Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry had been cornered where no NBA executive wants to be: a late afternoon, Friday conference call with the limited ownership partners. For all the contract language that dictated that Ferry had only to report to owner Bruce Levenson, these information calls remained an obligation of his duties.
One of the owners on the line in June, Michael Gearon Jr., had once been a far greater power player within the franchise. No more. Levenson and Ferry had neutralized him, and Gearon's days of input into basketball decisions had been long gone. He disdained Ferry, and told people often inside and outside the organization: He longed for Ferry's ouster as GM.
So now, Gearon had a notoriously impatient general manager on a conference call on a Friday afternoon, with owners whom sources say he didn't respect or like; or in some cases, both. As it turned out, Gearon had the perfect storm for the beginning of the end for the Atlanta Hawks’ two most powerful figures: Levenson and Ferry.
The call proceeded with Ferry hustling through free agent names, a list that included Carmelo Anthony: "He can shoot the [expletive] out of it, but he screws you up in other ways," Ferry said, according to a transcript obtained by Yahoo Sports.
Ferry would go on to say of Anthony: "So is he really worth the 20 million dollars? … I would argue if he plays the right way, absolutely."
The Hawks never had a chance to get Anthony, but free agent Luol Deng had been a distinct possibility. Eventually, the Hawks made two offers to Deng – two years, $20 million, or one year, $10 million – league sources told Yahoo Sports. Around the discussions between the Hawks and Deng, several sources told Yahoo that within the basketball operations, Ferry was Atlanta's biggest proponent to sign Deng.
Ferry never did persuade Deng to take the offer, and yet still he'll forever be connected to him. Once he started talking on the call about Deng, it wasn't long before Ferry marched himself directly into a foolish, ignorant riff of African stereotypes. On and on, Ferry started about how Deng "has got some African in him" and proceeded to make a comparison to Africans with phony facades selling counterfeit goods.
As soon as those words left Ferry's mouth on the call, Gearon responded in a dramatic way in the background of the tape recording, according to a partial transcript of the call obtained by Yahoo Sports.
"Oh my God, that comment sounds like Sterling on TMZ," Gearon said.
Gearon didn't stop Ferry. He let him keep talking. In the transcript, Ferry detailed the information he'd gathered on Deng. Ferry attributes those characterizations – and inappropriate phrasing – to outside sources.
On Deng, Ferry said: "… For example, he can come out and be an unnamed source for a story and two days later come out and say, 'That absolutely was not me. I can't believe someone said that.'
"But talking to reporters, you know they can [believe it]."
Ferry kept going on Deng: "… Good guy in Chicago. They will tell you he was good for their culture, but not a culture setter. He played hard and all those things, but he was very worried about his bobble-head being the last one given away that year, or there was not enough stuff of him in the [team] store … kind of a complex guy."
Ferry's clinging to the story that the racially charged words belonged to someone else – that a riff connecting Africans to a con man stereotype weren't his words at all. In context of the transcripts, it appears that those had been Ferry's own interjections on the call, somehow supporting the intel culled outside of the Hawks.
Ferry's supporters within Atlanta's hierarchy say that they've chosen to believe him, but it's been a tougher sell in the real world.
And yet, for as quickly as Gearon fired off an indignant email to Levenson detailing the Deng comments on the call and demanding Ferry's dismissal, Gearon's immediate reaction to Levenson's 2012 email on race and the Hawks’ attendance problems inspired a far more matter-of-fact tone.
In an email obtained by Yahoo Sports and dated Aug. 27, 2012, Gearon replied to Levenson's racially charged correspondence this way: "Was tied up … for 2 hours this morning and then had to run to a meeting. Will call soon."
Gearon's response – which came within an hour of the rambling Levenson email that will ultimately cost him ownership of the franchise – offers evidence that Gearon proceeded without the outrage regarding Levenson that existed in his aggressive pursuit of Ferry's removal. Between that August 2012 day and the investigation that re-discovered the Levenson email recently, there's no apparent evidence that Gearon made issue of his displeasure about the Levenson letter within the Hawks or the league office.
In all the twisted wreckage of these Hawks, make no mistake: Gearon is no whistle-blowing hero for racial justice, just as Ferry is no victim for falling into the trap.
Looking back, the timing was perfect for Gearon to bring everything crashing down: closing time on a Friday night in June, an impatient GM with little, if any, use for the participants on a conference call and a recorder waiting for Ferry to step into the biggest mistake of his professional life.
Ferry found himself a pawn in a long-simmering ownership battle in Atlanta, and now he's fighting to hold onto his job. The Hawks believed that they could privately discipline Ferry, push out an apology and let him resume his front-office duties. How Ferry goes forward in this climate and how he rebuilds credibility lost around the NBA have become murkier propositions by the day.
For Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, the issue is no longer whether he still believes Ferry's words never rose to the level of termination. Now, it's this: Can Ferry be an effective and credible leader for the organization within the Atlanta community and throughout the NBA's landscape?
Ferry has an infrastructure of well-placed friends and supporters in the NBA, but the facts that many find him to be aloof and his front-office regime is often needlessly difficult to work with have inspired far less empathy outside of his network of influence.
There are no heroes here, no winners – not even Michael Gearon, with whom the league office is livid. He had been hellbent on bringing down the power structure in Atlanta, including the GM, and yet perhaps history will remember this as the biggest irony of all: Danny Ferry did it to himself.
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