Is Winning The Cure For Bigotry In Pro Sports? The Atlanta Hawks Say Yes

Man, the Atlanta Hawks are suddenly in serious contention to go further in the NBA playoffs than they have in quite sometime after finishing the regular season as the best team in the Eastern Conference with a team-record 60 wins. This is even more impressive when you consider that the team literally has no true go-to guy. There have been numerous comparisons to the San Antonio Spurs, but at least that group has some surefire Hall of Fame players on its roster in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as well as head coach Gregg Popovich. To that end, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer was recently bestowed the prestigious NBA Coach of the Year Award, and we cant say we disagree with that considering his teams miraculous turnaround from last season. All of this is great news for the Hawks, yet it seems like only yesterday that the team was embroiled in a scandal over racist comments made by outgoing owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry

But it was actually 228 days ago to be exact. 

Ferry said of then free agent Loul Deng, “He’s got some African in him. And I don’t say that in a bad way. But he’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front but sell your counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

He later said he read the words off of a scouting report, but we never bought that. Even if that were true, he deserved to be fired for being so dense as to read that aloud and without comprehension.

Ironically, Bruce Levenson was one of strongest critics of former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, but then we realize he had his own racial skeletons in the closet. Here is just a small portion of the company email where Levenson engaged in economic eugenics.

My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base. Please don’t get me wrong. There was nothing threatening going on in the arena back then. i never felt uncomfortable, but i think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority. On fan sites i would read comments about how dangerous it is around Philips yet in our 9 years, i don’t know of a mugging or even a pick pocket incident. This was just racist garbage. When I hear some people saying the arena is in the wrong place I think it is code for there are too many blacks at the games.

I have been open with our executive team about these concerns. I have told them I want some white cheerleaders and while i don’t care what the color of the artist is, i want the music to be music familiar to a 40 year old white guy if that’s our season tixs demo. i have also balked when every fan picked out of crowd to shoot shots in some time out contest is black. I have even bitched that the kiss cam is too black.

Gradually things have changed. My unscientific guess is that our crowd is 40 pct black now, still four to five times all other teams. And my further guess is that 40 percent still feels like 70 percent to some whites at our games. Our bars are still overwhelmingly black.

Black players make up around 70 percent of all players in the NBA, the highest percentage of any American sports league. So when his statements were exposed, the major news organizations were all over it. Initially, many compared it to the senile ramblings of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. However, unlike Sterling, there were a myriad of Black players, former players, former civil rights activists, coaches and personnel who scrambled to defend Ferry, the former Duke star. Some even attempted to contextualize the ramblings of the former owner as being inappropriately and insensitively worded business focused statements as opposed to racist comments.

So everybody said sorry and the major cable sports networks eventually allowed the story to fade into oblivion. Levenson announced to NBA commissioner Adam Silver that he intended on selling the team and Danny Ferry took what was described as an indefinite leave of absence by the Atlanta Hawks, but he was never officially suspended or fired outright. Something smelled rotten in the Dirty South, but without anything to go on, and a seeming information embargo from the NBA, there was not a crumb of additional information for the working media to go on without first person access. So the inevitable lull occurred.

For our part, The Shadow League staff was determined to keep an eye on the situation as the season progressed.  However, we already had a sneaky suspicion that no one in the NBA wanted the subject reinvigorated anytime soon.

It is not uncommon for elite athletes to use negative off the court circumstances to power themselves through what could otherwise be a long season. Boy, what we would have given to be a fly on the wall for the first team meeting that followed this scathing revelations.

This situation apparently galvanized the squad into a tight knit unit, and a better, more trusting team as well. Though this is of course speculation, you cant really front on the results.

The Hawks went 60-22, ran away with the Southeast Conference and earned their first 1-seed in the NBA playoffs since those horrid Pac Man jerseys were en vogue. Well, if youre going to bounce back from claims that your franchise is rife with racism then winning is the best way to do it. The belief that winning cures all ills has been apparent throughout professional sports.

For example, back when Philadelphia Eagles WR Riley Cooper was caught using the N-word on video, the NFL and the Philly franchise ham-handedly tried to advance the clock on our memories to a distant point in the future. Then QB Michael Vick even spoke of the need for the team to rally behind their receiver, a position that he would later express regret for taking. While a few, such as former Eagles’ star running back LeSean McCoy, voiced their emotions over the incident, the team took a relatively soft stance on the incident, punishing Riley with basically what amounted to a weekend off. 

However, all the consternation, naysaying and controversy died down when Philly finished the season by winning eight of its last nine games to close out the season. The next time you heard anything about it is when Vick, who was with the New York Jets at the time, publicly expressed regret over supporting his former teammate.  

But unlike the Cooper debacle in the NFL, the Hawks situation was even more egregious considering these comments were made by the team owner and complemented by equally boneheaded comments from a general manager. A White man in ownership, a White man as general manager, both of whom had less than complimentary things to say about Black folks, and a team full of people of African descent doing all the heavy lifting on a day-to-day basis. Is that not the very definition of a plantation situation? I mean, whether the slaves were happy in bustin up chive robes while whistling Dixie, or laboring in the fields under a hot sun, it matters not then, and it matters not now.

It just is what it is.

So what if the Atlanta Hawks are happy because theyre winning. A happy servant is still a servant in the plantation dynamic.

Now, to top everything off, it was announced that the Atlanta Hawks are on the verge of being purchased for $850 million by a group of investors led by private equity billionaire Antony Ressler. The group will reportedly include former NBA All-Star Grant Hill among others. Additionally, it has been reported that the group intends on keeping team CEO Steve Koonin on hand to take care of day-to-day business. The same Steve Koonin who didnt fire Ferry straight out, despite having the authority to do so.

We guess the more things change, the more they remain stay the same.

Once again, green trumps Black.

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