The Hawks announced Friday that GM Danny Ferry is taking an indefinite leave of absence after the public revelation earlier this week that he recounted a racist remark during a conference call with his ownership group this summer.
“This afternoon, Danny Ferry requested, and I have approved, taking an indefinite leave of absence, effective immediately," Hawks CEO Steve Koonin said in a statement. "This has been an incredibly difficult time for him and his family and it is my hope that this time away from the Hawks organization 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. As a human being, manager and friend, I wish him well as he undergoes this process."
Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer will assume authority of the team's basketball operations during Ferry's absence.
The decision comes after a week filled with damaging leaks and bureaucratic crossfire prompted by owner Bruce Levenson's decision to sell the Hawks. Levenson, a co-founder of United Communications Group, announced Sunday that he would be selling the team after an internal investigation revealed that he had made racist and stereotypical comments about his team's fan base in an August 2012 email. That investigation was prompted by Ferry's comment in the conference call.
Earlier this week, Koonin said that Ferry had been subjected to an undisclosed internal discipline after Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon first raised questions about Ferry's comments concerning Heat forward Luol Deng, adding that Ferry would not be subjected to additional punishment. Despite significant criticism of Ferry, Levenson and the Hawks, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told USA Today Sports that he didn't believe Ferry should lose his job over the comment.
Thursday saw the leak of the audio from a June conference call in which Ferry was discussing multiple free agent targets. The following is a transcript of his comments regarding Deng, who is a native of South Sudan and was an unrestricted free agent following a midseason trade from the Bulls to the Cavaliers.
"[Deng is] a good guy overall but he's not perfect. He's got some African in him. And I don't say that in a bad way. He has a store out front that's beautiful and great, but he may be selling some counterfeit stuff behind you.
"When I say that, I mean, for example, he could come out and be an unnamed source for a story. And two years later, come out and say. 'That was absolutely not me, I can't believe someone said that.' But you talk to reporters who know it was him. He could be a lawyer in the locker room when the coach is not around, but when the coach is around he's the greatest guy in the world.
"He's a good guy. For example in Chicago, they would tell you he was good for their culture but he wasn't a culture-setter. He played hard and all those things but he was very worried about his bobblehead being the last one given away that year, or that there wasn't enough of stuff of him in the team store. He's a little bit of a complex guy."
Ferry issued an apology earlier this week and has said that he was simply passing along information that was compiled from a scouting report. He repeated that apology and explanation for the comments in a statement on Friday.
"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. "Luol is a good man who I have known for many years and he has done a tremendous amount of good for his country and around the world. I apologize to Luol and I apologize to all that I have offended.
"As I have said, while these were not my words, I deeply regret repeating them. Almost all the background information I provided during the lengthy presentation regarding Luol was positive and my personal and professional recommendation during the call was very much in favor of adding Luol to our team but I never should have uttered those offensive remarks and for that I apologize."
Also Friday, a copy of that background report was leaked to WSB-TV.com and it seemed to confirm Ferry's claim, as similar phrasing appears in an interview with a source that appears to have worked for the Cavaliers last season. The interview is included under the section heading "2013-2014 Front Office" but the subject is not named.
"From a physical when we got [Deng], Chicago had run him into the ground. We tried to correct and manage it when we got him. People say that he is worn down but I disagree and think there is more left in his body.
"He's a good guy on the cover but he's an African. He has a little two-step in him. [He] says what you like to hear, but behind closed doors he could be killing you. Con isn't bad but it's there. African-like, storefront looks great but there's a black market section in the back. Chicago thought he was good for their culture, but an outlier. Teammates liked him, but he had less impact on the locker room than you would think.
"He complained about things like not enough team jerseys in the team store, or that his bobblehead was last during the year. Has some con and a sense of entitlement. Luol kind of treated Cleveland like a pit stop after the trade, where he probably became more protective of his body and focused on the contract because he didn't know his long-term plan. He said some things privately to media but denied them publicly and said it wasn't him. He's not terrible, but you've got to know that stuff is there with him."
The heat was on for Ferry once a letter that Gearon wrote to Levenson, which is dated June 12 and can be read here, became public earlier this week. That letter called for Ferry's resignation or firing, cited the negative impacts of the Donald Sterling scandal, and speculated about the potential damage of Ferry's comment going public. Gearon's letter eventually prompted the full internal investigation but it did not lead to Ferry's termination.
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.
"I'm proud to say I actually have a lot of African in me, not just a little," Deng said in a statement this week. "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."