BARCELONA — You have to wonder how much more can one franchise and its fragile fan base take? How many more gut-punches do the fine folks in the city of Atlanta, always a punch line for jokes naming the worst sports cities, have to endure?
The news of Hawks part-owner Bruce Levenson selling his stake in the franchise amid an investigation by the NBA into comments he made in a 2012 email is the latest blow for a franchise that has had to endure decades of dysfunction.
Where does it end?
Levenson’s apology, however sincere, doesn’t make up for the fact that he’s now lumped his family’s name and the Hawks into the mix with the disgraced former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling. This is no doubt a part of the fallout that NBA insiders were worried about when the Sterling mess turned into global news seemingly overnight.
Remember that “slippery slope” that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban talked about when he wondered how the league would handle other owners who were found to have said or done something to upset the sensibilities of a league that has championed inclusion, tolerance and acceptance?
Well, this is it.
Levenson was quick to speak out against Sterling when that news broke, only to have those words come back and bite him now that he’s the one in the crosshairs.
The truth is, there are people working at the highest levels in teams around the league who need to think long and hard about the way they have conducted their business before uttering a single word about any of the things that have gone on with the Clippers and now the Hawks. That’s not an accusation. It’s merely a fact for anyone trying to do business in Silver’s NBA.
Levenson throwing himself on the mercy of the fans with his statement — released by the Hawks today — comes with financial undertones as well. While his stake in the team won’t fetch anything like the record $2 billion that Steve Ballmer paid to free the Clippers from Sterling — Levenson is said to own less than half the team — he’ll walk away with a hefty sum despite the damage that his e-mail has done.
With the sale, Levenson will end his decade-long tenure as a part-owner of a franchise that has suffered one dysfunctional turn after another, something that he and his partners appeared to clean up recently with the second-longest playoff streak in the league (behind the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs) and the addition of marketing wiz and new part owner/CEO Steve Koonin, who knows Atlanta and the market as well as anyone.
The task for Koonin and the Hawks now is reassuring an already skeptical fan base that the franchise does not operate from the perspective Levenson expressed in that email.
It won’t be easy.
Hawks fans have had to suffer through a lot. The former owners, the Atlanta Spirit partners, took their internal battles to court, suing each other after the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade deal. From former part-owner Steve Belkin to Billy Knight, from Johnson and Josh Smith to Mike Woodson and Larry Drew, someone always has been a scapegoat in Atlanta. The Hawks even fired their longtime vice president of public relations, Arthur Triche, in a failed effort to improve their image. Meanwhile, despite regularly making it into the playoffs, the Hawks have gone through years and years of postseason irrelevance.
Levenson and his original partners got off to a rocky start. It was no secret. There were trust issues, inside and outside of the franchise, from the start.
In the end, that ownership group, or at least a major member of that original group, will exit the premises having breached the public trust. Which leaves the fans, once again, looking for someone that can truly represent the good people of Atlanta.