ATLANTA — Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry took an indefinite leave of absence Friday, making the move under fire for his racially charged comments about a player.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin has resisted calls for Ferry to be dismissed, but said the 47-year-old GM asked for the leave.
"My hope that this time away from the Hawks organization allows him the privacy he needs to listen to the community, to learn about his mistakes, and to begin the long process of personal healing," Koonin said in a statement.
Ferry issued his own statement, saying he plans to undergo sensitivity training and meet with local leaders. He gave no indication that he plans to step down.
"My focus moving forward is to tirelessly work to rebuild trust with this community and with our fans," he said.
Ferry made an inflammatory assessment of Luol Deng during a conference call with the Hawks' ownership group in June as the team was pursuing the free agent. The GM described Deng as someone who "has a little African in him."
"He's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back," Ferry said on the call, which was recorded.
Deng, who was born in what is now South Sudan, signed with the Miami Heat but didn't know if Ferry's comments until this week. Deng said he was proud of his African roots, while adding he was "saddened and disappointed that this way of thinking still exists today. I am even more disturbed that it was shared so freely in a business setting."
Koonin said Ferry was disciplined for his comments, but refused to disclose the punishment. Both Ferry and Koonin have said the GM was merely repeating statements made by others in scouting reports on Deng.
Former NBA great Magic Johnson is among those who have recommended that Ferry step down.
An internal investigation into Ferry's comments uncovered an unrelated email sent two years ago by the team's controlling owner, Bruce Levenson, who theorized that black fans were keeping suburban white fans from attending games.
Levenson said he was embarrassed by what he called an ill-advised attempt to improve the team's attendance and that he intends to sale his share of the Hawks.
The whole affair has been another embarrassment to the NBA, which only last month forced Donald Sterling into selling the Los Angeles Clippers after he was heard on secretly recorded conversations with his girlfriend asking that she not to bring African-Americans to his games. Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers for a record $2 billion.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who quickly issued a lifetime ban against Sterling, said he supported Levenson's decision to sell the Hawks but doesn't think Ferry should lose his job.
"No words can adequately describe my remorse for the hurt that I have caused many people through the statements I repeated, most importantly Luol Deng," Ferry said in his statement. "While these were not my words, I deeply regret repeating them. Almost all the background information I provided during the lengthy presentation regarding Luol was positive and my personal and professional recommendation during the call was very much in favor of adding Luol to our team, but I never should have uttered those offensive remarks and for that I apologize."
Ron Klempner, acting executive director of the NBA Players Association, said the union was "pleased to learn that Ferry acknowledges his statements were offensive, has extended a personal apology to Luol Deng and the other Atlanta Hawks players, and that the Hawks organization has determined that discipline of Ferry was warranted."
After listening in on the conference call, co-owner Michael Gearon Jr. sent a letter to Levenson recommending that Ferry resign or be fired. That led the team to hire a law firm to investigate the matter, which led to the discovery of Levenson's email.
Koonin said Ferry's comments were "deeply troubling" but added that the matter was exasperated by discord among the ownership group, presumably referring to Levenson and Gearon.
"At the heart of this dispute is an unfortunate disagreement amongst owners," Koonin said. "That said, we have taken several steps to address what we can do as an organization to be better and stronger, including working with a diversity consultant to examine us and to train us to ensure something like this never happens again."
Koonin said the team plans to hire a "chief diversity officer" and will consult with community leaders, though a scheduled meeting this week with civil right activists was canceled by the team.
Coach Mike Budenholzer will take over as the head of basketball operations during Ferry's absence, reporting directly to Koonin.
The Hawks, who have made the playoffs seven years in a row, have largely assembled their expected roster for this season. Ferry has been credited for his efforts to overhaul the team and build a culture modeled on reigning NBA champion San Antonio, where he worked before joining the Hawks in 2012. Two of his most lauded moves were dumping the big-money contracts of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams.
Now, Ferry is fighting for his future with the team.
"I realize that my words may ring hollow now and my future actions must speak for me," he said. "I will maximize my time during this leave to meet with community leaders and further educate myself and others on the extremely sensitive issues surrounding race, diversity, and inclusion. I will find a way to make a positive difference in this area."
There is other important business, as well,
"The process of selling the team, which is to remain in Atlanta," Koonin said, "is already underway."
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