There was so much hope back in September 2003, when AOL Time Warner agreed to sell some of its “non-core assets” to Steve Belkin, Bruce Levenson, Ed Peskowitz, Michael Gearon Jr., Rutherford Seydel and four lesser stakeholders. The era of corporate detachment – which contributed to a lousy, lifeless product on the court – was supposed to be replaced by a group of passionate and enthusiastic men who were eager to own an NBA franchise and end the apathy that fans felt with regard to the Atlanta Hawks.
Belkin, a Boston businessman, and his Maryland-based partners Levenson and Peskowitz, had recently joined Larry Bird in a failed bid for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, which ended up going to BET founder Bob Johnson. And, Gearon, the son of the Hawks’ former general manager and president, and Seydel, the son-in-law of mogul and former Braves/Hawks owner Ted Turner, gave Atlanta Spirit LLC some local credibility and ties to the franchise’s better days.
On the afternoon that the purchase agreement for the Hawks, the NHL’s Thrashers and Philips Arena was announced, the new ownership team gleefully posed for pictures and vowed they would be dedicated to building a successful organization. They shot down the notion that having too many members, spread out over three different cities wouldn’t work in the long run.
Nearly 11 years later, the Hawks are a perennial playoff team but continue to lose money and rank near the bottom of the NBA in attendance and the ownership group that had so much promise has been shattered by ego, power plays, in-fighting, turmoil and dysfunction.
The embarrassing run has seen one owner ousted for disagreeing with the general manager over a player acquisition, the hockey team sold to a group of Canadian investors who moved the franchise to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a botched attempt to sell the Hawks to a California investor. But the latest saga, which could result in a complete regime change, has sunk the franchise to arguably its lowest depths.
Levenson announced this week that he would sell his controlling interest in the franchise after an internal probe into the Hawks’ dealings with race uncovered a two-year old email that contained some offensive language about the team’s struggles to attract white fans and sponsors. His pending departure was merely the undercard for an internal battle that has scarred General Manager Danny Ferry’s reputation and put him in a stalemate with Gearon, who sought to have Ferry dismissed for making inappropriate comments about Luol Deng last June during a free agency conference call.
According to a letter Gearon addressed to Levenson on June 12, Ferry said Deng “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 the back.”
Levenson, who lives in Potomac, Maryland, hired Ferry away from the San Antonio Spurs in 2012 to help turn the Hawks from a playoff tease to a contender. Ferry made some impressive moves, such as finding a taker for Joe Johnson’s massive, salary-cap killing contract, hiring Coach Mike Budenholzer and signing Paul Millsap, but the team has yet to win a playoff series or attract any marquee free agents.
Gearon had grown frustrated with Ferry because of the smug manner in which he dealt with some Hawks employees, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, and has long wanted him gone. But Gearon, who was once NBA governor for the franchise, lacked the power to remove Ferry and neither Levenson nor Steve Koonin, the new chief executive and minority owner assigned to run the team until the sale is completed, are willing to grant his wish. That tussle has been at the heart of the current tension within the organization.
Dissension has been the norm for Atlanta Spirit. They had a few minor disputes early on, but the clashes quickly became public and ugly. The most infamous incident occurred just two years into the experiment when then-general manager Billy Knight completed a $70-million sign-and-trade deal with the Phoenix Suns for Joe Johnson but Belkin thought the Hawks surrendered too much and attempted to block the agreement.
The dispute eventually led to a court battle that wasn’t resolved until 2010, when Gearon and Levenson – then on much better terms – bought out Belkin’s 30 percent share in the team. During the nearly five-year legal battle, Spirit co-founder Bud Seretean died in 2007, chief executive Bernie Mullin resigned after realizing that managing so many personalities was just too much and Knight left after leading the organization back to the playoffs after a nine-year drought and failing to secure a desired contract extension in 2008. But more difficult times were ahead.
After showing little interest in fielding a competitive hockey team, Atlanta Spirit eventually sold the Thrashers for $170 million in May 2011. The team moved north of the border and was re-branded the Winnipeg Jets.
Three months later, still reeling from the lengthy legal battle and sale of the hockey team, the ownership group agreed to sell a controlling interest in the team to Alex Meruelo, the owner of the fast food pizza chain, La Pizza Loca. But before Meruelo could become the NBA’s first Latino owner, the deal fell through during the NBA approval process following reports of his inadequate finances.
Atlanta Spirit, which has since become Atlanta Hawks LLC, remained relatively quiet after the failed deal and appeared committed to pushing forward until Sunday, when Levenson announced that he was ready to sell and apologized for using “hurtful words” to describe his fan base.
Atlanta isn’t lacking for basketball fans but the town has never had much affinity for the Hawks. The current seven-year playoff run matches the longest string of consecutive playoff appearances since the franchise moved to Atlanta from St. Louis in 1968. But the team remains quite bland, has never advanced beyond the second round and has been searching for a Hall-of-Fame-caliber star since Dominique Wilkins was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 1994.
Those problems will remain for the next owner but so will the hope that comes with the arrival of something new. Stability and credibility is needed as a blunder-filled era mercifully comes to an end.