Bruce Levenson to Sell Atlanta Hawks: Latest Details, Comments and Reaction

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistSeptember 7, 2014

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Updates from Friday, Sept. 12

Hawks GM Danny Ferry will be taking an "indefinite leave of absence," according to a statement from team CEO Steve Koonin (via AtlantaHawks.com):

This afternoon, Danny Ferry requested, and I have approved, taking an indefinite leave of absence, effective immediately. This has been an incredibly difficult time for him and his family and it is my hope that this time away from the Hawks organization allows him the privacy he needs to listen to the community, to learn about his mistakes, and to begin the long process of personal healing. As a human being, manager and friend, I wish him well as he undergoes this process.

While the issues related to race are deeply troubling, at the heart of this dispute is an unfortunate disagreement amongst owners. That said, we have taken several steps to address what we can do as an organization to be better and stronger, including working with a diversity consultant to examine us, and to train us to ensure something like this never happens again, we are committed to hiring a Chief Diversity Officer, and we have and will continue to meet with community leaders in an ongoing way to ensure our values reflect the community in which we play and work. The process of selling the team, which is to remain in Atlanta, is already underway.

Effective immediately, our head coach, Mike Budenholzer, will assume oversight of the basketball operations department. He will report directly to me.

I am deeply saddened and embarrassed that this has put a blemish on our team and our city, which has always been a diverse community with a history of coming together as one. We should build bridges through basketball, not divide our community or serve as a source of pain.

Updates from Thursday, Sept. 11

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution provides audio of a recording it claims features GM Danny Ferry making controversial remarks regarding Luol Deng:

Warning: Video contains graphic language

Updates from Wednesday, Sept. 10

USA Today's Sam Amick spoke with Adam Silver about his thoughts on Danny Ferry: 

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver does not believe that Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry should be fired for his racially charged remarks about former free agent Luol Deng, he told USA TODAY Sports Wednesday.


"The discipline of a team employee is typically determined by the team, and in this case the Hawks hired a prestigious Atlanta law firm to investigate the circumstances of Danny Ferry's clearly inappropriate and unexpected remarks," Silver said. "In my view, those comments, taken alone, do not merit his losing his job.

"It's a question of context ... These words, in this context, understanding the full story here, the existence of the scouting report, the fact that he was looking at the scouting report as a reference when he was making these remarks, what I'm saying is – and frankly my opinion — is that this is a team decision in terms of what the appropriate discipline is for their employee. But if I'm being asked my view, I'm saying that, based on what I know about the circumstances, I don't think it's a terminable offense."

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reports on some explosive details regarding the Hawks pursuit of Luol Deng this summer:

Eventually, the Hawks made two offers to Deng – two years, $20 million, or one year, $10 million – league sources told Yahoo Sports. Around the discussions between the Hawks and Deng, several sources told Yahoo that within the basketball operations, Ferry was Atlanta's biggest proponent to sign Deng.

Ferry never did persuade Deng to take the offer, and yet still he'll forever be connected to him. Once he started talking on the call about Deng, it wasn't long before Ferry marched himself directly into a foolish, ignorant riff of African stereotypes. 

Wojnarowski goes on to report how Hawks minority owner J. Michael Gearon Jr. responded to the comments made by Ferry:

"Oh my God, that comment sounds like Sterling on TMZ," Gearon said.

Gearon didn't stop Ferry. He let him keep talking. In the transcript, Ferry detailed the information he'd gathered on Deng. Ferry attributes those characterizations – and inappropriate phrasing – to outside sources.

Yet Gearon Jr's response to reading the now infamous email of co-owner Bruce Levenson garnered a much different response per Wojnarowski: 

Gearon's response – which came within an hour of the rambling Levenson email that will ultimately cost him ownership of the franchise – offers evidence that Gearon proceeded without the outrage regarding Levenson that existed in his aggressive pursuit of Ferry's removal. Between that August 2012 day and the investigation that re-discovered the Levenson email recently, there's no apparent evidence that Gearon made issue of his displeasure about the Levenson letter within the Hawks or the league office.

In all the twisted wreckage of these Hawks, make no mistake: Gearon is no whistle-blowing hero for racial justice, just as Ferry is no victim for falling into the trap.

Updates from Tuesday, Sept. 9

Luol Deng released a statement on the comments via Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt

Statement (part one) from Luol Deng on Hawks controversy: http://t.co/DiOCCqMb3j

Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt

Statement (part two) from Luol Deng on Hawks controversy: http://t.co/s6Vr3AIGRJ

The Associated Press, via ESPN, reports Hawks President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ferry has been disciplined for the comments he made, though there is no word of the extent of his punishment:

Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry has been disciplined by CEO Steve Koonin for making racially charged comments about Luol Deng when the team pursued the free agent this year.

The team did not provide any details of the discipline.

Media.CMGDigital.com provide an email sent to Bruce Levenson from Hawks minority owner J. Michael Gearon Jr. on June 12 of this year discussing Ferry's comments:

We are calling on you, as majority owner and NBA governor, to take swift and severe action against general manager Danny Ferry. Our advisors tell us there is no other choice to ask for Ferry's resignation and if he refuses, to terminate him for cause under his employment contract.

The authenticity of the letter was later confirmed by CBS Sports' Ken Berger.

CBS Sports' Zach Harper previously provided a statement from Ferry:

Zach Harper @talkhoops

Danny Ferry's statement http://t.co/DRselHRtBu

ESPN's Brian Windhorst spoke with two African-Americans in the NBA that are supporting Ferry:

Two prominent African-Americans associated with the NBA have come forward to offer support to Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry in the wake of comments that have come to light this week.


"I've observed Danny Ferry and his family for many years and I can say Danny Ferry is not a racist," said Wayne Embry, who was the NBA's first African-American general manager with theMilwaukee Bucks in 1971. "I don't know all the circumstances, but in the capacity of a president or general manager, you have to do your due diligence on players. It is a responsible way to act." 


"I know Danny very well and we've always had high-quality interactions," said player agent Bill Duffy, who represents more than 30 clients including Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Joakim Noah and Andrew Wiggins. "He's been involved in pro basketball his entire life and I've been shown nothing but respect in my dealings with him. He's always been of good character and I have admired him over the years."

Updates from Monday, Sept. 8

Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that co-owner of the Hawks Michael Gearon Jr. wanted to take action towards GM Danny Ferry earlier this summer:

Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. wrote a letter to majority owner Bruce Levenson asking that he request the resignation or terminate with cause general manager Danny Ferry in June.

In a letter obtained by WSB Channel 2, dated June 12, Gearon Jr. cites a racist statement made by Ferry when discussing a potential free agent with ownership. That player was not mentioned by name in the letter but was referred to as a “highly-regarded African-American player and humanitarian.” According to sources the player was Luol Deng.

Vivlamore went on to report what exactly Ferry said:

After discussing positives of the player, Ferry described the negatives as “He 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 but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.” The letter states the Ferry completed the slur by describing the player as “a two-faced liar and cheat.”

In the letter, Gearon Jr. noted that Levenson and his business partner and fellow co-owner Ed Peskowitz were on the call. Gearon Jr. also noted that the call had been recorded for the purposes of note taking.

Gearon Jr. states that he is “appalled” by the comments. He writes “If Ferry’s comments are ever made public, and it’s a safe bet they will someday, it could be fatal to the franchise.”

In the final paragraph of the letter, Gearon Jr. writes “We are calling on you, as majority owner and NBA Governor, to take swift and severe action against Ferry. Our advisors tell us there is no other choice but to ask for Ferry’s resignation, and if he refuses, to terminate him for cause under his employment agreement.”

Click here to read the entire letter.

Original Text

For the second time in a year, an NBA owner will be giving up his team after making racially offensive comments.    

This time, Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson has agreed to sell the team after self-reporting his own racial comments in a 2012 email. The NBA tweeted the following statement from commissioner Adam Silver:


NBA Commissioner Adam Silver released the following statement regarding Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson: http://t.co/H91NSEqf6t

In a statement released on NBA.com, Levenson apologized:

I trivialized our fans by making cliched assumptions about their interests (i.e. hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e. that white fans might be afraid of our black fans). By focusing on race, I also sent the unintentional and hurtful message that our white fans are more valuable than our black fans.

If you're angry about what I wrote, you should be. I'm angry at myself, too. It was inflammatory nonsense. We all may have subtle biases and preconceptions when it comes to race, but my role as a leader is to challenge them, not to validate or accommodate those who might hold them.

I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true. That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA.

On Monday, ESPN's Marc Stein reported details behind the investigation:

Marc Stein @TheSteinLine

ESPN sources say that the player referred to in the initial Hawks' background report that triggered the ensuing investigation was Luol Deng

Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski continued:

"He's still a young guy overall," [Hawks general manager Danny] Ferry said, league sources with direct knowledge of the probe told Yahoo. "He's a good guy overall. But he's not perfect. He's got some African in him. And I don't say that in a bad way."

Wojnarowski also reported that Ferry has since apologized:

Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn

Ferry called Ron Shade, Deng's agent, to apologize. "I have no reaction, but we've spoken," Shade tells Yahoo. Ferry reached out to Deng too

Eliott C. McLaughlin and Holly Yan of CNN later provided a statement from Hawks CEO Steve Koonin discussing the investigation conducted with CNN's Martin Savidge on Sunday night:

There were 19 people interviewed, 24,000 pieces of evidence looked at, and in that discovery -- that internal investigation -- this email that we released this morning was found, from Bruce Levenson.

Bruce was confronted with this email from 2012, and he decided that instead of fighting it ... he thought it was best for the city, for the team, for his family, to walk away.

Earlier on Sunday, Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed Levenson may not be the only member of the organization to receive punishment:

In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Sunday night, Hawks co-owner and CEO Steve Koonin said other disciplinary action will be taken, including against general manager Danny Ferry. ...

... According to Koonin, the Hawks held a meeting in early June to discuss free agency. At that meeting, a player was being discussed and Ferry cited a background report that included an "offensive and racist" remark.

"Instead of editing it, he said the comment," Koonin said.

Following the meeting, Koonin said members of the Atlanta-based ownership group raised a red flag regarding the comment and said: "This is wrong. This should not be said. It’s not appropriate in any world but not a post-(Donald) Sterling world."

This, of course, follows the very messy and public sale of the Los Angeles Clippers by longtime owner Donald Sterling after it was revealed he had made racist comments. And indeed, Levenson was quite vocal during the Sterling scandal.

After Sterling's remarks became public, Levenson said the following on Atlanta radio station 92.9/The Game, per Adi Joseph of USA Today:

Sterling (if he is on the recording) should be given the maximum penalty for his comments. I strongly believe that the league has to have a zero-tolerance policy against racism and discrimination in any form and I have faith that commissioner Adam Silver will act in what's the best interest of the league. I have expressed these views to Adam and my fellow owners.

Given those public comments, it's not hard to see why Levenson would cooperate with the NBA in the sale of the Hawks after his remarks. Perhaps had he not been so vocal in the Sterling situation—and perhaps if the Sterling situation hadn't happened in the first place—Levenson would be facing punishment and not selling his team. 

However, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports reports that Levenson may not have self-reported the e-mail:

Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn

High-ranking league official w/ direct knowledge of Bruce Levenson probe disputes to Yahoo the fact that owner self-reported email to NBA.

It's a tricky situation. Levenson's intent in his email was to explore ways the team could attract more white males, a demographic he felt could help increase the team's overall season-ticket sales. You can read the full email via AtlantaHawksInfo.com

This situation was far different from Sterling's fiasco, as Sterling already had a sullied history when it came to race relations.

But where Levenson's email became offensive and troubling was when he wrote sentences like, "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base," or "I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black."

Even in the context of trying to attract a more white audience, those comments were offensive and, at best, stereotypical. 

Ken Berger of CBSSports.com provides insight into the leadership of the organization while Levenson sells the team:

Ken Berger @KBergNBA

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin will oversee team operations while league begins sale process.

However, the fact that Levenson not only reported his own behavior but is also willingly entering the selling process should ensure this situation is far less messy than what transpired in Los Angeles.

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