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Kelly Loeffler sells stake in WNBA team after clashing with players over Black Lives Matter

Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler, left, sold her shares of the team. (David Tulis/AP)

First, WNBA players campaigned to oust Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler from her seat in the Senate. Now, after months of pressure from players who said Loeffler’s values didn’t fit with the WNBA’s, Loeffler is out of the league, too.

The WNBA announced Friday that Loeffler and co-owner Mary Brock sold the team to a three-person investor group that includes former Dream star Renee Montgomery. Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of real estate firm Northland, and Suzanne Abair, Northland’s chief operating officer, also will share ownership of the team. The WNBA’s and NBA’s boards of governors unanimously approved the sale, the league said. Terms were not disclosed.

The transition from Loeffler, the former Republican senator from Georgia who became an enemy of the players after speaking out against Black Lives Matter, to Montgomery, who opted out of last season to focus on social justice, marks another milestone in an era of athlete empowerment.

“You have Suzanne and I who are going to be leading the forefront on the day-to-day, and that’s a win for women’s sports; that’s a win for women’s basketball. That shows a lot of representation,” Montgomery said. “All the things that we wanted as players, it’s happening here in Atlanta.”

How politics transformed Kelly Loeffler from hoops junkie to WNBA villain

The sale was quickly celebrated by the WNBA players who pushed for it.

“It is time for the women of the Atlanta Dream and their fans to have an opportunity to heal and move forward. It is our fervent wish that we shall never see again such an abuse of power and arrogant display of privilege,” Women’s National Basketball Players Association Executive Director Terri Jackson said in a statement. “It is our hope that no one will ever again attempt to use the players for individual political gain or favor. Those actions were unbelievably selfish, reckless and dangerous. And those who would conduct themselves in that manner have absolutely no place in our sport.”

In a joint statement, Loeffler and Brock said, “We are proud of what we accomplished and wish the team well in their next chapter.”

Montgomery recently announced her retirement from the WNBA. Following Raphael G. Warnock’s victory over Loeffler in a runoff last month, NBA superstar LeBron James tweeted about putting together a group to buy the Dream. Montgomery responded, “I’m ready when you are.” Then Montgomery, who in October began to seriously consider joining any group that might buy the Dream, reached out to James for an assist.

“If you guys are serious, I’m interested as well. And if you can point me in the right direction or if you could help me get to the next step,” Montgomery said, recalling her conversation with James. “And that next step was [WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert]. They helped me get there.”

Montgomery also owns a share of a team, with former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, in a new fan-controlled football league. In the WNBA, she and her co-owners inherit one of the best-known teams in the league, thanks in large part to the controversy stirred by Loeffler.

Last summer, while running to retain her seat in the Senate, Loeffler branded herself as a tough-talking loyalist to President Donald Trump amid protests of racial injustice. After the WNBA pledged support of Black Lives Matter, Loeffler wrote an open letter to Engelbert denouncing the move as divisive. Instead, Loeffler suggested, the league should put an American flag on all licensed apparel for players, coaches and staff as a show of unity.

Players roundly rejected the letter and called for Loeffler to leave the WNBA, with the players’ union tweeting: “E-N-O-U-G-H! O-U-T!” With no commitment from the league to force her out, players turned their attention to removing Loeffler from office.

From January: WNBA players helped oust Kelly Loeffler from the Senate. Will she last in the league?

In August, players across the league wore “VOTE WARNOCK” shirts in support of Warnock, who was polling at 9 percent at the time. The gesture ignited his campaign, and on Jan. 20, Warnock was sworn in as the first Black senator from Georgia.

The NBA, led by James and Chris Paul, has received much of the credit for leading athletes to speak out for social justice, including in their fight against voter suppression. The women of the WNBA, however, have helped lead the charge of athletes as activists. In 2016, before any other professional team embraced Black Lives Matter, the Minnesota Lynx wore the slogan on T-shirts with the names of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, Black men who died during interactions with police.

Montgomery, who won two WNBA titles with the Lynx, took part in those protests. Maya Moore, Montgomery’s former teammate and the 2014 MVP, left the league at the height of her career to help overturn the conviction of a Missouri man who had served 22 years of a 50-year prison sentence for burglary and assault.

“People forget that we’re not the NBA. We don’t just leave in a year of playing. We all have our degrees. We’re all intelligent and strong women,” Washington Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said in January. “When we put our heads together, it’s like, ‘Who’s going to stop us?’ ”

Loeffler leaves behind the game she once professed to love. She played high school basketball and, though clumsy on the court as a 5-foot-10 teenager growing into her frame, found a sense of purpose.

How politics transformed Kelly Loeffler from hoops junkie to WNBA villain

“I loved the ability, first of all, to be part of a team,” Loeffler said in an interview last summer. During the Dream’s early years in Atlanta, Loeffler watched a game from the front row and, according to a person affiliated with the team at the time, seemed impressed by the pace and quality of play.

But Loeffler wasn’t just any fan with a courtside view; her attendance was part of the franchise’s courting process. As a multimillionaire and basketball fan, Loeffler was an ideal candidate to support the team as a season ticket holder or an investor.

In 2011, she and Brock combined to invest $1 million to join Kathy Betty as managing partners. Despite advancing to the WNBA Finals in 2010, its third season in the league, the Dream still operated in the red. Loeffler likened owning the Dream to operating a “struggling small business.”

Ahead of the 2012 season, she and Brock took over as the sole owners. While Brock expected frequent check-ins with the business staff, according to a former employee who had direct contact with the owners, Loeffler trusted the day-to-day operations to her deputies. But when she watched from her owner’s seat, Loeffler openly cheered and quietly catalogued the substitution patterns. And after games, Loeffler would visit Coach Michael Cooper to break down the X’s and O’s.

Cooper, who coached the Dream from 2014 to 2017, remembers visiting Loeffler’s house several times to talk about roster moves, such as trading for center Elizabeth Williams in 2016.

“Kelly was the more basketball person,” Cooper said in an interview last summer. “That I really loved.”

Loeffler will exit professional sports and is likely to return to business. Before taking office, she resigned as CEO of Bakkt, a cryptocurrency futures trading exchange. Her husband, Jeffrey Sprecher, is CEO of the company that owns the New York Stock Exchange.