Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who has been placed in control of the team until the sale is complete, announced Ferry’s decision on Friday in a statement. “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,” Koonin said. “As a human being, manager and friend, I wish him well as he undergoes this process.”
Koonin said Coach Mike Budenholzer will oversee basketball operations for the team in Ferry’s absence. Ferry, a former standout at DeMatha and son of former Washington Bullets general manager Bob Ferry, has come under fire because of remarks he made during a June 6 call about potential free agents.
In an audio recording of the comments, which were leaked to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday, Ferry said Deng “is a good guy overall … but he’s not perfect. He’s got some African in him. And I don’t mean that in a bad way.”
While some on the call laughed uncomfortably, Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. was heard stating, “That’s going to be on TMZ.” Ferry went on to describe Deng as someone who “has a storefront out front that’s beautiful and great but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you.”
Koonin and Ferry both maintained that Ferry was reading a background report provided from outside sources, but sounded as if he was speaking off the cuff. A copy of the report, which was obtained by the Journal-Constitution and WSB Channel 2 Atlanta, revealed that the words were provided by a Cleveland Cavaliers executive. In an earlier statement this week, Ferry mentioned that he was relaying someone else’s words but he acknowledged his error on Friday and apologized, once again, to Deng.
“No words can adequately describe my remorse for the hurt that I have caused many people through the statements I repeated, most importantly Luol Deng,” Ferry said in a statement released by the team. “Luol is a good man who I have known for many years and he has done a tremendous amount of good for his country and around the world…While these were not my words, I deeply regret repeating them. Almost all the background information I provided during the lengthy presentation regarding Luol was positive and my personal and professional recommendation during the call was very much in favor of adding Luol to our team but I never should have uttered those offensive remarks and for that I apologize.”
Yahoo Sports reported that the Hawks were still interested in signing Deng last summer but he elected to join the Miami Heat. Deng, a two-time all-star whose community work helped him win the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in April, issued a statement this week in which he stated that he was “saddened and disappointed” about being “reduced to stereotype” in the report.
Gearon wrote a letter to Levenson six days after the call requesting that he fire Ferry or request his resignation. The Hawks later hired an Atlanta law firm to conduct an internal investigation to check on matters of race within the organization. The probe discovered Levenson’s 2012 email to Ferry in which he bemoaned the Hawks’ attendance woes and speculated that an “overwhelmingly black audience” scared away southern whites.
Koonin had already assessed Ferry with an undisclosed discipline for the comments. The NBA didn’t feel that further punishment was necessary and Commissioner Adam Silver stated that he felt Ferry should keep his job because of his track record and the “context” with which the words were said.
Koonin stated that the Hawks organization will create a Chief Diversity Officer and work with community leaders in the city “to ensure something like this never happens again.”
Ferry has become collateral damage in a dispute between Gearon and Levenson that has yielded yet another embarrassing moment for an ownership group that has been wrought with dissension for several years.
In the 10 years since Atlanta Hawks LLC – formerly Atlanta Spirit LLC – purchased the Hawks, the NHL’s Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena, the group forced out Steve Belkin after a four-year legal dispute over a player acquisition, sold the NHL’s Thrashers to a group that moved the hockey franchise to Winnipeg in 2011 and entered a failed agreement to sell the team later that year to a California investor. The latest saga could mark the end.
“While the issues related to race are deeply troubling, at the heart of this dispute is an unfortunate disagreement amongst owners,” Koonin said. “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.”
Ferry said in his statement that he would use his time away to build trust within the community: “I realize that my words may ring hollow now and my future actions must speak for me. I will maximize my time during this leave to meet with community leaders and further educate myself and others on the extremely sensitive issues surrounding race, diversity, and inclusion. I will find a way to make a positive difference in this area, and further learn from the sensitivity training that I will go through.”