Claws out: How a Hawks regime fell

Butcher Billy

The email that changed Bruce Levenson's life arrived on a mild Maryland evening in June 2014 just as he was settling into a dinner of fresh local crab. It was from Michael Gearon Jr., his partner in ownership of the Atlanta Hawks for more than a decade. The subject line read "re Danny Ferry."

Something was wrong. The two partners didn't always see eye to eye, but when one wanted to speak to the other, he picked up the phone or dashed off an informal email. So why was this one written in legalese? Why was there no warning?

In the email -- prepared with the aid of two attorneys -- Gearon called for Ferry's immediate firing because of a racially charged comment Ferry, the Hawks' general manager, had made during a conference call several days earlier in regard to Luol Deng.

"If Ferry's comments are ever made public," Gearon wrote, "and it's a safe bet to say they will someday, it could be fatal to the franchise."

Gearon, who never hid his enmity for Ferry because of the indifference the GM showed him and his beloved franchise's history, also noted he had an audio recording of the call.

Levenson took it as a threat. He was floored -- and in a tricky spot.

Just a month before, Levenson had taken to CNN to proclaim he couldn't be partners with Donald Sterling after audio of a racist comment made by the soon-to-be-removed owner of the Los Angeles Clippers leaked. Levenson told an Atlanta radio station "the league has to have a zero-tolerance policy against racism and discrimination in any form."

This was supposed to be the dawn of a pax romana for the Hawks under Levenson's ownership. After years of devastating financial losses and ownership in-fighting, things were finally turning favorable. He had just added new investors that brought fresh and stabilizing capital, there were ongoing local and national television negotiations that promised huge new windfalls and, most importantly, he was thrilled about the future of his team as he'd put in place a general manager and coach who he firmly believed were going to make the Hawks a championship contender.

Now here he was, staring at a cell phone fused with the next NBA firestorm.

This is the story, based on conversations with more than 25 sources close to the situation, of how the Hawks' regime was torn apart.

Scan the sideline at a Hawks home game and you'll spot Michael Gearon Jr. across from the visitors' bench. He's the guy in a ball cap, jeans and New Balances, sitting in the seats his family has owned since the team arrived from St. Louis in 1968 when he was 3 years old.

The Hawks were his passion, his family. His father, Michael Gearon Sr., served in several capacities for the team, including team president, general manager and chairman of the board. So Gearon, Jr., who amassed a personal fortune building communications towers, ensured a minority ownership stake when Time Warner put the team on the market. In 2004, Gearon's Atlanta-based group, Levenson's Washington, D.C.-based group and Steve Belkin's Boston-based group formed Atlanta Spirit LLC and purchased the Hawks, along with the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena, for $250 million.

One year later, when a severe back injury left Gearon Sr. bedridden and miserable, Hawks assistant trainer Pete Radulovic, often referred to in Hawks circles as "Pete the Trainer," offered to do something incredible: nurse him back to health, including traveling with Gearon Sr. to Vancouver to work with Alex McKechnie, then the Lakers' athletic performance coordinator and now the Toronto Raptors' director of sports science, while McKechnie was away for the summer.

Gearon Sr. worked with Radulovic over the next few years and gradually improved. All the while, Radulovic returned to Vancouver each summer to pick up new tricks from McKechnie that would aid in Gearon Sr.'s continued recovery.

To Gearon Jr., it wasn't money that rejuvenated their patriarch; it was the tireless care and kindness of Radulovic. The Hawks had saved his father's life.

The franchise lost money every season since he bought in, according to sources. So every year, Gearon would pour a considerable amount of money to cover his share of the Hawks' operating losses. Yet the team was far more than a piece of business to him. The Hawks were a piece of connective tissue for the Gearon family, and his ownership of the local team was an identity statement.

The Levenson-Gearon partnership was very much an arranged marriage. As co-defendants during a lawsuit with Belkin, whose Boston group helped purchase the Hawks, Levenson and Gearon had been in the foxhole together. The matter was resolved in 2010, leaving Gearon's Atlanta group with approximately 42 percent of the shares and Levenson's D.C. group with slightly more than 50 percent and ultimate power. But it was a still a complicated -- and at times, combative -- relationship between two men with different sensibilities.

In an attempt to give a new partner the lay of the land, Levenson, in a 2014 email obtained by ESPN, wrote of Gearon, "You could have an hour conversation and come away thinking he is a great guy -- analytical, interested in your views on everything from the state of the economy to raising your kids, wise in his advice, a good listener and passionate about the Hawks. The next day you could have another conversation and come away thinking he is mean-spirited, close-minded and either deliberately devious and overly meddling or missing some connector in his brain."

Ferry, Gearon Jr. and Levenson declined comment on virtually all matters related to this story.

However imperfect his partnership with Levenson, serving as the Hawks' local guardian was a point of pride for Gearon. Adoring the team from incredible seats was one thing. Being part of the team's brain trust and decision-making was something any fan would dream of, and Gearon got to do it with the Hawks regularly.

Until they hired Danny Ferry.

Ferry was in high demand in the spring of 2012.

He had run the Cleveland Cavaliers in LeBron James' early years, from 2005-10. After a stint in the San Antonio Spurs' front office, offers from the Philadelphia 76ers and the Hawks put him on the delightful end of a bidding war. But he didn't need the money. He'd earned more than $50 million in his career as a player and executive and had invested well. He was more interested in power and stability.

The Hawks ownership concerned Ferry -- a history of squabbling, a recent near-sale of the team, the attempts to limit expenses. But Levenson, who had long admired the fellow Washingtonian, was determined to reel Ferry in.

Levenson addressed Ferry's concerns with one of the most wide-ranging, demanding contracts ever scored by an NBA general manager: A six-year contract at more than $2 million per season, guarantees the ownership would invest tens of millions into both a D-League team and a new practice facility and, the big one, Ferry would report to only one man in the organization -- Levenson.

Executives around the league were taken aback. A six-year contract was unheard of outside the likes of Pat Riley or Gregg Popovich. The guarantees to invest in infrastructure were never before seen. The written assurance of one boss was an ideal but never a contracted item. Other general managers started referring to Ferry's arrangement as the "Golden Ticket."

Before the contract was signed, Levenson brought all of the owners together for a meeting at his apartment in Atlanta. During the discussion, Ferry explained what he intended to do and how he planned to operate the team. The Hawks presented a unique opportunity to replicate the Spurs model, an incubator to create a sustainable winner.

Gearon was at the meeting and aware of the parameters of Ferry's deal before it was signed. He would later make it clear he did not agree with the weight and scope of the contract.

When it came to Ferry actually functioning in his new role, Gearon wasn't ready for it at all.

A true San Antonio disciple, Ferry didn't get into the NBA executive business to nibble around the edges. That was Ferry's primary appeal to Levenson, who had watched the Hawks exit the playoffs before the conference finals in each of the past five seasons. Levenson gave Ferry a mandate to upend the organization, and the new general manager didn't waste much time getting to work.

Shortly after he took over in June 2012, Ferry traded away Joe Johnson, the team's most high-profile player. Then he dealt Marvin Williams, a Hawk since he was drafted by the franchise second overall in 2005. Each move returned few significant contributors but added future draft picks and financial flexibility.

The overhaul didn't stop there. In addition to getting a commitment from the Hawks to build a training facility, Ferry persuaded ownership to set up a bona fide analytics operation, something the team had never invested in before. He later encouraged Levenson to consider hiring a true CEO, and Levenson eventually enlisted former Turner Entertainment Networks president Steve Koonin.

All of which was more than a little unsettling to Gearon, who cherished the team's past, no matter how mixed the results had been.

That was only the beginning.

Ferry also wanted to modernize the Hawks' medical program and staff. More than scouting or analytics, player health was a sphere where smart organizations were gaining a competitive advantage over old-fashioned ones. Ferry had gained a first-hand understanding of this during his time with the Spurs, arguably the NBA's earliest adopters of innovation on the training side.

To Ferry, the Hawks were still in the stone age. After his first season, he planned to fire head athletic trainer Wally Blase and, to Gearon's dismay, Radulovic.

To Gearon, Radulovic was a personal hero and the living embodiment of the idea that the Hawks functioned as a family.

Whatever shortcomings the Hawks had as a franchise, Gearon had great pride that his was the kind of team where a longtime trainer would do everything in his power to nurse a Hawks stalwart like his father back to health. When Ferry alleged the trainers weren't capable and were unliked by key players on the Hawks' current roster, Gearon did his own recon with former and current players he knew and felt his intel contradicted Ferry. Gearon was already furious over not being consulted before the trade of Williams. The trainer situation only confirmed to Gearon what he had first suspected: Ferry was a bully.

"I get the sense Danny either doesn't respect or value my opinion, which should be given to you and then you communicate my words to Danny," Gearon wrote to Levenson in a 2012 email. "That seems very bureaucratic to me. I have built 3 separate billion-dollar business [sic] in my career in 4 countries. I have some of the savviest investors in the world as well as some of the wealthiest individuals in the world ask me for my thoughts on different subjects yet [for] a team I have been involved with either directly or indirectly for approximately 35 years [the] new GM doesn't feel a need to have a direct communication with me."

For Ferry, the trainer situation was precisely what he had in mind when he demanded protection from minority partners in his employment agreement. Jump-starting a stagnant franchise required autonomy for a GM, and if you let non-controlling interests in an ownership group moan about every personnel move, especially to the basketball operations staff, change would've been impossible.

Ferry went to Gearon's office to make his case on the Radulovic and Blase issue, but he wasn't someone who wanted to spend his time speaking to minority partners. Also there was Gearon Sr., known as a loquacious small-talker. After listening to the septuagenarian for several minutes, Ferry, according to those in the room, leaned over and told Gearon Sr. to "cut the bulls---."

Levenson urged Ferry to stand down. Ferry was upset and fought it, but he ultimately obliged and gave both trainers new two-year contracts. But Gearon never got over it, according to sources close to the situation.

"At that point I stepped in and negotiated a compromise that left everyone scarred," Levenson wrote in a 2014 email. "Danny is capable of moving on from the incident but Michael is not. When you cross Michael, he crosses you off."

Gearon came to see himself as the leader of the last line of defense against Ferry, a soulless practitioner. The Gearons and Rutherford Seydel, Ted Turner's son-in-law and Gearon Jr.'s partner in the Atlanta wing of the ownership group, had a local appreciation for the team's history, however unexceptional, and the nuances of the city.

Gearon felt Ferry was fundamentally disrespectful of seemingly every institution within the organization, including its most cherished player.

Dominique Wilkins is an icon in Atlanta, the shining beacon for a franchise that, by summer 2014, hadn't made it out of the second round of the playoffs in the four decades since its move to Georgia. Wilkins had told peers he'd like to play a more prominent role in the recruitment of free agents to Atlanta, not unlike Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston, but Gearon felt Ferry was dismissive.

Ferry saw Wilkins as a remnant of the past, and the idolization of the "Highlight Factory" in Atlanta was yet another instance where the Hawks' futile history was being held up as a guide for the future. Levenson and Ferry weren't fans of Wilkins' work as an analyst on the Hawks' local television broadcasts, either. Ferry wanted to provide Wilkins opportunities to improve, such as introducing him to a media consultant to work on his techniques and having the Hawks' assistant coaches meet with him before games to offer context on game plans that could be explained to fans. But Gearon believed Ferry's unsaid and underlying position, whether he was talking about his ambassadorial work for the organization or his talent as a color commentator, was that Wilkins wasn't up to the task.

In Gearon's eyes, it was a tack similar to the attempted firing of the team's trainers, or when Ferry, according to sources, internally impugned the character of Larry Drew upon dismissing him in May 2013 rather than copping to wanting his own guy in the position. Ferry's decision to replace the Hawks' longtime PR rep with someone who had worked with Ferry in Cleveland also drew Gearon's ire.

In September of 2013, with tensions rising, Levenson was looking for outside capital to help cover heavy operating losses until new lucrative local and national television contracts kicked in, sources say. Gearon offered to increase his level of ownership, and thus his say in team matters, according to sources.

Levenson preferred to keep the percentages in his favor, and Gearon ultimately switched tactics and sold some of his shares to an outside investor, downsizing the Atlanta group's stake to approximately 31 percent. In exchange, Gearon insisted on a verbal agreement with Levenson that guaranteed the security of Radulovic, Blase and Wilkins. Regardless of the Golden Ticket, the three men couldn't be touched by Ferry without Gearon's explicit approval.

Those watching from the inside saw a tinderbox being constructed. As frustrations mounted, Gearon repeatedly asked Levenson to intervene on his behalf. By all accounts, Levenson tried his best to placate both sides but was largely unsuccessful in doing so. Gearon continued to act as if his judgment about basketball operations should be regarded as important, while Ferry continued to fail at hiding his contempt for Gearon and his opinions.

It was a bad mix, one that simply couldn't last.

To Levenson, the Board of Managers conference call (or BOM, as it was often referred to internally) in June of 2014 seemed indistinguishable from the countless others Hawks executives participated in.

The team was in the market for a small forward, and so Ferry discussed several free agents, including Carmelo Anthony, with the ownership group and executives from the business, legal and sales sides. Ferry then turned his attention to Deng.

Ferry was in favor of signing Deng, an unrestricted free agent, but Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was skeptical. Several weeks before, Ferry and Budenholzer had traveled to Durham, North Carolina, and spent a day with Mike Krzyzewski, who coached both Deng and Ferry at Duke, to brief Budenholzer on Deng's game and personality.

Ferry and his staff had also drawn a general personality profile. In referencing Deng, who was born in Sudan and of African ethnicity, Ferry said Deng "has a little African in him," then added, "He's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back."

The suggestion was that, with regard to how he communicated with the team, Deng may be a little two-faced. Ferry would later say he was reading from a report compiled from a league executive who had worked with Deng in the past. The select few who would know, including Ferry, refuse to reveal who wrote the comment.

Either way, Ferry said it. And with the call supposedly being recorded for an absent partner, Gearon had it on tape.

Gearon saw the Ferry audio as potentially the next NBA bombshell and a killer for the Hawks brand. The racially charged Sterling saga had generated a great deal of tension around the league among his peers. In an effort to combat the siege that was lowering on him, Sterling was filing lawsuits and threatening to use pretrial discovery to depose other owners about their own sordid misdeeds, leading the league to assume a defensive crouch in preparation of a witch hunt. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called the tide against Sterling "a very, very slippery slope."

On the Monday following the Friday BOM call, Gearon and his lawyers went to work on the letter that would be delivered to Levenson via email a few days later. "As lifelong Atlantans with a public track record of diversity and inclusion," Gearon wrote, "we are especially fearful of the unfair consequences when we eventually get thrown under the bus with Ferry."

Whether he felt Ferry's comments were unconscionable and grounds for firing, or just a serendipitous opportunity to purge him from the organization, Gearon put the onus on Levenson, the controlling partner, to take action.

While Gearon felt that Ferry, as he wrote in the June 2014 email to Levenson, "put the entire franchise in jeopardy," Gearon also figured to benefit financially from a Sterling-esque fallout.

In the spring of 2014, Gearon was in the process of selling more of his interest in the team to Levenson and the partners he had sold to in September. The agreed-upon price for roughly a third of Gearon's remaining shares valued the Hawks at approximately $450 million, according to reports from sources.

"We accept your offer to buy the remaining 31 million," Gearon wrote in an email to Levenson on April 17, 2014. "Let me know next steps so we can keep this simple as you suggested without a bunch of lawyers and bankers."

Approximately five weeks later -- just a little more than a week before the fateful conference call -- Steve Ballmer agreed to pay $2 billion for the Clippers, a record-smashing price that completely changed the assessed value of NBA franchises. Gearon firmly maintains he was acting out of the sincerity of his convictions to safeguard the franchise from the Sterling stench, but such a spectacle also allowed him to wiggle out of selling his shares at far below market value.

Gearon and his legal team later challenged the notion that the sell-down was bound by any sort of contractual obligation and that any papers were signed. Once the organization became involved in the investigation, the sale of the shares was postponed. This later became a sticking point to getting the team on the market. The two sides once again sparred over money and whether Gearon was acting in good faith.

Gearon insisted he had only the Hawks' best interest at heart. In his view, those best interests were served not with sensitivity training or an investigation.

He wanted Ferry gone -- end of conversation.

Levenson figured the course the Hawks' legal team prescribed to would put to rest any anxiety over Ferry's comments: an investigation led by an unimpeachable African-American partner at one of the city's most prominent law firms, Alston & Bird.

Ultimately, it would prove to be his undoing.

Gearon had agreed to the investigation, but he quickly grew dissatisfied. He didn't like the fact Ferry was informed of what was going on almost immediately. The Atlanta partners joked it was the first time in the history of internal investigations that the subject was the first person notified.

After nothing much turned up during the investigation's first couple weeks, they protested the probe lacked teeth, a typical corporate internal investigation being performed by a firm that was being paid by the entity being investigated. When they received an email asking them to sift through their inboxes for items with possible racial connotations, Gearon made the Hawks' general counsel aware of an email Levenson wrote on a late August night in 2012 from his home in Aspen, Colorado, in response to a request from Ferry for some thoughts about the Hawks' game operations.

Long before Levenson and his ownership group arrived, the Hawks had struggled to establish a reliable season-ticket base. Many theories have been posited as to why: Atlanta is a city of transplants; it's a college sports town; the Hawks had never achieved elite status; traffic in the metro area is among the worst in the nation.

In the email, Levenson offered the following: "My theory is that the black crowd scared away the whites, and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a significant season ticket base."

Among Levenson's observations and complaints, he wrote that the "Kiss Cam," in-arena bars, music, timeout contests, postgame concerts and cheerleading squad are too black; and African-Americans aren't prompt and don't cheer loudly for the home team.

In a later back-and-forth on the same email chain, he told Ferry, "We have a dance contest. The winner is almost always an adorable black kid with rhythm or an overweight black woman with rhythm."

This email was an extension of a long-running conversation about how to recalibrate the arena experience more toward middle-aged white fans whom Levenson identified as his target audience, according to sources. Levenson himself remembered countless discussions with execs, league employees and partners -- including Gearon -- on these same themes. During those conversations, Levenson would later recall to associates who spoke with ESPN there had not been a fuss over his viewpoints.

At the urging of team counsel, the Hawks reported the email to the NBA, and the NBA quickly took action. David Anders, who had performed the investigation into Sterling, was brought in to conduct yet another review on the Hawks that would run concurrent to the team's own probe.

In his efforts to save Ferry, Levenson suddenly had become the target of a new and broader investigation.

The charge of racism stung and not only because Levenson had just gone on national TV to preach zero tolerance for racism.

Levenson felt his body of work as a philanthropist in Washington had demonstrated his goodwill over several decades. He recognized the insensitivities in the email correspondences, but Levenson didn't regard them as a statement on how he felt personally about African-Americans.

"I trust you have known me long enough to know that is not true," Levenson wrote to Gearon on July 28. "It is true that two years ago I wrote a lengthy email that included insensitive language. I think everyone who received the email, including you, understood the context because these were themes that we had been discussing for several years, and that probably explains why nobody objected. Still, that does not excuse the language. I regret writing it and am getting sensitivity and diversity training to address it."

But the Atlanta-based partners continued to push back on both investigations and became more pointed about their disgust with Ferry and Levenson over what they saw as systemic racism in the Hawks organization bred by two men.

"This whole thing, which began as a simple letter to Bruce and only Bruce, has become an uncontrollable fiasco that threatens to end our franchise," Seydel wrote on July 18 in an email. "I and the other members of [the Atlanta partnership] completely disassociate from and condemn Bruce's racist views."

As rancor quickly spiraled, Levenson became more baffled. His now-notorious email on the crowd at Philips Arena was part of a larger thread, but in emails obtained by ESPN, Gearon didn't express any outrage over the content of Levenson's remarks or even a cautionary warning. Instead, Gearon's response at the time to the forwarded email exchange between Levenson and Ferry was to fire off a fresh round of frustration over his favored target: Ferry.

After two years of trying to get Ferry and Gearon to co-exist, it was clear to Levenson, according to sources, that Gearon's current offensive wasn't wholly about concern for Levenson's commentary on African-Americans but also about a deep-seeded hatred for his general manager.

Yet there was no way to squelch things now. The stain from the in-fighting had spread beyond the organization's walls, and there was no stopping it.

On Sept. 5, the day after the substance of the NBA's investigation was presented to an executive committee of 10 NBA owners in New York, Hawks CEO Steve Koonin got wind that a reporter was digging around and getting dangerously close to uncovering the story. Despite discussing the idea of selling his shares a day earlier with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Levenson's first instinct was to push back. But Koonin feared once the public read the offending emails, Levenson would be pilloried by civil rights leaders and local activists.

After much deliberation and consultation with the commissioner's office, and Levenson with his wife, a decision was reached: The Hawks would release the email on Sunday and announce Levenson was selling his interest in the team. He would then step away.

Levenson ultimately waved the white flag, but Ferry was determined to fight from the outset.

After audio of Ferry's remarks about Deng was published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the GM had made a public apology, Silver told the media Ferry's transgression wasn't "a terminable offense." The lead attorney on the Alston & Bird investigation, Bernard Taylor, a well-respected African-American partner, had found no pattern of racism associated with Ferry. Taylor's recommendation was that the Hawks put the correspondence in a file and forget about it.

But Ferry still faced opposition from figures in Atlanta's civil rights community and, of course, Gearon. The Hawks were running out of life vests, and Ferry no longer had anyone looking after him. Levenson remained loyal but was embroiled in his own public battle. Koonin was performing triage on behalf of the organization.

Budenholzer very much owed his job to Ferry. His former Spurs colleague had pleaded with Levenson that the Gregg Popovich assistant was the man for the position. Yet Budenholzer felt Ferry should resign, lest the Hawks be subsumed in disruption when training camp opened, and he made his wishes known in a heartfelt conversation with Ferry and Levenson at that time.

On Sept. 12, Ferry released another public apology through the Hawks, this one focused on Deng. Over the next four months, Ferry met with local and national African-American leaders, including Magic Johnson, and took a trip to Senegal to work with young African players.

Ferry's efforts at contrition sometimes fell short to some inside the organization. Several Hawks executives were at times put off by Ferry's behavior during a compulsory two-day sensitive training session, especially since they considered his actions triggered the assembly in the first place. He came across as inattentive and dismissive of the exercise, some said, and fiddled with his phone quite a bit. Ferry contends he was taking notes on the meeting.

"It was awkward for everyone because I had not seen or been around Hawks employees for three months," Ferry told ESPN this summer about the sensitivity training. "I took the seminar seriously, participated in the role-play exercises and certainly learned from the two-day session."

Ferry was suffering through a private hell. Friends who came to see him in Atlanta were alarmed by his weight loss in the fall.

Meanwhile, the team he assembled and the coach he hired were suddenly becoming the Spurs East he had envisioned. Eventually, Ferry began to see this as a clarion call for his return. If he could re-entrench himself in the general manager's seat and log a few months on the job, it would be far more difficult for a new owner to remove him.

Few in the organization seemed eager to have him back. September was in the rearview mirror, and none of the Hawks' executive officers wanted to relive the drama. With Budenholzer now operating as coach and senior basketball operations executive, the team had ripped off a 19-game winning streak, and players hadn't been asked about Ferry in months.

There was, however, only one person Ferry had to convince to bring him back.

Though Levenson was also removed, awaiting the sale of the team, he still held a majority interest in the Hawks. Levenson was despondent over the way things had broken against Ferry, and the two spoke frequently about staging Ferry's second act in Atlanta. By many accounts, Levenson came close to pulling the trigger.

However, with the team on the market, he wanted to play it safe. Interest had not exactly been robust. Fans were coming out, buying tickets, concessions and merchandise -- and the season-ticket base was expanding. The miscarriage of justice wrought on Ferry was devastating to Levenson, but there were simply too many items on the other side of the ledger working against him.

As the tangle of egos threatened to engulf the front office, the Hawks' on-court product flourished.

The 2014-15 Hawks won a franchise-best 60 games, tops in the Eastern Conference and second-best in the NBA. And they were doing it on one of the lowest payrolls in the league, playing a brand of basketball that was energizing the fan base. After decades of mediocrity and millions in operating losses, the Atlanta Hawks had become everything Ferry, Gearon and Levenson had ever wanted.

As the team marched on through the playoffs, en route to their first ever conference finals, neither Ferry nor Levenson were there to witness it.

Levenson spent the NBA postseason in Europe, protected from the reports of his team playing their most important games of the previous three decades.

Ferry never returned from exile.

Taylor's report was delivered verbally to the Hawks in September, and it essentially cleared Ferry of being racist. Eager to run an NBA team again one day, Ferry agitated for a written version of the report to be made public. Levenson didn't object but stalled for time, wanting to first secure the sale of the team. The Hawks could only ignore the suspended Ferry for so long, however, because his employment remained unresolved with the potential to become a messy wrongful termination lawsuit if they didn't part ways amicably.

Ferry had leverage over Levenson, again. In the 11th hour of Levenson's tenure as owner, and with the documents signed selling the team to a group led by entrepreneur Antony Ressler for $850 million, the Hawks satisfied Ferry on June 22 by releasing both the written Taylor report and a flowery press release in which Hawks CEO Koonin was quoted saying, among other things, that "Danny Ferry is not a racist." Some Hawks executives grumbled that the team overreached in exonerating Ferry, but doing so -- not to mention paying Ferry significantly more than the $9 million he was owed on his "golden ticket" deal -- was the cost of moving on.

Gearon, however, could be found in his usual spot during the playoffs: sitting in his courtside seats, right across from the visitors' bench.

Like Levenson and the others members of the Hawks' ownership, Gearon emerged from the sale of the team far wealthier. With his public reputation still intact, Gearon also managed to keep a nominal interest in the team and the seats his family has owned for almost five decades.

Within weeks of Ressler's purchase, Budenholzer was given a large raise and promoted to team president, filling the void Ferry left as top decision-maker and making Budenholzer one of the most powerful men in the NBA.

In one of his first moves, Budenholzer dismissed Radulovic and Blase, just as Ferry had attempted to do two years before.

Gearon was given a heads-up, but as a 1 percent stakeholder, it was merely a courtesy.