An interoffice racial firestorm that caused Hawks owner Bruce Levenson to announce that he is selling the team has now enveloped GM Danny Ferry, who made or recounted a racist remark during a conference call with his ownership group this summer.
Levenson, a co-founder of United Communications Group who has served as the Hawks' governor since 2004, announced Sunday that he would sell the Hawks because he penned an Aug. 2012 email that used racial stereotypes describing his team's fan base. That email, it was later reported, was uncovered by a Hawks' internal investigation prompted by an inappropriate comment made by Ferry in June.
Atlanta's WSB-TV reported Monday that Hawks minority owner Michael Gearon wrote a letter to Levenson calling for Ferry's resignation or firing. Gearon's letter, which is dated June 12 and can be read here, included an account of Ferry's comment about Luol Deng, an unrestricted free agent at the time who was born in South Sudan.
With respect to one potential free agent, a highly-regarded African-American player and humanitarian, Ferry talked about the player's good points, and then went on to describe his negatives, stating that he "has a little African in him. Not in a bad way, but he's like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back." Ferry completed the racial slur by describing the player (and impliedly, all persons of African descent) as a two-faced liar and cheat.
We were appalled that anyone would make such a racist slur under any circumstance, much less the GM of an NBA franchise on a major conference call. One of us can be heard on the tape reacting with astonishment. Our franchise has a long history of racial diversity and inclusion that reflects the makeup of our great city. Ferry's comments were so far out of bounds that we are concerned that he has put the entire franchise in jeopardy.
Gearon's letter cites the negative impacts of the Donald Sterling scandal and speculates about the potential damage of Ferry's comment going public. The letter concludes by calling on Levenson to "take swift and severe action" in the form of Ferry's resignation or termination, if Ferry refused to resign.
We believe these comments by Ferry were far worse than Sterling's because they were not from a private personal conversation -- they were in a business environment on a business matter in front of a dozen or more people. If Ferry would have made such a slur in a semi-public forum, we can only imagine what he has said in smaller groups or to individuals. We also note that the racial diversity of our management team has changed for the worse since Ferry took over. The media (and any savvy lawyer) would have a field day with that.
If Ferry's comments are ever made pubic, and it's a safe bet they will someday, it could be fatal to the franchise.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, who was placed in charge of the organization following Levenson's announcement, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday that Ferry had been disciplined internally but that he would not be fired. Koonin also said that the "word of mouth" comment about Deng was not originally made by a Hawks employee and that it was merely relayed by Ferry on the call. The paper further reported that Ferry would not face any additional punishment from the NBA league office, although that stance was taken prior to the revelation of Gearon's email and the full account of Ferry's comment.
Ferry has also said that the comment was part of a background report compiled on Deng and that he was reading the report on the conference call.
It goes without saying that the nature of Ferry's comment, as relayed by Gearon, requires answers.
The public release of Gearon's letter sends Koonin and NBA commissioner Adam Silver back to square one. At the very least, both executives will need to address how Ferry was punished by the Hawks, why he didn't face additional sanction from the league and how it was determined that he should remain in his position.
Ferry finds himself in an incredibly tenuous spot, given the backdrop of the Sterling scandal and Levenson's comments. Without question, Ferry owes Deng, Africans, African-Americans and his organization's fans a public apology and a more detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the comment. In particular, he must explain why he chose to include the remark on the conference call and whether he believes such language is appropriate.
Local civil rights leaders, the National Basketball Players Association, Atlanta citizens, Hawks employees, the team's current players and the basketball community will all be eager to hear from Koonin, Silver and Ferry. It's unlikely that anything they say will be able to say to undo the damage.
Facing the burden of public opinion, the NBA's professed zero tolerance standard, and the potential legal ramifications of Ferry's comment, all three men have no choice but to reconsider Ferry's future with the Hawks. An undisclosed punishment from the organization and a "nothing doing" from the commissioner looks an awful lot like a slap on the wrist and an implicit pat on the shoulder.
Update: Ferry issued the following apology on Tuesday, one day after Gearon's letter became public.
“In regards to the insensitive remarks that were used during our due diligence process, I was repeating comments that were gathered from numerous sources during background conversations and scouting about different players. I repeated those comments during a telephone conversation reviewing the draft and free agency process. Those words do not reflect my views, or words that I would use to describe an individual and I certainly regret it. I apologize to those I offended and to Luol, who I reached out to Monday morning.
In terms of the email that Bruce sent, the situation is disturbing and disappointing on many levels and I understand Bruce's words were offensive.
I am committed to learning from this and deeply regret this situation. I fully understand we have work to do in order to help us create a better organization; one that our players and fans will be proud of, on and off the court, and that is where my focus is moving forward.”
Deng also issued a statement on Tuesday in response to Ferry's comment. It appears below via the Associated Press.
"HE HAS A LITTLE AFRICAN IN HIM"
"These words were recently used to describe me. It would ordinarily make any African parent proud to hear their child recognized for their heritage.
"I'm proud to say I actually have a lot of African in me, not just "a little". For my entire life, my identity has been a source of pride and strength. Among my family and friends, in my country of South Sudan and across the broader continent of Africa, I can think of no greater privilege than to do what I love for a living while also representing my heritage on the highest stage. Unfortunately, the comment about my heritage was not made with the same respect and appreciation.
"Concerning my free agency, the focus should purely have been on my professionalism and my ability as an athlete. Every person should have the right to be treated with respect and evaluated as an individual, rather than be reduced to a stereotype. I am saddened and disappointed that this way of thinking still exists today. I am even more disturbed that it was shared so freely in a business setting.
"However, there is comfort in knowing that there are people who aren't comfortable with it and have the courage to speak up. In the same way a generalization should not define a group of people, the attitude of a few should not define a whole organization or league.
"Ultimately, I’m thankful to be with an organization that appreciates me for who I am and has gone out of its way to make me feel welcome."
Ferry, 47, was the No. 2 pick in the 1989 NBA draft after a distinguished collegiate career at Duke. Following a 13-year pro career with the Cavaliers and Spurs, Ferry joined the Spurs' front office before being named GM of the Cavaliers in 2005. He remained in Cleveland until 2010, when he parted ways with the Cavaliers and returned to the Spurs for the next two seasons. Ferry was then named Hawks GM in 2012, and he immediately set about dismantling the existing core by trading away Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson and allowing Josh Smith to leave in free agency. Ferry's other major moves have included re-signing Jeff Teague and signing Paul Millsap.
Deng, 29, was a 2004 lottery pick after spending one season at Duke. The 6-foot-9 forward spent the first nine-plus seasons of his career in Chicago, earning two All-Star nods and All-Defensive Second Team honors. After a surprising midseason trade to Cleveland in January, Deng ultimately decided to sign a two-year, $20 million contract with Miami this summer. Deng received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for his active involvement in multiple charitable efforts during his career.