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Atlanta Hawks’ Steve Koonin: ‘We feel it is our time as a city’

Atlanta Hawks get ready to take on the New York Knicks at State Farm Arena on May 28 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

During this past weekend’s Atlanta Hawks playoff games Hawks at State Farm Area, Spike Lee – film director, producer, actor and avid New York Knicks fan – had seats on the floor, much to the dismay of the Atlanta Hawks.

“We would not sell Spike Lee a ticket on the floor,” said Steve Koonin, president of the Atlanta Hawks. “He bought it from a season ticket holder.”

But Koonin recognized having Spike Lee in the house “does add to the hype.” As such a legendary Knicks fan, Lee had to witness the Hawks win two decisive sold-out playoff games in Atlanta – going up in the series 3-1.

Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin at Friday night’s game with Spike Lee’s orange hat visible right above Koonin’s head (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“That was most enjoyable,” said Koonin, who watched Lee sink further down in his front row seat as the Hawks took the lead in both games.

In the past 10 days, we’ve seen the rivalry between Atlanta and New York become elevated with a verbal and text exchange between New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Mayor de Blasio lashed out against Hawks’ star Trae Young, who Mayor Bottoms defended.

Also, Nate McMillan, interim coach for the Atlanta Hawks, was fined $25,000 for “detrimental public comments asserting bias by the NBA” in favor of the Knicks, because New York is a much bigger media market than Atlanta.

This is what happens when two hungry teams (both that haven’t seen playoff action for several years) find themselves fighting each other to get to the next round.

But, in some ways, Koonin said the back-and-forth between the teams and the cities’ mayors is a metaphor for Atlanta – a city that is still trying to prove itself on the world stage.

“New York has always been the capital of the world. It’s been the epicenter,” Koonin said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “Atlanta, for some reason, doesn’t get recognition for being seventh or eighth largest market in the United States.”

As an example of how the Atlanta Hawks also have been underestimated, Koonin cited an ESPN poll of 17 basketball sportswriters – 15 predicted the Knicks would win while only two picked the Hawks.

Atlanta Hawks majority owner Tony Ressler sits next to Steve Koonin, president of the Atlanta Hawks in 2018 (Photo by Maria Sapota)

“People don’t understand and respect what has happened here, what is happening here and what will happen here,” Koonin said. “We feel it is our time as a city.”

But Koonin stopped short of predicting the Hawks would beat the Knicks to go to the next round in the playoffs. He didn’t want to jinx Atlanta’s dominant position with the Hawks needing only one win to clinch the series against New York.

Koonin, however, was pleased to boast about how the Hawks are an up-and-coming team and how much progress the team has made since 2014 -2015 season when Koonin became CEO of the Hawks and Tony Ressler became the principal owner of the team and what is now named State Farm Arena.

“We had two goals when we started this,” Koonin said. “One was to build a multigenerational base of fans. We want the Hawks to be Atlanta’s team for the next generation. The second goal was to have a diverse audience, which we have achieved. Forty-five percent of our ticket buyers are African American. We are No. 1 among NBA teams (based on the 2019-2020 ticket sales).”

The Atlanta Hawks have been intentional in embracing diverse audiences.

“Our building was designed to reflect our city,” said Koonin, using Killer Mike and Zac Brown as examples.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks also are building strong ties with the city’s largest companies. On Friday night, Delta Air Lines’ CEO Ed Bastian had floor seats. On that same night, the Atlanta Hawks celebrated its deal to use financing from an alliance of black banks. Then on Sunday, Chris Womack, president of Georgia Power, was in attendance.

Atlanta Hawks’ owner Tony Ressler raises his arms in protest over an official’s call against the Hawks at Friday night’s game (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Atlanta Hawks’ owner Tony Ressler was in attendance, as he is at most home games.

“The business community has been great supporters of ours – Coca-Cola, Delta, UPS, among others,” Koonin said. “We are a marketing asset for them. Basketball is good for business.”

The Hawks also have a unique relationship with Atlanta-based Sharecare, which has its logo on the official team jerseys. “We literally are making Sharecare part of the fabric of Atlanta by having its logo on our uniforms,” Koonin said.

While New York is still the biggest market in the country, Koonin said Atlanta’s stature is definitely moving up – and he described the Hawks as a metaphor for the city. Both Atlanta and the team are young, aggressive, progressive, ambitious and ascending.

Meanwhile, the Hawks decided decades ago to keep its roots downtown. Philips Arena was built on the site of the Omni Coliseum, and then it underwent an extensive renovation that coincided with the renaming to State Farm Arena.

And Tony Ressler’s brother – Richard Ressler – is a key player in the CIM Group, which is putting together a $5 billion deal to redevelop the old railroad gulch in the historic part of the city – adjacent to the arena.

“Not only did we stay downtown,” Koonin said. “We are building downtown, which is very exciting.”

Again, there’s a metaphor – building a basketball team and a city for the future.

Perhaps even Spike Lee, an Atlanta native who went to Morehouse College, will come to appreciate and root for the Atlanta Hawks. Could Lee adopt the Atlanta Hawks as his second favorite NBA team?

To that, Koonin simply said: “I don’t think being second favorite matters a whole lot.”

A Sports Illustrated tweet showing Spike Lee at the first of the two Atlanta home games of the Atlanta Hawks versus the New York Knicks (Twitter)


A tweet from an Atlanta Hawks fan points out Spike Lee’s Atlanta ties (Twitter)


Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms responds to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attack on Atlanta Hawks’ star Trae Young (Twitter)

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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