To put it mildly, the ownership of the Atlanta Hawks has not exactly seen smooth sailing over the years.
Off the court issues – a high-profile lawsuit that dragged out over years involving one of the team’s partners; the sale and relocation of an NHL franchise – have at times overshadowed on-the-court success of the Hawks, who have made the playoffs for five straight seasons and advanced to the second round for three of them.
So when part owner Bruce Levenson stepped to the podium on Monday to introduce Danny Ferry as the team’s new president and general manager, he did so in part by addressing some of that past instead of choosing to sugar-coat it or avoid it all together.
“We had hurdles to overcome to get Danny to come here,” he said. “Not just because some of the missteps we’ve made over the years, but also because his family was in a great position in San Antonio.”
The hiring of Ferry, Levenson said, was a three-month process, which sounded like, in many ways, a courtship in which the Hawks ownership had to convince Ferry to depart a comfortable position. Ferry admitted that he was not looking to leave San Antonio, where he played as a player and where he has had two different stints in the front office.
To land the respected Ferry, Hawks ownership had to prove they were willing to do things in a certain way, the tried and true path that Ferry had learned with the Spurs, who have won four NBA titles since 1999 and established themselves as one of the league’s preeminent franchises, all the while operating in a market much smaller than Atlanta.
“He wanted commitments from us to increase investments in facilities, in sports medicine and science and in analytics and, most importantly our, player development,” Levenson said of the negotiating process over time. “We said ‘Yes, yes, yes and yes.'”
Eventually, Ferry was persuaded. It took conversations with outgoing Hawks general manager Rick Sund, 61, who told Levenson three months ago that perhaps ownership should consider someone else moving forward. It took what Levenson said were “dozens” of conversations, which included those with fellow owners Michael Gearon Jr. and Ed Peskowitz. It also included, not insignificantly, what a source confirmed was a six-year contract.
“I was struck by his humble approach to the past for a team that has done well,” Ferry said of Levenson. “There was still a sense of humility and I was really struck by his intensity, his focus, his energy going towards the future and really trying to build something great from the ground up. This was critical to me to know that it can and will be done the right way.”
An approach other than humility might not have landed Ferry. Levenson was asked about the idea of publicly admitting to mistakes. He said the process was healthy for Ferry and “a really healthy process for me.”
“It’s easy to be defensive and it’s hard to talk about mistakes, but it feels good to say that and Danny asked us a lot about a lot of the things that have gone on here,” he said. “So that really helped to bring some things into sharp focus for me.”
As much as they have struggled with the image of their organization, the ownership appears to be aware of its shortcomings. Despite being a playoff regular for the last five seasons after eight out, the Hawks ranked 23rd in attendance last season. From the podium, Levenson spoke of the investments that Ferry was looking for. Later, he expanded on that.
“I think, again, we made commitments to Danny and some of those commitments are financial commitments,” he said. “We’re making those commitments because we really feel we’re turning the corner here. We have a new player agreement (collective bargaining agreement). We have, for the first time, meaningful revenue sharing in this league, something I fought for really hard for the Atlanta Hawks. We have a growing fan base and now we have a long-term commitment from Danny Ferry. That gives me great comfort. All these things give me great comfort going forward.”
Whether that translates into greater success on the court remains to be seen. Hawks coach Larry Drew described Ferry the player as a “hard-nosed, knock-down shooter.” Drew said that some of that has translated to Ferry’s approach as an executive in that he’s a “go-getter.”
“And I pride myself on being the same way, on a guy that’s a go-getter,” he said.
If the Hawks are to get back on an upward arc after losing in the first round of the playoffs last season, the organization is likely due for a culture change – the change from ownership that Levenson talked about but also from Ferry on down.
Long-time Hawk Kevin Willis was a teammate of Ferry’s with the Spurs and they won the NBA title together in 2003, Ferry’s last as a player. Willis thinks Ferry, who put the pieces around LeBron James to help Cleveland get to the NBA Finals in 2007, can be that agent of change.
“It takes time and you don’t just bring in a lot of talent,” Willis said. “Atlanta brought in several big names over the years, all the way from J.R. Rider to Dikembe (Mutombo), but that doesn’t mean you’ll win a championship. Moses Malone and Reggie Theus — you could name guys all day long, but until the chemistry and the trust is built from the coaching staff to the players to trust one another, you can bring who you want in there, you still won’t win a championship.
“San Antonio, in my opinion, has written the book about that, bringing in the right players, the right guys who sacrifice, guys who want to win a championship, guys who have been superstars on other teams, but they come in and say, ‘You know what? For the betterment of the team, I’m going to sacrifice. Maybe I’m not going to play as many minutes. I may not shoot the ball as much. My role may change a little bit.’ That happens. I think Danny understands that and I think that’s what he’ll bring to Atlanta and he tried to do that in Cleveland.”
And sometimes it starts when those higher up in the organization can own up to mistakes.