Jeff Schultz

This AJC sports blogger takes things seriously when he has to, but he really would rather not

Hawks finally get honest, Ferry takes leave


The Hawks finally got honest about something Friday: It wasn't going to work.

It doesn't matter what side of the debate you were on about Danny Ferry's remarks or the (latest) continental divide in team ownership. Ferry couldn't function as a general manager. His image had been tarnished. He had become toxic. He couldn't operate in an organization where the managing owner who had his back (Bruce Levenson) was exiting in shame and the next most powerful partner (Michael Gearon Jr.) wanted him out.

The Hawks didn't fire Ferry, nor did he resign. For now, the team's general manager is in relative purgatory. Ferry is taking a leave of absence, which, according to a statement from CEO Steve Koonin, "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."

Healing. We need a lot of that around here. But it's not going to happen any time soon. This is a fractured franchise. It's not going to get better with Ferry taking a few weeks, or even months, off. The language in Ferry's and Koonin's statements would suggest he's coming back but assuming anything in this organization is dangerous.

Nothing will get significantly better until the Hawks have new ownership. It doesn't matter if it's a single owner or a 77-member group, as long as there's a unified plan and the respective parties agree that litigation, public mudslinging and whispering things about each other in the shadows probably isn't the best course or action.

That's how an organization turns into a cartoon.

I met with Ferry for a long breakfast after he was hired. We talked a little about basketball and his vision. Mostly, I asked him if he fully understood what he was getting himself into with Atlanta Spirit ownership. He said he did his homework. He believed there wouldn't be major issues. He constantly referred to Levenson as, "owner Bruce Levenson." I said to him, "You do realize there's a group, right? And they don't like each other." He looked at me kind of sideways, as if wondering what the big deal was.

It didn't matter that Levenson was the managing partner and he, not Michael Gearon Jr., was now the team's governor. There wasn't peace in the group. Gearon tells people he doesn't mind being in the background. But he didn't like the way Ferry and Levenson left him out of the loop, and it only figured that when Ferry messed up, Gearon was going to pounce.

Then came the conference call. Ferry read/used racist commentary when discussing the negatives about Luol Deng in a pre-free-agency call with owners: "He's a good guy overall, but he's not perfect. He's got some African in him. He has a store front out front that's beautiful and great, but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you. He can come out and be an unnamed source for a story, and two days later come out and say that was absolutely not me."

Take out, "He's got some African in him," and there's nothing wrong with the analysis, whether accurate or not. From that point on, Gearon was on a mission.

"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 Monday.

And later: "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."

What took so long for him to get humble, to get honest?

What took so long for all of them to come clean?

Some day they are going to study this entire ugly chapter in Atlanta Hawks history in public relations schools. The professor will stand in front of the class, clear his throat, maybe take a Dramamine, and tell his students, “This is what a grease fire looks like.”

Ferry's exit came the day after the Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore obtained an audio copy of the conference call. We heard Ferry's "ums" and pauses, things that would suggest he wasn't reading from a background report as he had claimed but rather speaking off the cuff.

Even in the best case scenario, Ferry was, to, to borrow from something that rolled by on my Twitter feed Thursday, using the "Ron Burgundy Defense": He'll read anything that's on the teleprompter.

But earlier Friday, just before Ferry's leave was announced, a Xeroxed copy of the actual background report was leaked to the AJC and WSB-TV. Ferry backers could point to that and say, "See, he was only reading somebody else's words."

Two problems:

• The authenticity of the hard copy report would have been more believable if released before the audio and preferably early in the week.

• That's not to state unequivocally Ferry/Koonin/CIA operatives doctored the script. Really, it doesn't matter. It still gets back to Ferry having had time to process analysis from some unnamed scout -- who still hasn't been publicly identified -- and not running it through a filter in his brain before delivering it on a conference call with team executives. This wasn't a case of two guys talking in a bar -- or, hypothetically, even an owner talking to his mistress. This was a business meeting.

This entire week has been one PR misstep after another. The news of Levenson's 2012 racially charged email and his impending exit was released on the first NFL Sunday of the year, as if there was some misguided belief the story would be buried. Instead, it not only was front page news in Atlanta but the Washington Post (Levenson's home base).

Immediately after the Levenson story broke Sunday, rumors circulated about a parallel investigation in the Hawks' front office. I made a friendly wager with WSB's Zach Klein in the press box at the Falcons game that the betting over/under on how many times the story would change was 4½. He took the over. He won. Quickly.

The Hawks could have avoided some heartache had they been more transparent from the outset. Instead, they fought to control the narrative. The warring factions tried to top each other with leaked stories to strategic media outlets. They all lied or evaded or told half-truths. They became a national joke.

If the Hawks paid a public relations firm for guidance this week, they should ask for a refund. And if Koonin ran point, this is on him.

The Levenson and Ferry stories were going to be ugly. But  this didn't have to play out as five days of humiliation. Had Ferry and the organization been up front about things, the healing process would be well under way. Now it's going to take a while. And the Hawks are a mess.


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About the Author

Jeff Schultz is a general sports columnist and blogger who isn't afraid to share his opinion, which may not necessarily jibe with yours.