The Atlanta Hawks' ownership fell apart in 2014, the result of off-the-court drama involving leaked emails, allegations of racism and organizational power plays. Kevin Arnovitz and Brian Windhorst of ESPN have the full story on how the ownership group led by Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon Jr. destroyed itself, and it's pretty amazing to read.
One of the driving factors of the story is Gearon's relationship with then-Hawks general manager Danny Ferry, who was hired in 2012 and given one of the biggest contracts ever for an NBA executive. Gearon's family had ties to the Hawks for decades and loved the team's history and tradition. Ferry, the newcomer, was expected to overhaul the organization's basketball operation and turn the team into a contender. This led to a lot of butting heads.
Ferry's unique contract allowed him to report solely to majority owner Levenson, however, cutting Gearon out of the loop. Much of Arnovitz and Windhorst's reporting details Gearon's subsequent efforts to get Ferry fired, which eventually happened after he read a scouting report suggesting free-agent target Luol Deng "had a little African in him."
Gearon responded to Levenson's racist email by complaining about Ferry
Levenson eventually ended up selling his shares in the Hawks after the emergence of a 2012 email detailing his thoughts on the team's African American fans. Gearon had been part of the push to deal with the emails in 2014, yet at the time the messages were sent, he didn't respond with any outrage. Instead, he complained about Ferry.
As rancor quickly spiraled, Levenson became more baffled. His now-notorious email on the crowd at Philips Arena was part of a larger thread, but in emails obtained by ESPN, Gearon didn't express any outrage over the content of Levenson's remarks or even a cautionary warning. Instead, Gearon's response at the time to the forwarded email exchange between Levenson and Ferry was to fire off a fresh round of frustration over his favored target: Ferry.
Gearon wouldn't let Ferry fire team trainers
Before the fire storm began in 2014, Ferry had tried to let go of the team's trainers, Wally Blase and Pete Radoluvic. Gearon had a personal relationship with the two trainers, however, especially the latter. "To Gearon, Radulovic was a personal hero and the living embodiment of the idea that the Hawks functioned as a family."
After Ferry claimed the trainers weren't meeting their responsibilities, Gearon went out of his way to ask players if they agreed. Arnovitz and Windhorst say that for Gearon, this situation solidified "what he had first suspected: Ferry was a bully."
"I get the sense Danny either doesn't respect or value my opinion, which should be given to you and then you communicate my words to Danny," Gearon wrote to Levenson in a 2012 email. "That seems very bureaucratic to me. I have built 3 separate billion-dollar business [sic] in my career in 4 countries. I have some of the savviest investors in the world as well as some of the wealthiest individuals in the world ask me for my thoughts on different subjects yet [for] a team I have been involved with either directly or indirectly for approximately 35 years [the] new GM doesn't feel a need to have a direct communication with me."
Gearon felt Ferry disrespected Dominique Wilkins
Dominique Wilkins is the greatest player in Hawks history and an icon in Atlanta. However, Ferry "saw Wilkins as a remnant of the past," when the franchise should be focused on a brighter future. Ferry also believed Wilkins was a poor TV analyst.
* * *
Gearon eventually agreed to sell part of his ownership stake in 2013 in exchange for a deal that would ensure the job security of Wilkins, Blase and Radulovic. Then, Levenson's email and Ferry's Deng comments came out, Ressler took over majority shares and Blase and Radulovic were fired anyway. Wilkins is still part of the franchise and Gearon is hundreds of millions of dollars richer, but the Hawks are finally embracing their new direction under Ressler and team president Mike Budenholzer (who was hired by Ferry).
* * *
SB Nation archives: Hawks fans should be mad about how the franchise operated (2014)