The NBA’s 10 Most Influential People

By: 04.18.12
Derrick Rose

As Jeremy Lin made TIME magazine’s top 100 most influential people list today, it proves the NBA’s most influential don’t even need to be on a roster the whole year to move the needle and up their Q rating.

Lin’s placement on the list, written about by former Harvard baller Arne Duncan — now known as the U.S. Secretary of Education — made us think who comprises the top 10 most influential in the NBA. Lin doesn’t make this list. An amazing run, but it’s over for now and lasted too short. These 10 have staying power.

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10. Clay Bennett: Think of how much LeBron James was hated in Cleveland immediately after The Decision, and then increase it. That’s a taste of how much Bennett is hated in Seattle after buying the team, insisting he was giving the city a fair shake to keep the team, and moving it anyway to Oklahoma City. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz is public enemy No. 2 in Seattle for selling to Bennett, a businessman from OKC, whose facade of giving Seattle a chance was laughable. You’re not influential just because you’re hated though; Bennett heads the NBA’s Relocation Committee, which has a say which teams go where (yes, there’s rich irony there). Sacramento, Anaheim and even Seattle take note.

9. William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley: He’s a grassroots power broker whose contacts touch every level of hoops in the country. While he’s most known for matching players and colleges (he sat behind Kentucky’s bench at the national title game and celebrated in the locker room afterward, according to reports), he’s also played matchmaker in the pros. Leon Rose and LeBron James met because of Wesley, who is trying to become an agent now, himself. This anecdote by Oregonian columnist John Canzano is a telling teach of Wes’ power:

I once saw him walk around The Palace at Auburn Hills during a NBA Finals as if he owned the building. He didn’t even wear a credential. Wesley was so at ease, he went into the Pistons locker room at halftime. Later, a NBA security staffer approached him, and I watched to see if Wesley might get asked for identification.

Nope.

The security guard borrowed Chapstick.

Damon Stoudamire told me one summer a few years ago: “Wes is running the NBA.”

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Derrick Rose

Derrick Rose (photo. adidas)

8. Derrick Rose: The Bulls’ guard represents adidas’ future, and it’s one the company is investing mightily in: reportedly $260 million over 14 years. Could he a minority owner of a team in the future with that money? With a contract like that he has more of adidas’ ear than Dwight Howard, the company’s other major name. Like Griffin, he represents the new guard of players to whom he could be a star for easily another decade.

7. Phil Knight: The Nike co-founder has recently been announced as a Hall of Fame inductee as a contributor, but how do you define his contribution? In a narrow sense, it’s the incredible power he’s allotted star players with shoe deals. But Nike trades on a star’s influence, thus pushing its products to the cultural level with bulletproof hoops credibility. If you doubt it, consider in the last year two sneaker drops have incited violence because of demand, the effects of which have spurred Nike to revamp how buyers RSVP for shoes. Sure, we could probably put Michael Jordan here, but he’s a bad owner of the Bobcats and his other business is shoes. And frankly, no one is better at shoes than Knight, still.

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6. Sam Presti: The OKC general manager turned the moribund Sonics into the envy of the NBA by striking it oil-rich with the Thunder. His draft acumen and trade savvy have already spun off another GM (Rich Cho in Portland and Charlotte) in hopes of replicating the success. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Russell Westbrook have all come in and developed under his watch (Is Griffin next?). Maybe he’ll ultimately be a Billy Beane of basketball, the man “Moneyball” was written about, who shifts the game but doesn’t win it all. For now, he inspires the same kind of reverence of among new-generation, stat-first NBA fans and managers but with one main difference: he has the players to pull off a title or three.

5. Jerry Colangelo: The chief at USA Basketball seems like a cush job. Every four years assemble an All-Star team for the Olympics, and fill out FIBA teams in between. It wasn’t easy rebounding to first-in-the-world status after embarrassments in the 2002 worlds, 2004 Olympics and 2006 worlds; it won’t be any easier to stay No. 1 after winning the 2008 Olympics and 2010 worlds. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski won’t coach the team forever (though he is in this summer’s Olympics). Colangelo’s challenge: Persuade the elite players it’s worth it to represent the U.S. without pay and get another motivator to lead them there. Other than that, easy.

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Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin, Dime #62

4. Blake Griffin: DeMarcus Cousins bristled in a recent game that the NBA babies Griffin. Well, sure, when he’s the most known name under 23 in the entire league, of course he’s going to get preferable treatment. Look, we all know superstars get calls on the court, and whether you’re already tired of Griffin’s antics, no one can deny he’s joined that group. It pays, in page views and otherwise, when he dunks on someone and it gets replayed all week. He’s the NBA’s newest tastemaker of what’s cool, and while it’s hard to measure the money of that, it’s influential.

3. Adam Silver: Endorsed as Commissioner David Stern’s replacement by Stern himself during All-Star weekend, Silver will be the next man in charge of the league. Stern also said then that he doesn’t want to be around to negotiate in 2017, when either side can opt out of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The NBA board will choose the successor, of course, but Stern has hand picked his guy. Will Silver, the deputy commissioner now, take the Roger Goodell model of the NFL and become a much more hands-on, tougher commish? Time will tell.

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David Stern

David Stern

2. LeBron James: He’s the best player on the planet and its most talked about, too. Say LeBron in almost any country and you could find someone who knows the name and what it connotes. Freak athlete? Choker? It doesn’t really matter, it’s that you know him. He’s still arguably the league’s most marketable athlete with Kobe Bryant waning, and fans pour out to see him on the road.

1. David Stern: He’s not out the door, yet, which means he still wields enormous power. In the job since 1984, it doesn’t take much to have the NBA’s board agree with him. Until this week, he owned a team (New Orleans) by default (literally) and that allowed him to veto the Chris Paul trade, which in turn kept the Lakers from acquiring Dwight Howard. It could have kept the Lakers a viable threat for best, most publicized, and most profitable franchise for a decade. He runs the joint.

Who is your No. 1?

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