When first the Atlanta Hawks’ owners were squabbling over a general manager, it was semi-comical. In 2005, Billy Knight wanted to send Boris Diaw and two draft picks to Phoenix in a sign-and-trade for Joe Johnson; Steve Belkin thought that was too much to give and refused to grant his blessing. The whole thing wound up in a Massachusetts court — yielding the famous photo of Knight refusing Belkin’s proffered handshake — and led to the other owners deposing Belkin as NBA governor and holding what amounted to a pep rally for Knight on the floor of Philips Arena.
This is different. This isn’t amusing in any way. This involves racist language and could well cost Danny Ferry, who 36 hours ago was seen as this franchise’s shining light, his job.
Zack Klein of Channel 2 WSB reported last night that Michael Gearon Jr., one of the team’s many owners, had written a letter to fellow owner Bruce Levenson in June calling for Ferry’s resignation or firing in the wake of what even the Hawks concede was an “offensive and racist” remark. The remark in question involved Luol Deng, whom the Hawks were targeting in free agency, and its scope broadened throughout a long and frazzled Monday.
The first reports held that Ferry had said, on a conference call, that Deng “has got a lot of African in him.” Gearon’s letter contended that Ferry also said, “He’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”
Gearon then wrote: “We believe these comments by Ferry were far worse than (Donald) Sterling’s because they were not from a private personal conversation – they were in a business environment on a business matter in front of a dozen or more people. If Ferry would make such a slur in a semi-public forum, we can only imagine what he has said in smaller groups or to individuals.”
Got that? A Hawks’ owner believes his general manager is a greater liability than Sterling, who was forced by the NBA to sell the Los Angeles Clippers. This isn’t funny. This is serious stuff.
For his part, Ferry released a statement early Tuesday saying, “In regards to the insensitive remarks that were used during our due diligence process, I was repeating comments that were gathered from numerous sources during background conversations and scouting about different players. I repeated those comments during a telephone conversation reviewing the draft and free agency process. Those words do not reflect my views, or words that I would use to describe an individual and I certainly regret it. I apologize to those I offended and to Luol, who I reached out to Monday morning.”
That has been the Hawks’ defense — if not Gearon’s — all along: That Ferry was only reading “background reports” aloud. That could be true, although I find it difficult to believe that any NBA scout/evaluator would commit such incendiary words to print in the 21st Century. But now all parties have conceded that something objectionable was said in a business setting, and it will be hard for anyone to square that circle.
After Gearon’s letter came to light Monday night, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin hustled to Fox 5 Atlanta to tell WAGA reporter Dale Russell that Ferry spoke words “that were hurtful and indicted an entire continent … I don’t agree with anything he did.” Then this: “There have been significant mistakes made here. There have been hurtful things said here. There have been ignorant pieces.”
Koonin reiterated that Ferry has been punished, but that only he and Ferry know what the punishment entails. (I’m told even other owners don’t know the extent of it.) Koonin said that Ferry would remain the general manager, and the tone of Ferry’s statement today indicated that he has no plans to resign. But think about that for a moment.
At least one owner wants Ferry gone. That owner is Gearon, who is believed to be the Hawks’ leading individual shareholder (though not a majority shareholder). Levenson, who essentially hired Ferry, is selling his part of the team due to the lengthy email he wrote (to Ferry) that suggested the Hawks’ attendance problems were due to African-American patrons scaring white fans away from Philips Arena. In a post-Sterling NBA, the Hawks have become, at least in the public eye, the thing no organization can afford to be — a team insensitive to racial matters.
It is with great regret that I type these words, for I believed Danny Ferry to be the man capable of lifting the Hawks to heights they hadn’t seen since moving here from St. Louis. But I cannot see how he stays.
From myajc.com: With Ferry’s credibility in question, so is the Hawks’.