Gender equality, racism and mental health: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on why the league is so progressive | CBC News

Twenty-five years after the NBA expanded north of the border, Canadian basketball is no longer “taking off,” it’s taking over.

The recent success of the Toronto Raptors is one thing, but as the team continues its quest to make the NBA finals for the first time in franchise history, young Canadian stars like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (L.A. Clippers) and Jamal Murray (Denver Nuggets) have been shining in the playoffs.

When asked about the state of the game in the north, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver can’t help but smile.

“I was here 25 years ago when we expanded to Canada. And I think if we rolled the clock back and said what are our fondest hopes and prospects for basketball in Canada, I think we’ve met them,” says Silver.

“Outside the United States, the most players are from Canada — 13 right now in the league, which is quite incredible. And we’re seeing stars emerging out of Canada. And of course, we’re seeing the success of the Raptors right now.”

  • WATCH: The National’s interview with Adam Silver Sunday night on CBC Television and streamed online

As he thinks back on those years, there is one thing he says he regrets — the failure of the Vancouver Grizzlies. But Silver did hint at a possible return.

WATCH: Adam Silver express regret over the league’s failed Vancouver franchise

‘I wish we had a team in Vancouver right now.’ NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expresses regret over the league’s failed franchise. 0:39

But what about Kawhi?

Despite the enormous success of the Toronto Raptors, questions over whether the franchise could truly attract the league’s elite players have always lingered.

For his part, Silver isn’t hearing it.

“I think, frankly, in the old days there was some truth to it from an economic standpoint,” says Silver.

“I think that’s very much changed now. I think that if we have Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee — viewed as a small market in the U.S., [yet] he happened to be the No. 1 vote-getter for fans globally for the All-Star Game this year — I think that makes the point that with digital media and social media these days you can be a huge global star regardless of where you are.”

So what about that other all-star in Toronto, then? Is he likely to stay with the Raptors? When you get a rare interview with the commissioner of the NBA, the question has to be asked.

WATCH: Will Kawhi Leonard stay in Toronto? 

The burning question: will Kawhi Leonard stay in Toronto? NBA Commissioner Adam Silver offers his thoughts on the Raptors superstar. 0:43

It’s not exactly a yes, but there is something to be said about Silver’s optimism. Since taking the helm of the league he’s gained a reputation of winning the trust of his players. So much so that some stars even reach out to Silver to talk about their struggles.

“I think they know it’s going to be a confidential relationship,” says Silver. “I think sometimes, in terms of the stigma of mental illness, I can understand why a player may be afraid, frankly, to say some of those things to his coach or to his team. They may be thinking, ‘This may affect my playing time, this may affect my contract.'”

Silver says one theme that keeps coming up is the effect of pro sports on mental health.

“Often what comes up is some of their difficulties in dealing with what they see as some of the isolation,” says Silver. “Part of it comes from the lifestyle of being a player, of being on the road constantly. Part of it comes from the celebrity that comes with it. That can be very isolating for people.”

  • WATCH: The National’s interview with Adam Silver Sunday night on CBC Television and streamed online

Silver says he sees that isolation in the locker rooms, too. Since joining the NBA 27 years ago, he has noticed a shift in how players interact with their teammates.

“In my earlier days in the league you saw much more physical camaraderie in locker rooms … and when they got on the plane or the bus in those days, they hung out, they played cards,” Silver says.

“[Now] in locker rooms you see guys much more isolated. They’re watching their phones, they’re watching screens. When they get on planes they quickly put their headphones on, they open their laptop and they start watching a show. And I think that can be increasingly isolating.”

WATCH: The NBA’s mental health message 

“Something I’m particularly proud of is that, as we talk about that safety and being allowed to talk about issues that are important to you, that’s been translated by a group of our current players into talking about issues of mental health and wellness,” says Silver.

“Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan speaking out about anxiety and depression. It’s been amazing to me, because their willingness to talk openly about issues like that has opened the door for literally millions of young people to feel comfortable. I know that when I was a kid and played sports, it was something that seemed like the furthest from your imagination that you would be able to tell someone something like that.”

Taking a stand against racism and intolerance

Silver is the epitome of a woke leader in woke times.

In his five years as the head of the NBA he has tackled everything from gender equality to racism.

It took just two months on the job for Silver to set the tone of how he intended to run the league, taking on billionaire L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling after he was caught on tape making racist comments. Silver sent a very personal and lasting message: He banned Sterling for life and forced the sale of the team.

Two years after that, Silver was at it again, pulling the All-Star Game out of Charlotte in response to North Carolina’s controversial bathroom law that discriminated against transgender people.

And when the NFL froze out Colin Kaepernick for protesting racial injustice in America, Silver said he was proud of the response shown by NBA players as they rallied behind Kaepernick’s cause.

WATCH: Adam Silver’s take on the NBA’s stance on racism

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talks about the NBA’s tough stance on racism, tolerance and respect for others. ‘We don’t make political statements. We make values-based statements.’ 0:35

When asked about the progressive nature of the NBA under his leadership, Silver gave a nod to the DNA of the league.

“I think it’s something that I’ve inherited, that all the current players have inherited,” says Silver. “I look back to the earlier days of this league, you know, great players like Bill Russell, someone who’s still around today and advocating for important policies and changes in society.”

50 per cent female officials

Silver also has his sights set on achieving gender equality when it comes to referees in the league — and he would like to see teams hire female coaches, too.

In an appearance Thursday at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C., Silver said his goal is to have women represent roughly 50 per cent of new officials entering the league.

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long. Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man as opposed to a woman when it comes to refereeing,” Silver says.

“Same for coaches, by the way … there’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

Silver also wants to invest more in the WNBA, and is currently looking at ways to build up the business to allow the league to pay players significantly higher wages. He says the NBA’s investment in women’s basketball goes well beyond the money.

WATCH: Adam Silver on how he measures success of the WNBA

How NBA Commissioner Adam Silver measures success for the WNBA in light of the recent collapse of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. ‘We look at it as a strong investment on behalf of women.’ 0:47

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