Mark Rachesky, chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment and a noted distressed-asset investor, has emerged as the most recent bidder for the Atlanta Hawks, according to league sources.
Sources told ESPN.com that Rachesky, who heads the investment firm MHR Fund Management, is a close associate of Atlanta Braves controlling owner John Malone, which is said to have sparked Rachesky's interest in the Hawks.
Rachesky is not known to have previously expressed interest in purchasing a sports franchise, but he is regarded as a protégé of activist investor Carl Icahn and brought Malone onto the Lionsgate board last month.
Sources say that his close ties to Malone have led some city officials to wonder whether Rachesky's bid for the Hawks, if successful, would ultimately lead to the NBA franchise pursuing a move out of its downtown Philips Arena home to an Atlanta suburb. The Braves announced late in 2013 that they will be relocating to Cobb County, roughly 15 miles away from their Turner Field home downtown, starting with the 2017 season.
Groups and individuals interested in the buying the Hawks, as well as the team's current ownership, were required to signed nondisclosure agreements which prevent them from commenting on the sale process.
At All-Star Weekend in New York last month, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said of the Atlanta sale process: "That has moved along the course that we expected. There are several very interested parties who are looking at the team. It is on schedule."
Over the new two weeks, sources say, representatives from the two companies chosen by the Hawks' outgoing ownership to oversee the sale and screen interested parties -- Goldman Sachs and Inner Circle Sports -- will be meeting directly with groups that have made nonbinding bids to purchase the Hawks.
Binding offers would then follow, with one source telling ESPN.com this week that at least one of the interested groups has made its willingness known to pay in excess of $900 million for the team.
In January, ESPN.com reported that former baseball home run king and Atlanta icon Hank Aaron has joined a group of current owners from the NBA, Major League Soccer and Italian soccer's storied Serie A in pursuing the Hawks. The group is spearheaded by Memphis Grizzlies minority owner and vice chairman Steve Kaplan, Indonesian billionaire sports and media magnates Erick Thohir and Handy Poernomo Soetedjo, and former Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien, who is the managing general partner of DC United in Major League Soccer.
Also in January, NBA.com and Bloomberg.com reported that former NBA stars Grant Hill and Junior Bridgeman have teamed with USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and son Bryan Colangelo, two-time NBA Executive of the Year, to form another known group bidding on the Hawks.
Rachesky's bid is expected to include a handful of minority investors, including Steve Starker, Randy Frankel and Jesse Itzler, who is a former rapper and recent Atlanta transplant who moved from New York to Georgia last fall.
Sources say that Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, meanwhile, is also expected to be a prominent member of a bid for the Hawks, though it remains to be seen whether Wilkins plans to join one of the groups known to be in the running or if he will make a run at the team with his own group.
The Hawks officially went on the market in January in the wake of embarrassing revelations last summer stemming from the exposure of racially insensitive emails and conversations within the organization.
The scandals prompted majority owner Bruce Levenson to immediately announce his intention to sell the team in September -- after the discovery of a an email he wrote in 2012 that contained offensive comments about the racial makeup of the team's fan base -- and also led to an indefinite leave of absence for general manager Danny Ferry, who has been forced to watch from afar while the group he has assembled has unexpectedly risen to the top of the Eastern Conference with a sparkling 48-12 record.
The Hawks were valued in 2014 by Forbes at $425 million, but that figure was circulated before Steve Ballmer's purchase of the Clippers for a staggering $2 billion in a bidding process that also featured a group led by Hill. The operating rights to Phillips Arena are also for sale, but attendance this season has still lagged in the bottom third of the league despite the Hawks' surprising on-court performance.
The Hawks' current owners, league officials and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have been adamant about their intent to keep the franchise in Atlanta. TNT's David Aldridge recently reported that the Hawks would have to pay a $75 million fee to the city of Atlanta and Fulton County to free themselves from the club's Philips Arena lease before 2017, with additional fees required to pay off bonds from a 2010 refinancing.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last month that the sale of the Hawks, once expected to be wrapped up by April, could now take until May or June.