ATLANTA (AP) — Mayor Kasim Reed said Tuesday he has already talked with six potential buyers of the Atlanta Hawks and expects a sale of the team to move quickly after racially charged comments by owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry.
Flanked by Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins and other city leaders, Reed said the crisis engulfing the NBA team would be solved “the Atlanta way” and predicted the franchise would come out stronger in the end.
The Hawks have been under fire since it was revealed Levenson sent an email two years ago theorizing that many suburban whites would not attend NBA games because of the team’s African-American fans. He agreed to sale his share of the team, but it also emerged that Ferry had disparaged then-free agent Luol Deng on a conference call with team owners this past summer, saying he “has a little African in him.”
Reed, who did not identify the prospective buyers, said whoever buys the team would have majority ownership. While Levenson owns 24 percent of the team, his Washington partner Ed Peskowitz has also agreed to sale his share, meaning that 50.1 percent of the team is available, according to the mayor.
For now, the Atlanta-based owners — including Michael Gearon Jr. and Rutherford Seydel (the son-in-law of former owner Ted Turner) — want to keep their shares of the team.
“I have had conversations with no less than six prospective buyers,” Reed said. “All six of those prospective buyers will have to go through a process to be vetted by the NBA. That process is going to occur very quickly.”
He said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was lining up an investment bank look into the finances of any potential buyer.
In addition, Reed said the city will likely be willing to offer concessions to any new owner to ensure the Hawks commit to remaining in Atlanta for another 30 years. He said there could be as much as $150 million available after the city sells Turner Field, the current home of the Braves, though the mayor said that process has been held up by the baseball team’s refusal to negotiate terms for its departure.
The Braves are planning to move to a new stadium in suburban Cobb County in 2017; in fact, they held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site a few hours before the mayor’s news conference. But if there are any delays in completing the stadium, the team has an option in its lease to spend another year at Turner Field.
Reed criticized the Braves and said they are holding up a potential $250 million offer that could transform Turner Field into a 30,000-seat football stadium for Georgia State University, as well as fill in the area around the ballpark with student housing and commercial development.
Braves spokeswoman Beth Marshall said the team is not required to notify the stadium authority of its plans until Dec. 31, 2015, but added, “It is our hope to be able to work with them, the city of Atlanta and Fulton County, on negotiating an exit so they can best prepare for the future of the Turner Field site.”
With Levenson selling and Ferry on an indefinite leave of absence, Reed said the city would be heavily involved in efforts to find new ownership for the Hawks, since it is responsible for the debt on 15-year-old Philips Arena.
Wilkins, a former Hawks star who now serves as a team vice president and television commentator, said he would “absolutely” be interested in taking on a greater role with the franchise. The city already plans to honor him with a statue outside Philips Arena before March 6 game against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Hawks CEO Steve Koonin has refused calls to fire Ferry, saying he believes the general manager can learn from the experience. Ferry met privately Monday with civil rights leaders, hoping to mend fences within the city, and has said he will undergo sensitivity training during his leave.
But Ferry’s future is still very much in doubt, with the start of training camp only two weeks away.
Wilkins would neither endorse Ferry nor call for him to be ousted, knowing that any decision about the general manager will likely rest with the new owner.
“That’s not a choice I can make,” Wilkins said. “The only thing I can say is whatever pieces are put in place are going to be the right pieces to help our franchise heal from what we’ve been through.”
Reed said city leaders would look favorably on Wilkins’ involvement with any new ownership group, especially if it gives the team more diversity in the front office.
The mayor said he plans to meet with Silver on Sept. 26 in New York to discuss the sale.
“I think we’re going to end up in a superior position, based on everything we know today, than we were before (Levenson’s) memo,” the mayor said. “That’s all anyone can ask for.”
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963