<
>

Johnson close to leaving Suns for Hawks, but hold on

ATLANTA -- As the Atlanta Thrashers showed off their big NHL
free-agent signee Thursday, the NBA Hawks and their would-be
new star were still in trade limbo.

On Tuesday, when the Thrashers first announced they had signed
center Bobby Holik, the Hawks made first mention of a "procedural
issue" that was holding up a sign-and-trade deal to send guard Joe Johnson from Phoenix to Atlanta.
Since both teams are owned by the same Atlanta Spirit LLC group,
two owners -- Bruce Levenson and Michael Gearon Jr. -- and chief
executive officer Bernie Mullin couldn't avoid questions about the
Hawks at the Thrashers' news conference Thursday.
The Thrashers moved quickly to sign Holik while the Hawks are
left in limbo in their pursuit of Johnson. The contrast of the two
deals left the impression that Hawks general manager Billy Knight
doesn't enjoy the same support from the ownership group as does
Thrashers general manager Don Waddell.
Also, no one willing to speak about the Johnson deal would deny
that one owner -- Steve Belkin -- is not on the same page with the
rest of the group.

The rift has escalated to the point that Belkin has gotten a restraining order against his partners, who are looking to strip him of his role as the team's NBA governor.

"We are aware of the lawsuit filed by Steve Belkin in Boston. We will not allow that to deter us from building a winning team in Atlanta," Gearon told the Journal-Constitution.

The restraining order obtained Thursday prevents the other
owners from following through with plans to vote Belkin out. The
restraining order was first reported Friday by The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in Suffolk
County Superior Court in Boston.

"There was no other option but to seek legal protection,"
Belkin said Thursday.

On Friday, Belkin stressed in a statement to The Associated
Press that he did not object to the five-year contract offer for
Johnson valued at about $70 million, including about $20 million
for the first year of the deal, making Johnson the team's
highest-paid player.

Instead, Belkin said he consistently told other owners that he
did not approve of the offer to the Suns -- two first-round picks,
second-year guard Boris Diaw and a $4.9 million trade exception.

Belkin released Friday's statement in an apparent effort to
answer criticism that his objection to the trade came late in the
negotiations with the Suns or was unexpected by the other owners or
general manager Billy Knight.

Atlanta Spirit LLC chief executive officer Bernie Mullin said
Friday the deal with the Suns can't be completed until the dispute
is settled with the owners.

Michael Gearon Jr. and fellow owner Bruce Levenson also remained
confident the deal will go forward.

"I think we'll work through it," Gearon said.

Mullin acknowledged that having Knight appear to lack Belkin's
support is not good for the Hawks' chances of dealing with other
free agents.
"Obviously, it's a concern at this point in time," Mullin
said. "It's not a concern in the long term."
Added Mullin: "Management is 100 percent behind Billy Knight as
is clearly the overwhelming majority of the ownership group."
The "overwhelming majority" does not include Belkin, the NBA
governor in the ownership group and the man who must sign off on
all deals.

Hawks spokesman Arthur Triche said Knight had no comment on the
trade Thursday.
Levenson conceded that the breakdown in the trade talks "is not
the way I would script it."
"I would be happy today if Joe Johnson were an Atlanta Hawk
today, but we are working as hard as we can to make that happen,"
Levenson said.
Johnson, 24, would become the Hawks' highest-paid player.
Johnson averaged 17.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.5 assists as a
combo guard with the Suns last season. With Atlanta, he likely
would be the starting point guard.

Belkin, based in Boston, holds a 30 percent stake in the Atlanta
Spirit LLC ownership group. The Washington-based owners, including
Levenson and Ed Peskowitz, own 40 percent. The Atlanta-based
owners, including Gearon and Rutherford Seydel, own 30 percent.
"We have a partnership agreement and we have an agreement with
the NBA that governs how we operate," Levenson said. "Those
agreements make sure that we do our business, and we're doing our
business. It doesn't mean that every bit of business will be done
as perfectly as we'd like to get done, but we'll get it done."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.