked off that podium and had delivered this, you know, shell-shocked bomb to everybody?

SILVER: I didn't have a sense of what a big moment it was, I think, until I walked back to the office. We were over at the Hilton Hotel and then I was walking back, it's two or three blocks from my office. And then when clearly I realized so many people had watched it, I didn't have a sense that so many people were watching it live when I did it.

NICHOLS: So you were walking on the street, and people just started talking to you about it?

SILVER: Absolutely, yes. I began to have a sense of the magnitude of the decision.

NICHOLS: Around that time we heard Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban say that he did have some concerns about the, quote, "slippery slope" that it was to take a team away from an owner in this way.

SILVER: I spoke to Mark as well, and I understand his concerns about a slippery slope. And my response, and he understood it, was in this case, under these facts, here's where we're drawing the line.

NICHOLS: Do you get the sense that, if there had been a vote, it would have been unanimous?

SILVER: Yes. Yes.


NICHOLS: Well, it's good Adam Silver feels that way, since he may have to reinstate that board of governors vote. That will happen if Sterling wins an upcoming hearing determining whether he's mentally fit.

Meanwhile, Sterling has also reportedly hired a team of former FBI agents to dig up dirt on Silver as well as the league's 29 other owners for that billion-dollar lawsuit. It never ends.

And we have got much, much more with the commissioner after this break, including what's blooding his inbox these days.


SILVER: If you read my e-mails, it's not all positives. There are a large segment of people out there saying this is America. You know, he should be able to say whatever he wants.



NICHOLS: I'm Rachel Nichols, and welcome back to UNGUARDED, where we've been getting the behind-the-scenes details on the Donald Sterling scandal from one of the men right at the center of it, new NBA commissioner, Adam Silver. I asked Silver about his future plans for the league once this drama does eventually end, although first I had some questions about the past.


NICHOLS: After this decision, you got tremendous positive support from the public. "Saturday Night Live" immortalizes you in a sketch.

TARAN KILLAM, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Frankly, it's been a great time for me, Commissioner Adam Silver. I have gotten more high fives from random black people this week than any week in my life.

NICHOLS: But there was criticism. The most pervasive question, as stories of Donald Sterling's past were more widely circulated is, hey, why didn't you guys do anything about this guy before? There's all kinds of behavior along the way in the past two decades that seems to have raised a lot of red flags and actually crossed the line.

STERLING: Well, first, if you read my e-mails, it's not all positive. There are a large segment of people out there saying, similar to what Donald Sterling's lawyer said, this is America, you know, he should be able to say whatever he wants.

In terms of Donald's past behavior, you're right. In retrospect, in today's age -- in today's day and age of social media, should we have approached it differently? Maybe. Let me say what I said at the press conference. Had we ever seen evidence of anything remotely like this we would have acted on it. There were lawsuits that were by the federal government, by the department of housing, the Department of Justice that were settled without any findings.

I know that you don't think that, just because someone has money to make their problems go away that that makes their behavior OK. Yes, he settled, but he was sued over and over again for discrimination. There were depositions, videotaped depositions in those cases of people testifying to horrid behavior.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He mentioned specifically that Hispanics just sit around all day watching television and smoking cigarettes.

NICHOLS: Sexual harassment claims, incredible misogyny.

STERLING: Don't wink at me. I resent that. Are you trying to flirt with me? He just winked at me twice. Why are you winking at me? Are you sexually harassing me?

NICHOLS: And just because he had the money to settle have those never get adjudicated, why didn't you guys launch your own investigation the way you did in this case?

SILVER: I don't have a good answer for that, only say that I was at the league during that time, so I don't want to run from it. But maybe there's just a different standard in today's society. I can't say we were ever even having that discussion.

In this day and age of social media, TMZ and Deadspin post a tape like that, and I think within 24 hours roughly 10 million people heard it. So I think in the old days it was a little bit different, and I think for conduct that had nothing to do with what happened in the NBA, it didn't come to our attention in the same way.

But I don't want to make excuses. Clearly, there's a different standard now. There's a much greater awareness now of how that behavior can affect people and impact our league.

NICHOLS: Let's talk about the future and the future of your league. NBA commissioner, I hear you keep a little notebook around to jot down what the next things that you want to do are. What's the top of the page of the notebook right now? Is it to fix the air conditioning in San Antonio? Is that the open page right now.

SILVER: Check, fixed.

NICHOLS: In all seriousness about the air conditioning, you did have a situation in game one of the NBA finals where the air conditioning breaks. It clearly affected players and affected the game. This is the same arena where opposing players in the playoffs found a snake in their locker room, and I'm in no way suggesting a conspiracy, you know, but -- but is there a responsibility in accountability that this franchise and therefore the league by extension, has to take of providing facilities that are acceptable for an event of this level?

SILVER: Yes, you know, and I'm ultimately responsible, and it's one new area. To your point, the checklist gets longer and longer. It's interesting, with the teams, it's almost like the federal government and the state governments. They say, "Stay out of our affairs. Stay out of our affairs."

NICHOLS: States' rights.

SILVER: Then something goes wrong, and somebody says, "You need to add yet more rules." And so we will.

I am ultimately responsible for insuring that we have, you know, perfect playing conditions for the players. Unfortunately, that human and mechanical error are always going to be part of this game in any live event.

NICHOLS: As we go forward into the Adam Silver era, what do you think the biggest differences are going to be between your term and David Stern's terms that we just finished?

SILVER: Well, first of all, when David became the commissioner, the games were still on tape delay. The finals were on tape delay. It was just such a different time. Want to focus on the game itself. Plenty of things we need to concentrate, and we can do a better job with replay. There's no doubt every time you do a better job with officiating. I want to make sure that our fans, our players, our coaches believe that we have the utmost confidence in the integrity of the product on the floor. You know, you've heard me say before I'd love to raise the minimum age from 19 to 20.

I think the better balance would be for two years out of high school.

I think that lead to a better league. There are incredible opportunities for this league, not just in the United States but from around the world. Those are the things I am focused on right now. So it's a wonderful time to be the commissioner of the NBA.


NICHOLS: Well, it's certainly an interesting time. That is for sure. Thank you to Commissioner Silver for that very candid interview.

There's a lot more coming up after the break, when we will be joined by one of the all-time greats, hockey hall of famer Mark Messier.


MESSIER: I knew how close we were to winning and willing to face whatever came my way, regardless.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK) NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED. I'm Rachel Nichols.

And as the New York Rangers spend tonight battling the L.A. Kings for the Stanley Cup, there is no one cheering louder than one of the greatest of all time, Mark Messier.

First in Edmonton, then in New York, Messier defined leadership. Well, and he was a pretty exceptional player, too. I caught up with Mark a little earlier. Take a look.


NICHOLS: Mark, welcome. First of all, what has the atmosphere been like around New York and the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals?

MESSIER: As you can imagine, it has just been crazy. I was just spending a lot of time on the streets and on the subways. And I can tell you, it's captured the imagination of the people here again.

NICHOLS: I love the idea of a Ranger fan just finding you riding the subway. I mean, we're exactly 20 years since you won the cup with the Rangers, and this is also the 20th anniversary of, of course, of your famous guarantee, the Rangers facing elimination to the Devils in the eastern conference finals and you promised a win. And I'm always curious to go back to those moments. Did you ever have any second thoughts? What was it like?

MESSIER: At that point, the sole intention was to make sure that the team really believe that -- felt we could go in there and win game seven. My thought was so focused in on what our team would be reading, and I forgot everybody else in New York and New Jersey would be reading the same article, but at that point there, I didn't really care.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, New York, after 54 years, your long wait is over.

NICHOLS: Fortunately, I think it worked out for you just fine. And you, of course, won with some guy named Wayne Gretzky, something like that, in the early days in Edmonton. We like to think of those -- we like to think of those relationships as blood brothers for life. But what's the reality? How close are you guys these days?

MESSIER: I would say that -- pretty accurate. We talk often. In fact, I just got a text from him a couple of minutes ago before I came on the show. And we certainly see each other throughout the year.

NICHOLS: That's great. You were involved in nominating players for the NHL 's leadership award earlier this week. In fact, it's named after you. What qualities do you think separates the truly elite leaders in sports? What makes the leaders that are truly elite stand out?

MESSIER: Well, that's a great question. I think what a leader has a capacity to do is step outside his own little circle, and live 25 different lives. He has to be involved with everybody on the team at a deep level and he has to be able to forget about his own problems and help other people.

NICHOLS: We like to think about you as that guy back then, that leader of men, the player on the ice. A lot of people don't think you've had a post playing career here, and you helped start something called the Messier Project dedicated to helping the concussion issue in hockey.

MESSIER: Everybody that came in 1979 and 80 had to wear a helmet, so I think you see the evolution of the game over years and to the point where visors are going to be mandatory, and it's all designed to make the game better and safer.

NICHOLS: Once again, Mark Messier taking a leadership role. No surprise there. Mark, thank you so much.

MESSIER: Thank you.


NICHOLS: Always fun to visit with Mess. Hard to believe it has been a decade since he has retired.

All right. Coming up next, we will head to Rio to check in on the latest at the World Cup. The cheering has begun in Brazil but so has the violence.


NICHOLS: Welcome back to UNGUARDED. I'm Rachel Nichols. It's official: one of the world's biggest sporting events has begun. Over the next month, teams from 32 countries will compete for the World Cup, an event full of pageantry, and this year, controversy.

We have seen violent protests erupt around Brazil, railing against the human and financial costs of this event. So I want to bring in our own Laura Baldesarra from Rio.

And Laura, we hear some celebratory fireworks in the background there. Tell us what the atmosphere is like after so much buildup, both good and bad?

LAURA BALDESARRA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is a little different than other World Cups that I've been to, in the sense that it's in Brazil is such a large country, and these stadiums, they're located in so many different areas that are so far apart, so you're not getting that sort of condensed nature of a World Cup party atmosphere all in one spot. But you still know that it's certainly World Cup time.

NICHOLS: There was a fear that some stadiums wouldn't be ready. We've seen video of airports, roadways still under construction. Is this going to be like Sochi? Is this going to be like the Olympics where we hear the whole time about practical problems.

BALDESARRA: No, absolutely not. All the stadiums are ready. Everything is in play. The one concern now is not so much about whether those stadiums are going to be ready, which they are. It's more about all of the protests and all of the rioting that could erupt out of really just about anything.

NICHOLS: Yes, absolutely. The U.S. team, they play their first game on Monday, and the team's coaches actually have been at the center of some controversy. He came out and said it is not realistic that the U.S. can win the World Cup. Now, he may be right, by the way. There's been plenty of people who think why is the guy leading the team setting the bar so low? What's the reaction?

BALDESARRA: Yes, Rachel. It's certainly not a popular thing to say, but that's probably because Jurgen Klinsmann, he's not actually American. He's German. A lot of people think that this is sort of that kind of building year for the U.S. team, building them up until 2018.

However, they're still going out there to win. All of these guys on this team, they want to win.

NICHOLS: What should Americans who don't regularly follow soccer, when they tune into the World Cup, what are they looking from their team over the next few weeks.

BALDESARRA: This is -- this is the year that you are going to get to see a new superstar emerge. This is the first time in a long time that we're not going to see Landon Donovan as the face of U.S. soccer. And with him being left off the squad by Jurgen Klinsmann, it means that Clint Dempsey can finally not be in Landon Donovan's shadow any more. Clint Dempsey is going to captain this World Cup team. He has played in -- this will be his third World Cup appearance.

This could be his last World Cup, so he's out there to play really hard to lead these guys, and he's going to be the guy that's going to break through and become the superstar of American soccer.

NICHOLS: Yes. Well, we love our stars in American sports, right? That's for sure. Thank you. We will look for you all month from Rio.

And thanks to all of you. That is going to be our show tonight. You can follow me on Twitter, like us on Facebook, or visit us on the web, at Of course we'll see you right back here next Friday night on UNGUARDED, where the end of the game is the start of the story. Good night.