Relocation, The Email, And The Future Of The Atlanta Hawks


May 1, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks players take the court for pre game warm ups before their game against the Indiana Pacers in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

“CNN is talking about the Hawks,” read the text my wife sent me this morning. She works at a bank and the TV is constantly on CNN in their lobby. Typically that’s how she — and many others — get the pulse of the national news.

The Hawks? CNN? Did a lost plane land in Philips Arena? Why would such a large national entity dare put a segment about the Atlanta Hawks — the butt of many NBA jokes — on their station?

Lost in the first Sunday of NFL football, ninja judo kicks in Pittsburgh, and an elevator video of relational abuse, those Hawks that no one talks about had the potential to start a firestorm.

Hawks’ owner Bruce Levenson announced that he’d be selling his stake in the team due to a racially insensitive email that was sent to GM Danny Ferry in 2012. In that email, Levenson stated that the Hawks’ attendance numbers were so low because:

” – it’s 70 pct black
– the cheerleaders are black
– the music is hip hop
– at the bars it’s 90 pct black
– there are few fathers and sons at the games
– we are doing after game concerts to attract more fans and the concerts are either hip hop or gospel.”

For an owner to try and fix an attendance issue is absolutely understandable, and even willing to try and reach out to certain races is acceptable, but these “theories” Levenson had on the way “blacks” act are complete trash. There’s no other way to put it.

What these “theories” show is an underlying issue. No matter how many people, organizations, or politicians deny it, systematic racism still exists and in some places thrives.

Not all owners are what they appear to be. Sure, Mark Cuban’s spunky attitude as he storms the court to be with his players seems fun, but to pretend that he has no demons is foolish. Donald Sterling was racist and bigoted right in front of our faces for decades, yet it took a strange side-piece with a recording to get the twitter mobs to grab their pitchforks and demand change.

When the Donald Sterling issue first appeared, it was “get mad time” for everyone. There were a lot of takes and columns displaying how folks like Bomani Jones wrote about this years ago, and some people were even telling others why they should be mad and who they should be mad at.

There were those saying Kevin Johnson shouldn’t lead the union because of what his past actions showed of him. Some went after Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos for his stance on gay marriage. There was fire everywhere, yet when Levenson announced his actions, there was a small whimper, and not much more.

Was it because he surrendered or wasn’t willing to fight? Sure. He didn’t tell Anderson Cooper that he went to the synagogue to pray for Magic Johnson when he had “those aids”. That probably helped some. But what the lack of outrage and national firestorm showed is that the Hawks just aren’t a draw for ratings. Or attendance for that matter.

Take yourself back to May 1 earlier this year. Philips Arena was packed like never before as the Atlanta Hawks were looking to eliminate the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. 20,000 people all decked out in t-shirts that read “The PAC is back” were cheering loudly for the hometown team.

The atmosphere was something the team, organization, and players were not used too. Sadly, the Hawks went on to lose both games and didn’t make it out of the first round, but things felt different. It wasn’t the “same old Hawks” that pounded the ball in isolation and would do something careless to blow their chances of being relevant. This team was fun. The ball zipped all around the court, young guys like Mike Scott were posing for posters in mid-air, and the passion of the crowd felt real.

The future was bright.

The future is still bright for the Hawks, but the newly-installed ray of hope now has dark clouds it must penetrate. Levenson’s announcement and horrendous email has left a nasty taste in many fans’ mouths. Rightfully so.

The timing of this whole situation is curious. Why now? The email was sent unnoticed two years ago, and it just now caused a change? There is probably more to this story, but for now we know that the conference call headed by Danny Ferry caused minority owners to launch an investigation.

Was Levenson fed up with the organization still lacking in attendance numbers that he wanted an excuse to get out? That’s highly unlikely. Why damage your reputation and essentially take yourself out of the selection process? Levenson is a business man, he’s not stupid.

There was likely something more than the Danny Ferry conference call that was set to come out. Reports are conflicting about whether Levenson actually turned himself in as well.

So where does this go from here? One can only guess.

Eventually the social media police will stop watching .gifs of Peyton Manning carving up the Colts and realize there is something to be mad at again.

After it was revealed that Ferry said Luol Deng “still has some African in him” his head is likely to be called for next — right or wrong. There is a chance that everyone would resign to avoid being canned soon, but that is basically rock bottom.

What about relocation?

As soon as someone mentions a franchise that has a lease that ends soon or that is struggling for attendance, everyone starts assuming that it’s time to move that team to Seattle!

That has to stop.

What fans and others miss with relocation talks is the humanity of it all.

This isn’t a board game. You don’t just pick up a team and skip across the country in harmony. There is real loss when this happens.

“I just don’t know if I’m ready to deal with this Justin Timberlake concert,” one member of Philips Arena security staff told me as he greeted me one night last season. As I enter the media room and get my credentials I am always greeted by the same wonderful folks working security and the team’s PR staff. One member of the staff always greets me with a smile and hands me my badge and asks how I’m doing.

If the Hawks move, the majority of those people won’t have jobs. Sure, the PR staff could move with the team, but what about the ticket office? The concession stand workers, the team store employees, what about Chris Vivlamore, and the countless other workers who could face unemployment or reduction of pay because the team moved?

But hey, Seattle has a team again!

Seattle absolutely deserves an NBA franchise, but let’s stop treating a relocation like it’s an app you can play with on your phone. This is more than that.

Hawks CEO Steve Koonin — who has been great in his efforts to re-brand the franchise — has said “The Hawks will stay in Atlanta, that is not even a question.”

Koonin has been huge for Atlanta, and his role will only be magnified, and he could be viewed as a savior at the end of this.

After Koonin’s promise and the fact that relocation could cost close to $100 million, the questions of relocation should stop now.

From my experiences as a fan and now a media member in Philips Arena, the place has never felt unsafe.

I know the assumptions that some have about the city and the fact that there is a large African-American population there. As a white man, it doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t care if you’re orange, blue, pink, male, female or anything. But, I know firsthand that racial assumptions and thinking that mirrors Levenson’s is out there.

As I tell people that I’m heading down to the arena for a game I have gotten responses like, “be careful down there,” as if Atlanta was some wasteland that requires me to be safe.

I can’t tell you what will happen next, I can’t predict who will step down or be disciplined next, but I do hope for change.

I hope the Hawks play in front of no less than 18,000 people per game next season. I hope the city of Atlanta gets behind a new owner and a team to spite the rasicm of Levenson. I hope this time will be remembered as the scandal that helped turn the fortunes of the franchise around.

But there’s a chance it could get worse.

Free agents could question what Danny Ferry will say about them when the process begins next July. More emails or details could come out that ignites a bomb of outrage.

All I can say is that this is the most crucial part of this franchise’s history. Here’s hoping that winning and a new owner can patch the holes and continue to build the hope that Koonin and Mike Budenholzer have brought.

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