Hawks emerging from summer storm

ATHENS, Ga. -- The prideful grin was permanently affixed on Dominique Wilkins' face Tuesday as he walked with staffers through the Stegeman Coliseum practice facility and glanced through numerous trophy cases that display his college memorabilia.

Meanwhile on the basketball court, Mike Budenholzer clutched his whistle and blew practice to a screeching halt before he ordered a player to the free-throw line for shots that would potentially avert a punitive wind sprint for the entire "blue" team.

And then there's the middleman Wes Wilcox, who often shuttled between Wilkins and Budenholzer.

With Wilkins further elevated as the legendary Hall of Fame public face of the franchise and Budenholzer granted complete direction of the team as both coach and interim general manager, Wilcox is the man behind the scenes tasked with keeping things oiled and running.

Despite the racially-charged turmoil that has engulfed the Atlanta Hawks in recent weeks, there's still a basketball season for which to prepare. And with owner Bruce Levenson seeking to sell his controlling interest and general manager Danny Ferry on administrative leave spawned by their separate racially inflammatory comments, the job of running the Hawks is largely spread among three specialists.

"We want to do this collaboratively," Budenholzer said Tuesday amid the quiet of an empty gym after players left their first practice of training camp. "Hopefully, together we can make good decisions."

Although the official start of practices won't bring an end to the distractions players and staff have endured through the Levenson and Ferry controversies, their three-day camp 75 miles outside of Atlanta at the University of Georgia serves as both a retreat and an advancement of sorts.

The Hawks got back to basketball.

And nestled within the peaks and valleys of this beautiful, tree-lined town on a sunny 80-degree day is a team that has gone through its own ups and downs as it waits for some sense of front-office stability to be restored. For now, the Hawks remain a microcosm of the campus where they are camping. They realize it takes a village to raise the staggering franchise above the cloud that has hovered over it.

"We're basketball players. We want to come here and play basketball. This is what we do," said veteran Hawks guard Kyle Korver. "The other stuff, that's not what we want to be focused on. So we come here and just try to put all of our focus and energy onto the court. I don't know if it's a sense of relief. But it feels right."

This is a team regrouping in stages and on various fronts stemming from Levenson's decision to sell after an internal investigation uncovered an email in which he was critical of the Hawks' black fan base and expressed concerns over a decreasing number of white season-ticket holders.

Around the same time, Ferry was recorded during a front-office conference call disparaging the character of then-free agent Luol Deng and saying the native of South Sudan has "a little African in him." Ferry later apologized and said he was reading the comments about Deng from a free agency scouting report. Ferry has spent the past month visiting with current and former players as well as community groups, but remains away from the team's daily activities.

The damage control continues.

At the ownership level, Levenson and his partners have been split along two factions -- a northeast based wing and an Atlanta-based group -- but many have agreed to work with the NBA and city officials to sell the team and keep it in Atlanta.

A contingent that included Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed met with the NBA's commissioner's office in New York on Friday and has said there are six potential ownership groups interested in buying the Hawks. An NBA spokesman said Tuesday that talks are ongoing, but declined to offer further details.

An NBA ownership source believes the Hawks will progress toward a sale by December at a potential price that could be well more than the $550 million the Milwaukee Bucks sold for in April but significantly less than the $2 billion that Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer paid for the Los Angeles Clippers in August.

Wilkins, promoted within the organization Monday to the role of special adviser to Hawks CEO Steve Koonin, now carries more weight as a steadying force on an executive level for the next potential ownership group in addition being a longtime diplomatic presence throughout Atlanta.

"Steve Koonin and I are going to be doing a lot of things together on the business side as well as basketball," Wilkins said during the Hawks media day on Monday. "I'm excited about it because the most important thing is how we continue to build our brand in light of some of the things that have happened of late. Having that diverse attitude and atmosphere that we are accustomed to having, we just can't let anything taint that."

Team officials privately credit Ferry for leaving the Hawks roster in solid position prior to the controversy. The team didn't make a splash in free agency, despite being positioned with significant salary-cap space to pursue the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol. But Atlanta brought back a dozen players from a team that made the playoffs for a seventh straight season, the second-longest streak in the league behind the defending champion San Antonio Spurs.

Still, several prominent NBA agents contacted by ESPN.com have raised concerns about the front-office structure and decision-making process within the Hawks moving into the season. One agent suggested the pending sale of the team and Ferry's tenuous link to the franchise would drastically impact Atlanta's ability to engage in potential trade discussions, specifically with lucrative or long-term deals.

Earlier this month, Anthony, who chose to re-sign with the New York Knicks, told reporters that top available players will continue to spurn Atlanta amid the latest front-office issues.

"Nobody would want to go there," Anthony said. "At the end of the day, I think it puts Atlanta back even further now ... Atlanta is a great city, a great market, great people, great atmosphere. But as far as the comments [that] were made, I think it was uncalled for. From an owner, from a GM, those are not things you play with."

Veteran forward Elton Brand contemplated every point Anthony made before he decided to re-sign with the Hawks last week to begin his 16th NBA season. Unlike the majority of the players who were in Atlanta's rotation last season, Brand had an opportunity to walk away as a free agent amid the front-office mess.

But a conversation with Deng, a fellow Duke basketball alum, impacted Brand's outlook. Deng had considered joining the Hawks before Ferry's comments surfaced, but ultimately signed with Miami.

"I talked to Luol and asked if he was making a statement and how he felt about it," Brand said after Tuesday's practice. "He said he was ready to move on. And that helped me kind of move on, also. Actually, as strange as it sounds, we are looking forward to this. We don't want to think about this summer and all of the things that went down. You kind of want to get back into the flow of basketball, being together and building that camaraderie and having fun, because that's why we do this."

Technically, Brand was the first veteran free agent to sign with Budenholzer in his role as general manager. Brand jokes he quickly discovered the wall that divides the coach from the executive.

"The rest of the staff that was with Danny is still around, but [Budenholzer] has a coach side and a GM side to him," Brand said. "Having 12 guys back helps. Right now, he's focused on the X's and O's. But I noticed it when I tried to ask him for a raise, and he said, 'I'm keeping that separate.'"

The distinction is less noticeable for point guard Jeff Teague.

"We know that if there are questions with anything or any concerns we have, he's there for that," Teague said of Budenholzer. "But he's still the same guy, still hands-on, still active with everyone, still gets here super early and leaves super late."

Budenholzer downplays the demands of his dual role. But he was prepared for this very challenge and draws on his experiences as an assistant in San Antonio watching Gregg Popovich coach and serve as president of basketball operations. Popovich leaned heavily on his assistants and long-time general manager R.C. Buford.

The structure, in theory, is similar with Budenholzer and Wilcox -- for now.

"I feel like there's not a huge difference, to be honest with you," Budenholzer said. "Preparing for camp and little things that needed to be decided -- who's coming, who's not, where we're staying -- so there's a few of those conversations that impact my day. A few more people are probably coming into my office than prior. It gives me a comfort level when I think I've been involved in a [Spurs] program where the assistants and coaches have had a lot of input. R.C. and Pop, those guys were amazing about listening. They valued our opinions. And now, I value everybody's opinion."

So with the season approaching, who's running the Hawks in the absence of troubled leadership at the top?

"We all are," Teague insists. "The people know that. We're playing for each other. We're playing for Atlanta. The guys that are here, we all play a role. We're not worried about what happens upstairs."