An internal and unexpected chain of events stemming from a June free-agent meeting led toAtlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson putting controlling interest in the team up for saleSunday, multiple officials told ESPN.com.
A racially insensitive email written by Levenson more than two years ago came to light only after one of his co-owners called for an investigation because of something that was included in a potential free-agent target’s background report that was read aloud by team general manager Danny Ferry.
During the meeting, Ferry read a comment written by a source outside the organization that included a racist remark. According to multiple sources, Ferry did not fully edit the remark as he read it off the report.
This meeting took place less than two months after NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life and started proceedings to force him to sell his team when racist comments he made became public. Levenson himself had been one of the most outspoken owners against Sterling’s actions.
Following the meeting, one of the Hawks’ stakeholders called for an internal investigation based on the remark being in the team’s research of a player.
The team hired an Atlanta law firm to perform an investigation, which included 19 interviews and a review of more than 24,000 documents, according to the team.
It was in the review of these documents that Levenson’s email was discovered.
The email, which was sent to Ferry and copied to several of Levenson’s partners, had numerous comments that could be considered racist when discussing the atmosphere at Hawks games. In it, Levenson suggested changes that he thought would potentially attract more white ticket buyers. It included the following passages:
“I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority” and “I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while I don’t care what the color of the artist is, I want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season [tickets] demo. I have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even [complained] that the kiss cam is too black.”
The Hawks ownership group has a cluster of owners based in Atlanta and a cluster based in Washington, D.C., that includes Levenson. The group, which operates as Atlanta Spirit LLC, has been divided frequently since it bought the team in 2005.
There have been lawsuits among owners over personnel decisions, a failed sale attempt of the Hawks in 2011 and Atlanta Spirit’s sale and relocation of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, Manitoba, that same year.
After Levenson’s email was found, the Hawks informed the NBA, which launched its own investigation. Within the past week, sources said, the details of the email became known to several other owners and league officials as Silver discussed his options.
Though no punishment decision had been reached, Levenson made the choice to sell the team on his own, several sources told ESPN. Convinced the email was going to become public eventually, Levenson believed there would be damage done to the team’s business if he stayed on as controlling owner and informed Silver that he intended to sell.
“I trivialized our fans by making clichéd 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),” Levenson said in a statement.
“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.”
Silver released his own statement on Sunday in which he said: “The views he expressed are entirely unacceptable and are in stark contrast to the core principles of the National Basketball Association. He shared with me how truly remorseful he is for using those hurtful words and how apologetic he is to the entire NBA family.”
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the team, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday that Ferry will also be disciplined for his role in the situation. The nature of the discipline was not disclosed by the team. According to multiple sources, Ferry will remain as the team’s general manager.
Koonin told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that the Hawks held a meeting in early June to discuss potential free-agent targets. According to Koonin, Ferry cited a background report that included an “offensive and racist” remark about a player.
“Instead of editing it, he said the comment,” Koonin said.
Sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne on Monday that the player involved was Miami Heat swingman Luol Deng, who held free-agent discussions with the Hawks in July before signing with the Heat in the wake of LeBron James‘ return to Cleveland.
The specific nature of Ferry’s comments regarding Deng were not immediately known, but Koonin told the newspaper that the comment troubled others in the meeting, saying”: This is wrong. This should not be said. It’s not appropriate in any world but not a post-Sterling world.”
In the wake of the announcement, the Hawks reached out to their players to explain the developments. In general, sources said, the players were upset by Levenson’s comments. He was well-liked by players and in the league as a whole.
Even as the investigation progressed during the summer, Levenson discussed his optimism for the upcoming season with friends and associates and gave no indication he planned to sell the team in the short term, sources said.
It will be the NBA, and not Levenson, who takes the lead on the sale, which could move reasonably quickly. There was strong interest in the Milwaukee Bucks, who sold for $550 million earlier this year, and multiple bids for the Clippers, who ultimately sold for $2 billion this summer.
There are several deep-pocketed groups who have made their interest in buying a team known to the NBA, making it likely that a controlling interest in the Hawks will have high demand.
The team has made the playoffs in each of the past seven seasons, the longest current streak in the Eastern Conference and second longest in the NBA behind the San Antonio Spurs‘ 17. The team is currently in position to have more than $30 million in salary-cap space next summer. However, they finished 28th in attendance last season.
The Hawks have a lease with Philips Arena that runs through the 2017-18 season.