Many sports fans dream of being the general manager of their favorite team, empowered to sign players, make trades, hire and fire coaches. Michael Gearon Sr. lived that dream.
After retiring at age 38 from the real-estate development business, the avid Hawks fan was recruited by then-owner Ted Turner to serve as the team’s general manager in the late 1970s.
It was a labor of love for Gearon, who insisted on his salary being set at $1 per year.
J. Michael Gearon Sr., who went on to become a part-owner of the Hawks from 2004-15, died peacefully at age 87 in his Atlanta home on Nov. 22 of brain herniation, his son Michael Gearon Jr. said.
“When I think of (Gearon Sr.), I think of a father figure because that’s how he treated me,” former Hawks star and basketball Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins said Friday. “He was a very smart, caring individual, and he was never afraid to tell me if I was doing something wrong or if I needed to do more of something. He also was always one to give me a lot of encouragement.
“I appreciate him so much, and it’s just hard for me to actually believe he’s gone.”
Gearon left the role of Hawks general manager after two years in 1979 and remained team president until 1986. He was instrumental in the September 1982 acquisition of Wilkins from the Utah Jazz, who had drafted the former University of Georgia star earlier that year.
“Mike is one of the big reasons why I’m in Atlanta because it was him and Hank Aaron who convinced Ted Turner to make a trade to get me here,” Wilkins said.
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks
Credit: Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks
John Michael Gearon, born May 6, 1934 in Englewood, New Jersey, moved to Atlanta at age 20 and first made his mark in commercial real estate here in the 1960s, with development projects that included the Coastal States Building, Executive Park and the early stages of Perimeter Center. He came to be known by some in the industry as the “father of the suburban office park.”
He sold Gearon & Company’s holdings in 1971 and retired to spend more time with his three children -- daughter Tierney and sons Michael Jr. and Tim. Still, Gearon was honored at an event 25 years later as one of 20 “legends” of metro Atlanta commercial real estate.
He once discussed his decision to retire so young in an interview with the AJC, saying: “Freedom is important to me. I had a fantasy of romantic countries and remote places. … I have a desperate need to experience lots of things. Adventure. Great music. Good art.”
“He just loved the sport of basketball,” Wilkins said. “Oh, man, he was off-the-charts passionate about basketball. ... To the day he passed, he loved this city, he loved the Hawks, and he was a wonderful supporter of that whole organization and the city.
“He would always look to help others. He helped me in so many ways.”
Gearon began going to Hawks games when the team moved from St. Louis to Atlanta in 1968. Soon after Turner bought the Hawks in January 1977, he asked his friend Gearon to run the organization temporarily.
“I met Ted going to basketball games, going to booster-club meetings,” Gearon told the AJC in 2004. “We got to be very close. I was never an employee, and I think in that sense I always had clean hands when I gave him advice. We had a lot of fun.”
“Our father’s quick wit never let me forget how simple things were back when he was running the Hawks,” Michael Gearon Jr. wrote in a lengthy remembrance letter about his father that he shared with the AJC on Friday. “In 1977 ... the team picture consisted of one coach, one assistant coach, one trainer, 12 players, Dad and Ted (Turner). Times have changed.”
As the Hawks’ general manager, Gearon completed trades for Tom McMillen and Terry Furlow and signed Dan Roundfield as a free agent. The Hawks made the playoffs in both of Gearon’s two seasons as GM.
He was team president in the 1980s when the Hawks fired Hubie Brown as coach and when they hired first Kevin Loughery and then Mike Fratello as coach.
Gearon was followed, first as the Hawks’ general manager and later as team president, by Stan Kasten. When Kasten became president, Gearon became chairman of the Hawks’ board of directors, an advisory and ceremonial position that he held until 2004, at which point his long association with the team entered a new chapter.
He was part of a nine-member group from Atlanta, Boston and Washington that bought the Hawks, the Atlanta Thrashers hockey team and the Philips Arena operating rights from Time Warner in March 2004. He had an ownership stake of slightly more than 2%, and his son Michael Jr., who made his own fortune at a young age in the telecommunications business, had a larger stake and more of a hands-on role.
The far-flung ownership group, Atlanta Spirit LLC, soon became mired in discord and litigation. It sold the Thrashers to an organization that moved the NHL franchise to Winnipeg in 2011 and sold the Hawks and arena rights to a group led by Tony Ressler in 2015.
By then, Gearon Sr. had been associated with the Hawks – as general manager, president, board chairman or part-owner – for almost 40 years.
He was surrounded by his children and grandchildren when he died.
“Our father spent his last few days on earth in his home pain free, sleeping peacefully,” Michael Gearon Jr. wrote. “As the tears rolled from everyone’s eyes, I could not stop thinking about what a gift God had given us. Dad spent the majority of his 87 years worrying and caring about everyone else and was the most unselfish, giving, caring person I knew.
“And this was true up until the last week of his life when all of us, the people he loved, worried about and cared for, were able to be there for him.”
A private service was held Nov. 27 at Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.