It would be a colossal mistake for everyone, most of all Danny Ferry, if a basketball lifer’s culturally and racially insensitive comments regarding Luol Deng became a casualty in the Great War Against People Who Might Be Donald Sterling.
A week has passed since another NBA owner has been branded racist enough that he has already decided to sell, and the aftermath in Atlanta may also soon claim the front-office career of Ferry, whose father Bob many around here know and revere as the general manager of Washington’s one and only NBA champion.
Because the NFL’s sordid sagas have comprised most social-issue dialogue in sports, it’s been easy to move the Hawks’ controversy aside.
This is why we should not.
Sports continually proves to be one of the most important and impactful venues for social progress. It remains one of the few areas in society where authentic discussions of race are had by people on differing sides of so many issues.
Having covered the league up close and peripherally for 20-plus years, nowhere have those conversations been more transparent than the NBA.
Sterling’s removal as owner of the Clippers was a no-brainer. He had a long, documented history of racist remarks and discriminatory behavior in his businesses.
But if the goal suddenly becomes playing “Gotcha,” lopping off heads for the sake of finding every potential racist among us, we miss a huge opportunity to drive deeper conversations about the very elements of society that polarize us.
Danny Ferry was 11 years old in 1978 when his dad’s Bullets beat the Sonics in seven scintillating games, and it’s well documented that a team whose best players were largely African American — Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier, Bobby Dandridge among others — were among the first athletic heroes of his youth.
Living legend Morgan Wootten, as color-blind a man and a coach as there ever was, coached Danny at DeMatha, where he starred as a senior and Mike Krzyzewski offered him a full ride to Duke.
The more you keep thumbing through his basketball life and connections, nothing in his background, really, accounts for, “he has a little African in him,” Ferry’s words to describe Deng.
“Not in a bad way,” Ferry is clearly heard saying in a conference call with the Hawks’ owners (which he maintains is him paraphrasing a scouting report), “he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”
Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Atlanta civil rights leaders have called for his job. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver cringed when he heard it, too, but he has said he doesn’t believe paraphrasing a scouting report warrants termination. Ferry is feeling enough heat that he has decided to take an indefinite leave of absence.
I don’t know if Danny Ferry has a sinister element inside him that has affected his personnel decisions over the years. But making him go away forever is not going to help anyone find out.
I found it ironic, for instance, that Ferry basically ascribed being “African” to also being “two-faced,” when, in fact, part of any NBA general manager’s job is being duplicitous with his peers. If Danny Ferry allowed every other GM to know exactly what he wanted at the draft and the trade deadline, he would be snookered out of the league.
Bruce Levenson was shown in a company e-mail to be in search of more white fans, whom he worries are frightened by black fans and too much hip-hop music. A couple of my colleagues argued this is no more than a businessman trying to increase his profits — and diversity, if you can believe that — in a very coarse and racially insensitive manner.
I would go the other way and wonder how in the world a white businessman from Washington could not take pride in the stands looking more like the players on the floor, and how depressing it is that an ownership and a marketing group cannot find a way to economically tap into their city’s large collection of black millionaires.
What does that say about black and white commercial interests?
Never mind. Levenson and Ferry have been banished to the He Might Be Donald Sterling corner. Conversation over.
Sports, most of all, can’t pretend to live in a post-racial world, banishing any violator of that creed. All that does is make one side feel self-righteous and make the other even more isolated.
You could argue that when the participants in front-office conference calls have the same diversity as those in locker room conversations, controversies will be replaced by greater understanding. Until then, we need to get in the head of the people who say and do things that make us feel uncomfortable.
Not coming from a diverse background should not make everyone connect the dots to the worst possible destination.
Going there prevents any chance of that person actually learning how to engage in a respectful way in some of these discussions.
The more sterilized and cutthroat we become, the less these important discussions ever have a of taking place.