Danny Ferry's fatal mistake: He never owned his comments

The Vertical
Yahoo Sports
FILE - In this July 10, 2013, file photo, Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry speaks at a press conference in Atlanta. Ferry has been disciplined by CEO Steve Koonin for making racially charged comments about Luol Deng when the team pursued the free agent this year. Ferry apologized Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, for "repeating comments that were gathered from numerous sources" about Deng. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

In this July 10, 2013, file photo, Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry speaks at a press conference in Atlanta. Ferry has been disciplined by CEO Steve Koonin for making racially charged comments about Luol Deng when the team pursued the free agent this year. Ferry apologized Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, for "repeating comments that were gathered from numerous sources" about Deng

FILE - In this July 10, 2013, file photo, Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry speaks at a press conference in Atlanta. Ferry has been disciplined by CEO Steve Koonin for making racially charged comments about Luol Deng when the team pursued the free agent this year. Ferry apologized Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, for "repeating comments that were gathered from numerous sources" about Deng. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

All the way until his final statement of goodbye, Danny Ferry still refers to the belittling African diatribe on Luol Deng as belonging to someone else. On his way to a so-called leave of absence, he still insisted "these were not my words…" They were Ferry's words. They belonged to him because they belonged to the Atlanta Hawks.

They belonged to him because they belonged to a culture within the Atlanta Hawks where one of his underlings didn't think twice about inputting them into the Hawks' database. That person didn't fear the general manager's response. The words belonged to Ferry because no one else studying and re-studying the Deng intelligence report – a player with whom they would offer a $10 million-a-year contract – thought it necessary to delete from the file.

They belonged to Ferry because he climbed onto a conference call with ownership and was so lazy that day, so devoid of an original thought of his own, that he went out of his way to describe the shortcomings of Deng in a way that never should've been part of a private conversation – never mind a corporate one.

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This is why Ferry's "leave of absence" will almost assuredly turn into a permanent departure. This is a job of judgment and Ferry's turned out to be inexcusable.

"I still wonder why in the hell he would ever paraphrase that back to ownership," one NBA general manager said. "…Maybe just say, "Potential character issues have turned up but I would still recommend we sign him for up to 'X' million. I can't believe someone would ever repeat that or go into detail like that for an ownership level meeting."

Luol Deng was traded to the Cavs by the Bulls last season. (AP)
Luol Deng was traded to the Cavs by the Bulls last season. (AP)

There were a thousand ways for Ferry to handle this, but the easiest, most convenient turned out to be leaning upon a racist African stereotype that should've stopped him cold. It doesn't matter whether he laid eyes on that report before the call or not, because it still goes back to this: Something about the environment in Atlanta made it all right to send that up the line to Ferry, and for good reason – it was all right with him.

Everyone wants to know: In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's published scouting report on Deng, who was the redacted Cleveland source responsible for the initial African slurs? If this wasn't Chris Grant – the deposed Cleveland GM who replaced Ferry with the Cavaliers – it will be difficult for him to convince people otherwise. And that's a brutally vulnerable position for Ferry to have left him.

It's unfair to Grant and former Cavs coach Mike Brown, another close friend of Ferry's. The report says the interview took place on June 6, 2014 – months after each was let go in Cleveland.

Who else would know that Herb Rudoy, one of Deng's agents, wanted $12 million a year? Who else could speak with such authority about the trade negotiations with Chicago, about the rest of the teams interested in Deng at the deadline, about how the redacted coaches felt about Deng's performance in the final line of the report? All those things point to Grant, but that doesn't mean it's him. That doesn't mean the redacted use of "the former" fill-in-the-blank official was legitimate.

It could've been a misdirection play by the Hawks in the report. Who knows now? The bottom line is this: Everyone else is a suspect because Ferry wanted it this way to spare himself.

Crossing out names on the leaked report didn't do a thing to protect those people. Feel free to say the ex-Cleveland official deserves to be outed, but it wasn't for Ferry to do. Because it implicates people in his own organization, who didn't do anything but follow the orders and take down the words of the boss' old staffers with the Cavaliers.

When you depend upon good information for a living – when honest insight is your commodity – those providing it have to know you'd never give them up. Under no circumstance, no condition. That's the covenant – even if that information is flawed and self-serving and, in this instance, racist. Because once you give up one source, you gave up all of them.

Ferry was the Hawks' leader, but in the moment of truth he ran from the role. When confronted with the conference-call transcript, he needed to own those words – and he still hasn't done it.

Ferry exposed everyone, but, in the end, mostly himself. To save his own career, his job, he was willing to jeopardize those beneath him and those whom entrusted the Hawks with confidentiality. Every right-minded person is disgusted over the words in that transcription, but make no mistake: Ferry created the circumstance where they were allowed to breathe, where they were allowed to publicly put Deng's character on a trial he never deserved.

Ferry did this to Deng's reputation – no one else. The African verbiage should've died the moment the ears of the Hawks' front office heard it. Perhaps those sentiments were born with an ex-Cavaliers official, but they were welcomed and validated in the Hawks' culture.

Because of this, Ferry tainted everyone there. Here's what a leader would've done: This was my mistake. I screwed up. I never should've uttered those words. That's not in my heart, but I'm running the Atlanta Hawks and I'm accountable.

Hawks owners Michael Gearon (left) and Bruce Levenson. (AP)
Hawks owners Michael Gearon (left) and Bruce Levenson. (AP)

That never happened, because Ferry kept trying to distance himself – which only connected others inside and outside the Hawks to the words' existence. As GM, he makes an implicit promise to his underlings that they'll be protected with private team information, that he won't put them in harm's way and Ferry's failings obliterated it all.

There are young guys in the Hawks organization who never made Ferry's money in the NBA, and they'll have to explain this debacle in job interviews for years to come. Were you the guy, people will ask? Did you think it was OK to input those African slurs? Or did you see it and say nothing later?

In the end, Ferry made everyone vulnerable because he played a part in creating an adversarial environment where members of the ownership group wanted to get him in Atlanta. Michael Gearon Jr. should be out of the NBA, out of that ownership group, too. The NBA is furious with Gearon, but commissioner Adam Silver miscalculated and mismanaged the fallout of owner Bruce Levenson's pressured decision to sell the team.

Before Ferry met with CEO Steve Koonin on Friday to finalize a leave of absence that most inside the organization believe will eventually become permanent, Ferry spent the morning with members of the African-American clergy in Atlanta, a source told Yahoo Sports. He's trying here. And he'll keep trying too. He's humiliated. He's hurting. For the first time in his life, Ferry's humbled.

He's lived a privileged existence: son of an NBA general manager; a DeMatha High School and Duke graduate; a 10-year playing career; and a rapid Spurs' front office ascent to join LeBron James with the Cavaliers. James' greatness made Ferry's misguided GM run with the Cavs' appear better than it was, and yet a run back through the Spurs Car Wash had Ferry spruced up for a second tour as GM.

Everything has always worked out for him, always seen him treated like one of the league's chosen ones. To think you could get away with saying those things in a public setting, you'd almost have to be emboldened by a sense of entitlement. More than racism, this was sloppiness. This was flippant, feeling bullet-proof bravado of a relentlessly connected NBA blue-blood.

Ferry's agent David Falk, a close associate of Levenson, negotiated him a tremendous deal – six years guaranteed, $12 million-plus, autonomy to answer only to Levenson in that bleep-show of an ownership group. There's no underestimating the powerful alliance of allies that Ferry has – from Silver, a Dukie, to San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford.

And so, in the end, Ferry will be fine. The rest of his Atlanta guys will forever be under suspicion. Ferry could've spared everyone this nightmare and been honest from the start of this investigation, but he kept blaming that report. He blamed that document all the way out the door, all the way to its leaking on his likely final day as Hawks general manager. Want all the money, all that power to run a franchise? Well, you don't get to pick and choose the accountability that comes with it.

Ferry doesn't deserve an NBA death sentence, nor will he face one. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone's careless. Those things happen. How Ferry reacted to this; how, in clinging to that report, he was willing to implicate everyone else, reflected horribly on him. In itself, that's a hurdle for his return to the NBA.

When Levenson finally sells the team, a new majority owner will likely want his own people. This makes it easy for Ferry to never return, but coach and interim GM Mike Budenholzer is a keeper. For now, Ferry deserves a chance to take some time, get his bearings back and try again. There's genuine remorse there, and people have made him understand the damage that does to the next young African basketball player trying to shake stereotypes, never mind Deng himself.

Danny Ferry goes away now, and does so without much of a legacy of leadership with the Atlanta Hawks. He could've spared everyone else these embarrassments, but he kept pushing to save himself, to bring everyone down with him and that's a lousy way to be remembered.

Once and for all, those were Ferry's words on African cons and African character. The Atlanta Hawks bought them, owned them and delivered validation with their very existence within the walls of the organization. This was Danny Ferry's moment of truth and he goes now with a half-assed, deflecting apology, leaves still passing the blame. All the way to the end, all the way to the final hours as GM, Danny Ferry never once owned the core truth of his regime's fatal flaw.

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