Judge: Atlanta contracts limited during owners feud

ATLANTA -- The Maryland judge who last month ruled Steve
Belkin is entitled to buy the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers
from his former co-owners added a new twist to the ongoing feud

Montgomery County (Md.) Circuit Court Judge Eric Johnson ruled
the current ownership and management team should retain control
while the appeals are heard. But the good news for the Atlanta
Spirit group also included the judge's stipulation that will
prevent the Hawks or Thrashers from signing a free agent to a
contract longer than one year.

The stipulation doesn't relate to negotiations with draft picks
for either team.

The ruling also doesn't affect any negotiations already under
way, including the Hawks' agreement to sign free agent point guard
Speedy Claxton. The deal, believed to be for four years, cannot be
officially announced before Wednesday.

Atlanta-based Michael Gearon Jr. of the Atlanta Spirit ownership
group applauded the ruling.

"This is exactly what we always expected," Gearon told The
Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It's hard for people
who are looking at it from outside to understand all that has
happened, but we expected to get a stay and are more confident than
ever we will win on appeal."

The judge ordered that the other owners can't "initiate the
purchase, sale, trade or negotiation of any NBA or NHL player
contract ... excluding contracts involving present or future draft
picks and contracts for any other player with a contract duration
of one year or less."

The ruling would appear to put the Hawks and Thrashers at a
significant competitive disadvantage in their ability to attract
free agents.

Belkin, however, said he was "extremely confident in our
ability to get the players we need."

The judge also ordered the owners to post an appeal bond of
$11.4 million to protect Belkin against any decrease in the value
of the franchises during the appeal. Belkin requested a much larger
bond of up to $450 million.

Johnson ruled last month the ownership group did not abide by
the terms of an agreement to buy out Belkin. The judge said the
group's actions triggered Belkin's right to buy them out.

With Thursday's stay by the judge, his ruling last month is on
hold until the appeal is heard by the Maryland Court of Special