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ATLANTA – Racially inflammatory comments made by Hawks' management left the NBA team facing a crisis that threatens its progress on the court and in the stands.
General manager Danny Ferry took an indefinite leave of absence Friday.
Majority owner Bruce Levenson already said he will sale his controlling share of the team following the release of his belief that black fans have driven white fans away from Philips Arena. Levenson's email was uncovered in the team's investigation of Ferry's racially charged comments about Luol Deng.
Now there's an internal rift about what comes next.
Hawks CEO Steven Koonin and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver have said Ferry doesn't deserve to be fired, but the GM asked to step away from his duties.
Koonin said Ferry has been disciplined, but won't reveal the punishment. Meanwhile, co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. and civil rights leaders have called on Ferry to resign or be fired.
A lack of confidence in management is the last thing the Hawks need after ranking 28th out of 30 teams in attendance last season.
Levenson insulted Atlanta white and black fans in a 2012 email to co-owners and Ferry, writing that "southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority."
Among Ferry's inflammatory remarks in a June conference call with the owners was that Deng, who was born in what is now South Sudan, "has a little African in him. ... Not in a bad way, but he's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back."
There was more public outrage Thursday when Atlanta media outlets released a recording of Ferry's comments.
No matter Ferry's ultimate fate, the Hawks have some difficult challenges to overcome.
Here are some of the challenges ahead for the Hawks:
MOVING SALE? The announcement Levenson will sell his controlling share raises questions about the team's future in Atlanta, especially with Seattle interested in landing another team. However, there are many strong ties to the city in The Atlanta Spirit ownership group: Gearon, his father, Michael Gearon Sr., Beau Turner, and Rutherford Seydel. Koonin, recently given a small ownership stake, also is based in Atlanta and has said the team is not moving. Though nothing is impossible, a move is unlikely. Even if there is difficulty finding new ownership, the current group likely would buy Levenson's share — about 25 percent. The Hawks would have to pay a $75 million early termination fee if they leave Philips Arena before the 2018-19 season.
HAWKS WORTH: The value of NBA teams has never been higher. The Clippers, which Forbes said in January were worth $575 million, recently sold for $2 billion. That was the high end; the bottom value for a franchise may have been set this year when the Milwaukee Bucks sold for about $550 million. The Hawks, who Forbes values at $425 million, likely would go for a number above the Bucks, though nowhere close to the Clippers. With the current NBA TV deals ending in 2016, the promise of a new, more lucrative deal will only further boost the value of all teams.
FINDING A BUYER: History indicates it may not be easy to find a buyer for the Hawks. In 2011, the ownership group made an unsuccessful attempt to sell to California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Meruelo. The deal fell through after Meruelo was introduced as the new owner. The Atlanta Spirit was hastily thrown together a decade ago to buy the team after a proposed deal with Dallas businessman David McDavid fell through.
FERRY'S FUTURE: Ferry's future in Atlanta is uncertain, even before his leave of absence. While he has Koonin's support, Ferry's descriptions of the much-respected Deng leave a stain on the GM's reputation, which could make it difficult for him to attract future free agents. Levenson was primarily responsible for bringing Ferry to Atlanta. Without Levenson's support, Ferry is left on shaky footing.
LACK OF DIVERSITY: While Levenson worried about too few white fans in the stands, civil rights leaders note there is no black member in the ownership group. Adding diversity to the Hawks' ownership could send an important message to Atlanta fans, especially black season-ticket holders offended by comments from Levenson and Ferry. Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, a member of the team's broadcast crew and still a beloved figure in the city, could be part of any effort to bring in new owners.
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