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‘Fans are rallying’: Atlanta’s NBA team bounces back from racism scandal

Hawks move on from e-mail controversy last season to become successful and popular squad

ATLANTA — For several months in 2014, there seemed to many observers to be no more contemptible organization in the NBA than the Atlanta Hawks, and that included Donald Sterling’s Los Angeles Clippers, mired in a race controversy over their owner’s privately recorded racist comments.

The Hawks’ majority owner Bruce Levenson had written an email that claimed white people did not feel comfortable at Hawks games because of the music in Philips Arena and that black fans were scaring away white fans. “Even DC with its affluent black community never has more than 15 pct black audience,” he complained in the leaked message, which was sent in 2012.

Things got even worse when a recording was made public in which the Hawks’ general manager, Danny Ferry, quoting from an internal scouting report, said that free agent forward Luol Deng had “a little African in him.”

On top of that things were not looking good on the court either. The Hawks were an NBA team without a superstar. The NBA is a league built on its superstars, and to not have one made the Atlanta Hawks something less than other clubs and brought scorn.

Yet a year later black fans are flocking to Philips Arena to see an unselfish team rush into first place in the Eastern Conference with one of the best records in the NBA. White fans are sitting alongside black fans. The crowd at two impressive wins over Memphis and Washington appeared to be an equal mix of white and black fans.

And last week it was announced that Levenson and the Hawks’ myriad of other minority owners have agreed to sell the team. Several minority ownership groups have expressed interest in buying the club and are considered strong contenders.

Ferry, meanwhile, is on indefinite suspension, and the Hawks have hired the NBA’s first diversity and inclusion executive.

What happened to the bitter race-tinged battle over Atlanta’s NBA team?

“It’s over,” said Abdul Shaakir, 50, a disabled veteran and season ticket holder. “The fans are rallying behind the team. It’s strictly basketball now. I’ve talked to enough season ticket holders and what the Hawks are doing now is bringing fans together and it is coming straight from the heart of the CEO Steve Koonin. He was hurt by what happened and we feel his pain. He felt our pain. We won’t see the likes of Levenson again.”

Shaakir smiled and added, “Winning cures a lot.”

Indeed, the Hawks are one again also because they are winning again. The team was 38-44 last season when the racism saga sent the organization reeling. Last Sunday, in a rout of Washington, another Eastern Conference contender, the team announced a diverse, sellout crowd.

“They are making a lot of the right decisions to get things in order,” said Kwanza Hall, an Atlanta city councilman. “When we recognize that we have not been in the right place, the easiest thing to do is admit it and move on and get help. This has been occurring in my series of conversations about the Hawks in the community. It is miraculous and remarkable we have been able to do it in such a short period of time. Everyone stayed at the table and stayed in the room.”

This week The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that baseball legend Hank Aaron, who is black, is part of a group interested in buying the Hawks. There are just two black owners in the NBA, while African-Americans account for 77 percent of players, according to a 2013–14 study by the Institute for the Diversity in Sport at the University of Central Florida. Black head coaches represented 43.3 percent of head coaches in the NBA in 2013–14, and there were six African-American general managers, the men tasked with putting together a roster.

National Urban League CEO Marc Morial and other civil rights leaders met with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver last June. In that meeting, according to various media reports, Morial urged Silver to explore the process of more minority ownership in the NBA.

Morial told Al Jazeera current developments were positive. “Additional minority ownership is important to the National Urban League and important to the NBA long term,” he said. “There is no better market for minority ownership than Atlanta given the demographics and the history of the city. It makes perfect sense. The NBA has certainly worked for diversity in its coaching ranks, but additional ownership remains a goal,” he said.

‘When we recognize that we have not been in the right place, the easiest thing to do is admit it and move on and get help … It is miraculous and remarkable we have been able to do it in such a short period of time.’

Kwanza Hall

Atlanta city councilman

This all started with an e-mail Levenson wrote in 2012 and was made public in 2014. He said that white fans 30 to 55 years old had been marginalized by rap music and too many black cheerleaders, among other things. “When digging into why our season ticket base is so small, I was told it is because we can’t get 35–55 white males and corporations to buy season tixs and they are the primary demo for season tickets around the league … I think southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena or at a bar where they were in the minority,” he wrote.

Those white fans Levenson described do not make themselves easy to find. But racial divides around sport exist in Atlanta and its surrounding counties. One white Cobb County politician, Republican Joe Dendy, complained in 2013 about the Atlanta Braves’ pending move from downtown to his suburban county, where most of the team’s white fans reside, appearing to suggest public mass transit to bring fans from the city would be unwelcome “It is absolutely necessary the [transportation] solution is all about moving cars in and around Cobb and surrounding counties from our north and east, where most Braves fans travel from, and not moving people into Cobb by rail from Atlanta,” he said.

But not all white Hawks fans in Atlanta feel such divisions.

Bryan Clark, 64, of Peachtree City, is white and has been going to games for 20 years. “Not one time has it been about black and white at a Hawks game for me,” he said. “Not once. It’s fun here. It’s about the basketball.”

Remick French, 55, is from the predominately white suburb of Johns Creek. He sits five rows behind the Hawks bench, and he is in the thick of the entertainment and the dunks and majesty of the NBA and its superstar culture.

“Hey, I like hanging out here when the Lakers come and all the bling comes out,” French said. “It’s exciting to be close to the floor and see everybody. Just look at this team and how they play the game. The basketball is very good.”

‘Hey, I like hanging out here when the Lakers come and all the bling comes out. It’s exciting to be close to the floor and see everybody.’

Remick French

Hawks fan

The vibe at the Hawks games is a mosaic of any major metropolitan area, contrary to what Levenson charged in his e-mail. Rap, soul, rock, top 40 and a children’s choir — mostly white children one night — singing the national anthem. It was all energetic, from rapper T.I. to British singer Adele.

There was buzz around the NBA last year that the Hawks would have a hard time attracting free agents because of the comments by Levenson and Ferry. The organization started to address those concerns by suspending Ferry and with Levenson’s announcement he was selling his stake. The Hawks hired Nzinga Shaw to be the organization’s new chief diversity and inclusion officer — a first in the NBA.

Shaw, who has experience in human resources and was the HR adviser to the NFL’s diversity council, said she has not heard from white fans that they feel alienated by the environment in Philips Arena.

She said the Hawks are forming a 21-member Diversity Council, composed of internal and external stakeholders, such as clergy, current players, former players, millennials, fans from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and employees. Her expertise is in building diversity programs.

In December, the Hawks held a Hanukkah celebration around a game.

There is a perception that Ferry, who built the first-place team, would be welcomed back only if black fans got behind him. Shaw said that she has been charged to “gauge the pulse of many communities” and that there would not be one particular community that would determine whether he would return.

Season ticket holder Shaakir said that he has talked to many other season ticket holders and that they want Ferry back. “He is the architect of our team,” he said.

Is it all smooth now? Not quite. When Levenson was pushed aside and Ferry was suspended, Koonin made a statement to the Atlanta paper that the Hawks were no longer chasing the white fan from the suburbs, at least that is what he implied.

“The elusive mini-vans filled with families coming down to the game — I don’t believe that’s ever going to be our audience. It hasn’t been for 40 years. The NBA [fan base] is the youngest of all sports. The average age for the NBA is 20 years younger than baseball. So why am I going to target somebody 50 years old in the suburbs, when the viewership — which I can get with precision — says who we need to be targeting? And we’re targeting African-Americans and millennials, 21-to-35-year-olds.”

To some that it hardly sounded as if the Hawks were interested in building a diverse base.

“His comments were meant to describe the areas that we should be focusing on,” Shaw said. “My job is to make Mr. Koonin and others in this organization are more aware of broad diversity and how we can incorporate a variety of stakeholders. Mr. Koonin was expressing to the public that he wants to focus on a couple of key groups that we have not focused on in the past.”

But from the looks of the crowds at Philips Arena in recent games this season, many groups look united behind one of the best teams in the NBA.

“Atlanta is setting a new tone, not just with having the only diversity executive in the NBA but also the next generation of winners,” said Kwanza Hall. “We have a collaborative team on the floor that works together, not necessarily that team with the big I’s and little you’s. The team is inclusive on the floor and needs to be inclusive off it.”

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