The trigger of events that led to the toppling of Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson began with general manager Danny Ferry referring to free agent Luol Deng as having "some African in him" on an organizational conference call, league sources with direct knowledge of the probe told Yahoo Sports.
"He's still a young guy overall," Ferry said, league sources with direct knowledge of the probe told Yahoo. “He's 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."
Deng, considered one of the highest-character players in the NBA, was born in the Sudan.
The call with the ownership group had been set up to inform them of free-agent options on the market in July.
Ferry met with the Hawks coaches and players on Sunday and disclosed those comments with an apology, sources told Yahoo Sports.
Ferry reached out to Deng and Deng's agent, Ron Shade, on Monday, Shade told Yahoo Sports. Ferry hadn't yet spoken to Deng, but he did talk to Shade, a Chicago-based agent. "I have no reaction, but we've spoken," Shade told Yahoo.
Ferry was on the phone with seven Hawks owners and was reading off a report in which the information, Ferry said, had been gathered through a network of scouts, officials, players, coaches and others around basketball.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Ferry had received an undisclosed punishment, but would remain as GM.
The disparaging racial reference to Deng triggered at least one team owner on the call to pursue an independent investigation into how the organization operated in regard to race. The search uncovered the 2012 email that Levenson sent to Ferry and two minority owners that ultimately led to Levenson's decision, under pressure, to sell his stake in the Hawks.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver met with a senior committee of owners late last week in New York, and league investigators outlined the findings on the probe in Atlanta, sources told Yahoo Sports. The NBA and Hawks officials helped convince Levenson to sell his majority share of the Hawks.
Ferry and Deng both played basketball at Duke University. Deng signed a free-agent deal with the Miami Heat this offseason. Atlanta did discuss a deal with him, but hadn't come close to meeting his contractual demands.
Atlanta hired Ferry as its general manager in 2012. He had served as an assistant GM twice in San Antonio, and was the GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers for five years. There had never previously been a suggestion that he had been insensitive or intolerant on issues of race.