By Maria Saporta and Douglas Sams
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on September 12, 2014
Out of conflict comes opportunity.
That was the way several key local leaders saw the controversy involving the owners and executives of the Atlanta Hawks.
The Sept. 7 disclosure of a racially charged email from majority owner Bruce Levenson and the derogatory statements made by Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry about free agent Luol Deng offer yet another turning point for a franchise that’s about to begin its 67th season having won fewer than half of the games it’s ever played.
The turmoil will likely end with the Atlanta Hawks once again becoming a locally owned team with stronger community ties and a heightened sense of racial awareness. It’s befitting of a franchise whose home is the city that birthed the Civil Rights Movement more than 50 years ago.
“This is something that at the end of the day could turn out to be really good for the city,” said Bob Hope, an Atlanta public relations veteran who worked with Ted Turner when he owned the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Braves. “Local ownership stabilizes a team.”
The ownership of the Atlanta Hawks has been dysfunctional for years.
In 2003, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. signed a binding agreement to sell the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena to Atlanta Spirit LLC.
Initially Atlanta Spirit’s ownership group represented three distinct geographical areas — Boston, Washington, D.C., including the Baltimore area, and Atlanta.
When the Boston owner — Steve Belkin — split off from the Atlanta Spirit after a contentious legal battle, that left two geographic teams. At that time, the majority interest of the team belonged to Levenson and his partners in the Washington, D.C., area.
Now Levenson will have to sell his interest in the team following the disclosure of the email that he sent, and it is likely that his partners in the Baltimore area also will have to sell their interest in the team.
That will leave the three Atlanta owners at the table: Michael Gearon Jr. and his father, Michael Gearon Sr., as well as Rutherford Seydel, the son-in-law of Ted Turner.
As of press time on Sept. 10, it appeared that Gearon Jr. will be the key owner setting the tone for the team going forward. He likely will be the Hawks’ representative on the NBA Board of Governors, and it is expected that he will be increasing his ownership share of the Hawks.
But the situation also leaves open the probability of new owners investing in the team. According to people close to the team, there is a desire to have some African-American ownership in the team and to increase the Atlanta ownership stake.
“If you look at the Tyler Perrys of the world, you have got a lot of options in Atlanta,” Hope said. “With all the entertainers that are here – Dallas Austin, Usher and others – it could be a lot of fun.”
Hope said it would make Atlanta even more like Los Angeles and Hollywood where movie stars and top entertainers are frequently seen at LA Lakers’ games.
Some of the potential African-American leaders who potentially could buy a piece of the Hawks include Atlanta movie mogul Tyler Perry, perhaps working in partnership with media star Oprah Winfrey.
Others include movie producer Will Packer, an Atlanta resident who has put together several successful film projects. He is considered to be one of Hollywood’s hit makers with five of his films opening at No. 1 at the box office.
Music producers and entertainers Ludacris, Usher and CeeLo Green also are possibilities. Bernard Bronner of Bronner Brothers could also be someone who would be interested.
Two basketball players have been mentioned – Dominique Wilkins and Dikembe Mutombo.
The construction industry also has been lucrative for Atlanta black business leaders Herman Russell and Dave Moody. Retired United Parcel Service Inc. executive Cal Darden also could be a candidate.
Doug Shipman, president and CEO of the recently opened Center for Civil and Human Rights, also said the changes at the Atlanta Hawks represent an opportunity for the city.
“Atlanta has in its history having the tools and capacity to address the ongoing conversation of who we are and who we want to be,” Shipman said. “This situation highlights how we continue to grapple with this question [of race] as our community and our country continue to evolve.”
Shipman also said that the Hawks probably would be well-served to have team ownership that better reflected the population of Atlanta.
“Any institution is always strengthened when it’s local and reflects the diversity that exists in Atlanta,” Shipman said, adding that the Civil Rights Center has been tackling many of these issues.
Atlanta businessman Tommy Dortch, a leader in the African-American community and a close friend of Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, said it is ironic that a controversy with so many racial overtones is being associated with an Atlanta team.
“Look at what Atlanta has done. Look at the leadership we’ve had,” said Dortch, who was a Hawks season-ticket holder for 33 years until last year. “Atlanta’s leadership has been one of inclusion. Inclusion has made our city what it is.”
Dortch said the city’s professional sports teams should be bringing the community together, not creating more divisiveness.
It was not lost on Dortch that the racially charged comments came from people who were not from Atlanta — Levenson and Ferry.
“You have got to have somebody who understands the community,” Dortch said. “I don’t think the other owners really understood Atlanta. Bruce Levenson was not from Atlanta.”
By comparison, Dortch had nothing but positive things to say about the Atlanta owners — Gearon Jr., Gearon Sr. and Seydel, who he credited for helping expose the problems within the organization. Dortch has been trying to get a statue constructed in honor of Wilkins for two years, but said he kept running into “roadblocks” set up by those in charge, namely Levenson and Ferry.
In that same vein, Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said he thought the recent hiring of Steve Koonin, who is from Atlanta, to be the team’s CEO was a good move.
“The Atlanta Hawks play an important part in the region and state’s growing sports and entertainment economy,” Clark said. “Steve Koonin is the right guy to lead the team, their fans and the region through this difficult period with a focus on the how we become a better community.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young remembered how the community came together to build the Georgia Dome more than 20 years ago.
“Everybody chipped in,” said Young, remembering how local companies bought suites and club seats to make the Dome and the Atlanta Falcons a success. “The idea is that this is a community effort.”
That said, Young was uncomfortable with the racial tone of the Hawks controversy, saying that Ferry could not have played basketball at Duke University without being sensitive to racial issues.
“I think they are making too much of the race issue,” said Young, a civil rights leader who worked side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. ”It’s clear that to win in basketball, you have to be a team, and the team is not just the team on the court. It is the team ownership. It’s the community.”
For the Hawks to succeed going forward, Young said the team will have to reignite that community spirit.
“I just wish we could keep race out of it and put emphasis on team building – both on the basketball court and in the executive suites,” Young said. “The emphasis has got to be on creating a team spirit. Every company needs to buy season tickets and make them available to their employees.”
It is still too early to see who will emerge as the new partners in the Atlanta Hawks. But as Young said, “It has got to be a community team.”